the Scenes of the Trump Saga
By Anne Saxon-Hersh
Every few years the head of TBA's Zoning and Land-Use Committee,
Bruce Silberblatt, requests that the board approve his purchase
of the latest NYC Zoning Resolution, which costs about $200. This
1000-page tome weighs in at around 15 pounds. It is the bible of
the city's zoning code, and like the bible, it is open to interpretation.
Bruce is a vigilant watchdog when it comes to land-use issues in
Turtle Bay, and over the years he has become a familiar presence
at Community Board (CB6) hearings and other public forums. When
he needs backup, Bruce will exhort us as board members to attend
hearings. Other times he will ask us to pass a resolution that he
has penned on a particular land-use issue. He is unrelenting in
his pursuit of information on new construction in the area, and
he always submits a written report at our monthly board meetings.
His column in the Turtle Bay Newsletter is packed with timely
In July of 1997, Bruce's report to the TBA board told of Donald
Trump's purchase of United Engineering Center. He noted that the
engineering building occupied only 45 percent of the site's allowed
bulk. "If he succeeds in a zoning lot merger, the sky-almost
literally-is the limit," he warned.
In December 1997, Bruce reported to the board that TBA President
Bill Curtis and several board members, himself included, had called
on Donald Trump, extending a welcome and "pointing out our
concerns about large buildings in our residential areas."
At that time, Trump had not decided what to do with the engineering
site, but it was common knowledge that he was negotiating for air
rights from the Church of the Holy Family and the Japan Society.
Bruce's report further noted that the collapse of Asian economies
may have hurt Trump's South Korean backer (Daewoo) and if that were
the case, Trump might opt to simply modernize the existing office
building. Trump said he would meet with TBA representatives in some
80 to 110 days, when he had decided what course to take with the
The January 1998 issue of Turtle Bay Newsletter provided
a thorough analysis of the situation, reporting on TBA's meeting
with Donald Trump and the specter of a very tall tower if the ambitious
developer succeeded in obtaining both financing and air rights.
In his February 1998 report to the board Bruce recounted that he
and TBA President Bill Curtis had met with Charles Reiss, Trump's
vice president of construction. They had seen the site drawings
of Trump's design, which showed the footprint of a building set
back from the street in a lushly planted landscape that included
a public plaza. The public amenity would give Trump a bonus, entitling
him to build higher. Although the ground-floor plans did not reveal
the height of the building, Bruce saw what was coming: "Trump
will build a very high tower, 55 stories minimum, possibly as many
as 70; they have not concluded air-rights negotiations."
The following month, Trump's architects presented the ground-floor
plans to the entire TBA board of directors. Bruce had explained
to us that Trump was negotiating to buy up all the available development
rights of nearby buildings so that he could build a larger building
than his lot initially allowed, a common practice among developers.
The only part of the plan that would be presented for public review
was the public amenity. In a later meeting at CB6 when Trump's architects
showed the site plans for the park, the presentation was prefaced
by the committee chairman's statement that Trump's tower construction
was "as of right."
The convention behind this "as of right" premise is the
zoning lot merger, a practice that developers have used to erect
towers on Manhattan's East Side. The present zoning code, written
in 1961, was designed to protect neighborhoods by barring the transfer
of air rights across zoning districts.
But in 1986, the Department of Buildings wrote a letter to enable
transfers when the use and the bulk regulations of districts were
identical. Because it appeared that the bulk use of Trump's proposed
tower and the neighboring buildings were the same, the transfer
of air rights and the resulting lot merger appeared to satisfy zoning
In October 1998, Bruce reported that Trump's sales office on Second
Avenue was about to open and that Trump had managed to obtain air
rights from both the Church and the Japan Society.
Thus our worst nightmare was realized: Trump had succeeded in buying
75 percent of the block's development rights, and he obtained a
building permit from the Department of Buildings for 717,000 square
feet of floor area.
During this period, both Bruce and CB6 Land-Use Chairman Ed Rubin
continued to pore over the zoning regulations, hoping to find something
to at least challenge Trump's audacious plan. If nothing else, a
coalition needed to be formed to strengthen the zoning code so developers
could not destroy the city with their relentless quest for profits
and the glory of height.
By November 1998, Trump was rolling out his marketing campaign.
He announced a 90-story luxury tower, the world's tallest residential
building. Renderings showed a tombstone monolith that towered over
other buildings in the area, dwarfing the UN Secretariat.
Bruce's November report to the TBA board stated, "Trump appears
to have the law on his side." Trump even boasted publicly that
his would remain the tallest tower, that other developers had missed
their chance. The TBA board passed a resolution condemning the Trump
World Tower for being too big, too tall, and far too intrusive.
The resolution was mailed to all our members.
Led by TBA President Bill Curtis, the board of directors moved to
rally support on all fronts, starting with an appeal for membership
donations, a petition drive, and reaffirmation of the anti-Trump
coalition. Political pressure would be brought to bear. There were
security and public safety issues to consider. Environmental issues
would be reviewed, including wind sheer caused by tall towers, and
shadows cast on neighboring buildings and parks.
By this time, the press was fanning the flames of public indignation.
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan reportedly cornered
Mayor Giuliani at the opera and asked why the city was permitting
Trump's tower to dominate the area.
By December 1998, the Coalition had formed a steering committee
led by the Turtle Bay Association and 860/870 UN Plaza, the latter
operating as Beekman Hill Association. Prominent individuals and
concerned condominium boards were coming forward to pledge funds.
Neighborhood and civic organizations rallied in support. Despite
the appearance that Trump had the law and the city on his side,
maybe there was a way to bring him to the negotiating table.
But at our January board meeting it was still not clear what legal
strategy would be employed. Sufficient funds had been raised to
retain a lawyer, but a facedown with Trump would demand a huge war
chest. Time was of the essence. If Trump managed to get his foundations
laid for the tower building, it would be more difficult to stop
construction or negotiate a change in design.
Then, in February, the Coalition's newly retained lawyer seized
on a very important section of the city's zoning code that had been
overlooked. Because Trump had gained 75 percent of his development
rights from the area zoned C1-9, his tower had to abide by the laws
of that zoning district. And even if that code allowed a building
with the same amount of floor space, the tower would have to sit
on a wide base, significantly reducing the building's overall height.
Even more fundamental to the case, the attorney is challenging the
authority of the 1986 letter that amended the zoning code to permit
lot mergers across district boundaries, declaring it invalid.
Meanwhile, TBA members have responded en masse. Close to $40,000
in contributions have been sent to the legal fund by TBA members,
evidence that Trump's opposition is not limited to a few disgruntled
millionaires with egos to match the Donald's. More than 900 signed
letters objecting to the height of Trump's tower were sent in seven
Priority Mail packages to the Mayor. Additional volunteers have
been manning the TBA office. This is just the beginning.
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Turtle Bay Association is a nonprofit (501c3) community
224 East 47th Street, New York City 10017
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