March 18, 2019
The New York Law Journal quoted me in Upper West Side Skyscraper’s Future Uncertain After NY State Court Ruling. The story opens,
The development at 200 Amsterdam Ave. in Manhattan is slated to be the tallest building on the Upper West Side, with its 51 stories rivaling the skyscrapers located further downtown.
But whether this will ever happen has now become questionable, after a state court ruling that found city officials were wrong to follow an interpretation of city zoning law used by the developer to achieve the project’s awesome height.
Supreme Court Justice Franc Perry of Manhattan sided with local community groups looking to halt the building underway at the site. The plaintiffs—the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development and the Municipal Arts Society of New York—were joined by numerous local state and city elected officials in opposing what they say is not only an out-of-character monster development in the Manhattan neighborhood, but one that relied on a faulty zoning law interpretation to move forward.
“It is finally a declaration that zoning law means something and developers can’t make it up as they go along,” said Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady name attorney Richard Emery, who represented the plaintiffs.
Since 1978, developers and city buildings officials have relied on the so-called Minkin Memo, named after the former head of the city’s Department of Buildings’ Irving Minkin, for guidance on what experts call an ambiguity in the city’s zoning law towards so-called tax lots. These are additional subdivisions of city real estate, which can overlap with or be included inside a zoning lot.
Under the Minkin memo, developers have been able to pull together extra vertical building rights that nearby property owners aren’t using, offering the opportunity to boost the size of a project such as 200 Amsterdam beyond what would normally be allowed.
“The zoning resolution is ambiguous about when a zoning lot can be formed from partial tax lot; it never deals with that problem,” said Stewart Sterk, the Mack Professor of Real Estate Law and director of the Center for Real Estate Law & Policy at the Cardozo School of Law.
Initially, city officials had no problem with the move. DOB issued a permit to the developers for a residential and community facility building at the site of the Lincoln Towers condos on the Upper West Side. The developers relied on the Minkin memo as the basis for the acquisition tax lots that combined partial and whole lots to provide the developers with the vertical building rights needed for their skyscraper.
Shortly after DOB green lighted the project, the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development challenged the DOB’s decision. The challenge snowballed, and soon seemingly every local elected official, from state Assemblyman Richard Gottfried to borough president Gale Brewer, were opposed to the plan. The project’s permit was appealed by both CESD and the Municipal Arts Society to the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals.
In March 208, DOB made an official about-face on the project. In a letter from assistant general counsel to the BSA, the department said the Minkin memo provided an incorrect interpretation and that zoning regulations did not in fact intend for zoning lots to consist of partial tax lots.
The BSA was not persuaded by the arguments and in July 2018 voted 3-1 not to grant the appeal, with one board member abstaining. The plaintiffs soon after pursued a review of the BSA’s decision in state Supreme Court.
In subjecting the developers’ permit to further review, Perry pointedly took issue with BSA view of the process.
“BSA found that the Subject Zoning lot is ‘unsubdivided,’ within the meaning of the [New York City Zoning Resolution], simply because Developer has declared it to be so,” the judge wrote.
Noting that the referenced law states that a zoning lot is defined by being “unsubdivided” within a single block, Perry said BSA’s interpretation would render the term “superfluous,” and run “afoul of elementary rules of statutory construction.”
Since DOB saw the light on the Minkin memo during the appeal process, the court said the department’s statutory basis for the issuance of the permit to begin with was undermined. BSA’s decision was nullified and vacated, and the board was directed to review the project’s permit application “in accordance with the plain language” of the zoning regulation and Perry’s order.
As Cordozo’s Sterk noted, the development at 200 Amsterdam was far from the first to use the Milkin memo to justify partial tax lot usage in a building plan. Perry’s decision has the ability to throw uncertainty around zoning and building issues into a business sector highly adverse to such things, Sterk said.
But just as important for Sterk is the question now of when a government agency becomes estopped from changing its mind after it’s already induced people to rely on its existing interpretation.
“That’s a big problem in this case, because clearly developers have put millions of dollars into this project in reliance on an existing interpretation,” he said.
Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss, who is the research director of the school’s Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, said he saw the case as less of a “good guy vs. bad guy” dynamic as much as one of whether the assurances of government officials can be binding.
“There’s a reliance on government statements and government permissions,” Reiss said, while noting the project has already commenced.
Should the case stand, he predicted it would serve to rattle developers’ confidence in their dealings with the city going forward.
“It’s more uncertainty in a process that’s already pretty uncertain,” he said.