Neighbors take on a tower

Sutton Place residents fear a proposed development will throw too much shade

An early rendering of a proposed tower for 430 East 58th Street, which would be 800 feet tall.

Developers in New York City often draw ire from residents when plans for new buildings threaten to change the character of a neighborhood. But rarely do residents have the means or the connections to present a serious challenge.

That is not the case in the quiet and wealthy enclave of Sutton Place, where neighbors are at war with a development company over a proposal to build an 800-foot tower on a lot on 58th Street that is approximately the width of two row houses.

“It will do nothing more than essentially rob the entire community of sunlight and create a presence that will bring no new commerce to the neighborhood,” Lisa Mercurio, communications director of the East River Fifties Alliance (ERFA), which is leading the fight against the project, told LLNYC. “Most importantly, it is not within the context of anything that has been built in there ever before.”

Gamma Real Estate, the developer of the project, disagrees, saying the building at 430 East 58th Street will contribute to the economy and growth of the neighborhood. Right now, Gamma is allowed to build the tower due to the way the area — which spans 52nd Street to 59th Street, east of First Avenue — is zoned.

“It will do nothing more than essentially
rob the entire community of sunlight.”
Lisa Mercurio

ERFA is pushing for a zoning amendment that would limit new developments in the neighborhood to 210 feet high for buildings on small streets and 235 feet high for buildings that front wide streets. Developers could build up to 260 feet if they agree to reserve 20 percent of the units for affordable housing.

The group has some rather powerful people on its side, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, New York City Council members Dan Garodnick and Ben Kallos and New York State Senator Liz Krueger.

They see the tower proposed for 58th Street as an extension of so-called Billionaires’ Row farther west on 57th Street, where wealthy foreigners, looking for a place to park their money, regularly pay tens of millions of dollars for apartments that they don’t even live in most of the time.

In June, ERFA scored a small victory when the City Planning Commission certified its zoning application, starting the public review process. Community Board 6 and the borough president approved the plan, which means it can now go to the City Planning Commission and the City Council for review; it must be approved by the City Council and the City Planning Commission in order for the rezoning to take effect.

Gamma Real Estate says ERFA’s efforts are “hypocritical,” pointing out that the president of the group, Alan Kersh, lives in an apartment 250 feet high at the Sovereign, the tall residential building across the street from the proposed tower. ERFA’s proposed height limit, Gamma said, seems designed to protect his view.

“For the sake of progress in New York City we hope that ERFA’s hypocritical and self-serving effort is prevented from moving forward,” Jonathan Kalikow, president of Gamma Real Estate, told LLNYC in a statement. Gamma claims that ERFA’s proposed height limits would “effectively discourage all future construction in the area.”

Mercurio told LLNYC these accusations are “so untrue,” and that the proposed height limits are based on the advice of three city planners the group consulted. In addition, if a building with affordable housing were to be built there instead, Kersh’s view would in fact be affected under ERFA’s proposal, because a developer could theoretically build up it up to 260 feet.

“This is much bigger than a fight from the Sovereign or any one building,” Mercurio says. “I think it’s really important for the public to understand that this is really about who New York  is for.”