CB8 member clashes with developer

A CEO insisted he was not lying when he said there were no plans yet for two UES sites

  • Council Member Ben Kallos said any new building on the East Side should have a school. Photo: Courtesy of NYC Council photographer William Alatriste

The Community Board 8 Housing Chair did not buy what a developer was selling last week.

On May 14, Gary Barnett, the CEO and founder of Extell Development, one of the largest real estate developers in the city, spoke at the CB8 Housing Committee meeting, where he said he had no plans yet for two First Avenue sites, one between 79th and 80th streets and another between 85th and 86th streets.

Housing Chair Edward Hartzog said Barnett’s vagueness was familiar. “I have heard so many developers come in front of me and say ‘Economics changed and I had to do this,’” Hartzog said. “I hate to be the cynic in the room. I’d love to be optimistic.”

Demolition has already begun for the buildings between East 79th and 80th streets, and permits have been filed to demolish the buildings between East 85th and 86th streets,

No Guarantee

While Barnett and his company have many properties throughout the city, including the Lucida on Lexington Avenue and the Kent on Third Avenue, Hartzog feels the developer is misleading the public. “Everything you said today is not sworn under oath, and there’s no guarantee you [Barnett] will do any of it,” Hartzog said to Barnett.

An angry Hartzog charged that Barnett definitely has plans, and noted that the more height a building has the more variances and zoning it will require. “Do I think he has substantial plans?” he said. “You wouldn’t be a good businessman if you didn’t have plans. In about nine or 10 months you will be back in front of us and you will be asking for a variance or you will be asking for a zoning change.”

According to Hartzog, the zoning laws and regulations are so complex that only land use attorneys and developers like Barnett can understand them. Essentially, he said, developers have a way of mincing words and making the public think they are appealing to them.

Barnett was caught off guard, but defended himself. “I am telling you once again, and people that know me know me not to be a liar, that we don’t have plans yet,” he said.

“A City of Skyscrapers”

Throughout the evening, residents suggested schools, affordable housing, day care centers, mom and pop stores and a grocery store for the two sites, all of which Barnett said he was open to. The two primary concerns raised were parking and the height of the buildings.

Many people, including Regina Ford of 50 East 81st Street, wanted to know if there is a limit on how tall these buildings could be. Barnett told the audience that whatever is eventually built at the two sites will be in character with the neighborhood.

“I don’t think this building will be out of context with the surrounding buildings,” said Barnett, who pointed out that buildings on both sides of East 79th Street are between 350 and 400 feet tall.

“You’re not going to change New York City,” he said. “New York City has been a city of skyscrapers for hundreds of years.

To address and alleviate parking from the buildings at the two sites, Barnett said he would do a traffic study to determine if parking garages at the sites would be needed.

A New School?

One of the main suggestions from the committee and residents was a new school at one or both sites. Barnett said he has had ongoing discussions with Council Member Ben Kallos about this issue. “It’s up to the board of education, really,” Barnett said. “They have to have the budget and they have to be willing to spend the money. They have to realize they are in a very expensive district. The Upper East Side is deserving of quality schools.”

Kallos, who wants schools at both of the sites, told Our Town that he has spent the past five and a half years trying to get enough seats in the district for children. “We don’t have school seats and it is a crisis,” Kallos said. “Unless we work with our developers who are putting up these buildings, it’s going to be impossible to get the seats that are needed.”

Since his election to the council in 2014, Kallos said, he has made a commitment to meet with developers, not to ask for campaign money, but to work with them to get new schools. One of the more accommodating developers has been Barnett, he said. Kallos credited Barnett with helping to open a pre-k at 95th Street and Third Avenue last year. “Any new building in the east side should have a school,” said Kallos.

The council member explained that his office has secured $93 million from the School Construction Authority, which can be used during the next five years. The problem is that schools on the Upper East Side cost much more than that, which is why developers like Extell can play a role. “Gary has been very responsive to me,” Kallos said in a phone interview. “He’s been very responsive to the community. I think it was good that he came to the community so early in the process.”

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