As It Happens

NYC woman 'ecstatic' as judge orders 20 floors cut from already built condo

A New York judge has ordered the developers of a controversial 52-storey condo project to lop 20 floors off their nearly completed building. That's after community members complained that it was built with a loophole in the zoning codes.

Olive Freud says she has no sympathy for developers ordered to deconstruct and cut 20 floors from their condo

Olive Freud at a rally to stop development of the condo at 200 Amsterdam Ave. in New York City. (West Side Rag)
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Olive Freud just sent a wake-up call to any developers looking to skirt the law. 

On Feb. 13, a judge in New York ruled that a new 668-foot tall condo exceeds legal zoning limits. The Upper West Side building used a zoning loophole to get approval, which the court ruled should never have been granted.

The massive condo is nearly complete. But according to Justice W. Franc Perry, that doesn't give the developers a pass. And now, he has ordered them to lop off 20 completed storeys from the highrise building. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Freud, who lives in the neighborhood and has been organizing the campaign to fight the development. Here is part of their conversation.

What did you think when you heard what this judge ordered the developers of the condo unit to do?

We were ecstatic. It's been a while and it drags on but we finally got the judge to say the right thing.

How advanced is this construction?

Well, the structure is there. I don't think there's anything on the inside.

And how tall is it?

It's 668 feet. It's a tall, thin building and it's near Lincoln Center. The tall buildings there are about 300 feet high. But this really sticks out, honey. It's the tallest building in our neighborhood.

The nearly completed 668-foot condo tower at 200 Amsterdam Ave. on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

OK. So, it's 52 storeys tall, right? 

Yeah.

And 20 of those storeys have to come off.

It's not that easy to explain. The zoning law determines square footage that they can build. And this building stands on 10,000 square feet. But when they started building, when they went to the building department with their plans, they came out with 110,000 square feet.

That's what the lawsuit is about — that it's an illegal zoning lot. You can buy air rights but you have to buy them, right.

What was the zoning loophole that they exploited to do this?

These people went in and they zigzagged all around the place, picking up little lawns and pieces here and there — completely illegal.

They bought the rights based on these little bits of land they had and then they could transfer it.

Yes. They call it the 39-side zoning lot, the gerrymandered zoning lot.

That was the shape of their zoning lot that they claimed that they had? 

Yes.

Now, how does it change your neighbourhood, this construction, this building? 

It's a precedent we can't allow. There are other developers who are just looking around to see if they could do something like that. Of course, all the developers want tall buildings. The apartments on top they sell with views. But what does it do to the people who live below? 

I mean, it's taking our space, our sun, our light and leaving us in the shadows.

It seems, though, that the city approved of it — this 39-sided zoning lot. So it went through legally, right?

Yes, that's very peculiar. The Department of Buildings, the developer brings them this and they just say, "yes."

You know, I couldn't imagine how could anybody get 668 feet? We had to go to land use people and to lawyers to be able to understand how they had done it.

Why do you think the judge sided with you? I mean, this is something they usually say, "Well, it's too late now. It's been done."

Yeah. That's what they always say, right? And that's one of the things that I hope other people don't go in for this and say it's a done deal.

If it's illegal, and it's harmful, the community should get up. We were the first ones that made this noise. That's why it's being broadcast all over.

It was reported in The New York Times how rare this is — that you have to go back to 1991 where a developer was forced to reduce a 31-storey building to 19 storeys. So not many people do what you and your neighbours did.

No. Most developers, they make a lot of money here, but they put up legal buildings — and this one was not. It was definitely illegal, the zoning lot.

There are other things that are going on now that we're aware of this. We're looking around and trying to keep making sure that developers put up buildings according to the law.

Freud called the condo development 'a precedent we can't allow.' (West Side Rag)

Do you have any sympathy for these builders at all? 

Not at all. We started this lawsuit when it was a hole in the ground. They knew that they were on treacherous ground. They knew that there was going to be a lawsuit. They're so arrogant, they thought they were going to win. I guess they win over everything that they do here in New York that's been allowed. This is something new.

It's their money and it's our lives, our quality of life. I mean, I like living in this city. I love the city. But we have a right to some space and air and light, also.

What about the people, who I understand, have already bought some of these luxury apartments in this building?

I don't really believe that. I hope they're aware now — anyone who wants to put money into this — that things can go wrong.

But are you worried, though, that as you say, it's not over? And do you think that another judge will say, "Well, you know, like all the other times that it's too far gone, let them go."

Well, it's illegal. The point of the lawsuit is that he has to have a legal zoning lot and I don't know how they're going to get past that.

Do you think other developers in Manhattan will pause before they try and pull something like this again?

I think so. And if we don't win it means that all over the city developers can do this. It makes a whole farce of the whole zoning. They go down the sidewalk and pick up another lot someplace else.


Written by Chris Harbord and John McGill. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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