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New York Shifts Course on Big Buildings on Far East Side

In a reversal, city planners are assisting a group of neighbors trying to halt ongoing construction of an 800-foot tower across from the luxury high rise where many in the group live.
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Josh Barbanel

A rendering of the entrance of the building under construction at 430 East 58th Street, New York.Photo: Thomas Juul-Hansen

In a reversal, city planners are assisting a group of neighbors trying to halt ongoing construction of an 800-foot tower across from the luxury high rise where many in the group live.

For over two years, the neighbors and a group they founded, the East River Fifties Alliance, has spent more than $1 million drafting an unusual do-it-yourself zoning rule, that could block the tower on East 58th Street near Sutton Place.

City Hall and the city’s Planning Commissioner had lambasted the campaign in the past for a misguided efforts to block a single building to protect views at the Sovereign, an 485-foot tall, co-op.

In June, when asked about an earlier proposal, Melissa Grace, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said, “This proposal would protect the views of a handful of residents who live in a building that is hundreds of feet taller than the height they feel is appropriate and block new buildings.”

At the time, the city planning commissioner, Marisa Lago, said “there is an important distinction between planning based on a sound, land-use rationale and policy-making designed and shaped to stop a specific building proposal.”

But last week, the commission staff released a new zoning proposal by the group and offered support for it. It set an unusual fast-track review process that would enable it to be approved by the commission by Nov. 1, before election day, and by the City Council by mid-November.

“We believe there is a land-use rational,” said Bob Tuttle, a city planner, about the group’s latest proposal at a recent commission meeting. “We understand the community’s desire for height limits.”

But at the meeting, Mr. Tuttle acknowledged that the proposed zoning change, which covers portions of a 13-block area east of First Avenue, would only affect a single development site in the foreseeable future: the East 58th Street construction site.

Both the developer and the community opponents said it would halt the current project, known as Sutton 58 as it is envisioned.

Jonathan Kalikow, president of Gamma Real Estate. which is developing the new tower, warned that this zoning change targeted at his building would have a chilling effect on developers across the city.

“This zoning change, if passed, will have really horrific negative consequences for the city of New York,” he said. Mr. Kalikow said he was rushing to try to complete the complex foundation needed for the tall narrow tower before the zoning change could take effect.

The new zoning proposal grew out of a meeting in August between planners and elected officials, including the Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who had joined East River Fifties group in submitting the plan.

Earlier plans by the group had called for strict height limits. The new approach, recommended by the planning staff, would create a new zoning rule that would force developers on side streets to keep much of the bulk of their buildings below 150 feet and only indirectly cap heights.

It would particularly penalize developers like Mr. Kalikow, who obtained air rights from nearby buildings, zoning experts said. The fast-track schedule was made possible after a decision by Ms. Brewer and the local community board to forego hearings on the proposed zoning changes.

John Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, an industry group, noted that Ms. Brewer has long been an advocate for more openness in city government and in land-use decisions. A spokesman for Ms. Brewer said she had already held a hearing earlier this year, on another version of the plan.

“This process has been skewed from the beginning to protect a well-healed group,” Mr. Banks said.

Alan Kersh, president of the East River Fifties Alliance, and a resident of the Sovereign, said the revised city plan is more “flexible” than the height limits his group first proposed.

He said it would allow for a building taller than what his group had originally proposed, but much shorter than what the developer planned to build.

Write to Josh Barbanel at josh.barbanel@wsj.com

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