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Behind 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 information.

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 project.

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 regulations.

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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