License to Build: Non-Profits No Longer Face Zoning Challenges

Here’s a breaking story that could dramatically change the face of Manhattan real estate and your  very own quiet little enclave.  From Landmark West via The Historic Districts Council blog comes this breaking news:

Today, the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) gave a green light to Congregation Shearith Israel (CSI)-and to all nonprofit and religious institutions seeking to turn the air above their sites into luxury condo revenue streams, even where laws designed to protect neighborhood character and property values explicitly restrict it. CSI’s planned development project is located in the R8B-zoned, low-scale, brownstone mid block of West 70th Street, adjacent to the Individual Landmark Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, in the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District.

With its unanimous approval of 7 zoning height and setback variances, the BSA bowed to CSI’s argument that denial of its application to construct 5 floors of luxury condominiums on top of a new 4-story community house would interfere with its charitable mission and impose an economic hardship on this congregation (one of the wealthiest in the city, counting among its members Jack Rudin, the developer for the St. Vincent’s Hospital project in Greenwich Village). In other words, CSI says, “Back off, City, we’re a nonprofit and nonprofits can do whatever they want.” The (mayor-appointed) BSA rolled over, despite CSI’s repeated failure over many months of public hearings to demonstrate hardship or any link between its mission and the condos (to be sold on the open market for millions).

Contextual zoning is a ceiling developers have been pushing against for decades. And now, 5 floors or 50 floors, the sky’s the limit for nonprofits with properties in traditional, low-rise communities in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan.

We know all this commotion over a 9-story, 114-foot-tall building sounds alarmist (even though it is double the size of the 4- and 5-story brownstones that define 95% of the historic West 70th Street midblock). But, even as we speak, the BSA is also poised to approve Mount Sinai Medical Center’s proposed development including a 542-foot-tall (the equivalent of 54 stories) residential tower on the eastern edge of Central Park. Meanwhile, planners have identified 10 potential development “soft sites” along Central Park West, many occupied by low-rise institutions such as the New-York Historical Society (which, until recently, had planned a 280-foot-tall tower that would have required special zoning exemptions).

It doesn’t take a microscope to spot this trend, which could have even greater ramifications in the other boroughs. With today’s approval, the BSA has opened the door to luxury condos towering over nonprofits in every previously protected neighborhood in the city. And their decision is final. Except for court. Stay tuned…

Imagine the ramifications of this?  The Catholic church alone could so dramatically change the skyline and inventory of Manhattan real estate.  It will be very interesting to see how this plays out!

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