A seemingly nonconformist developer has its eye on a small piece of North Riverdale, but Andrew Cohen is having none of it.
The councilman issued a letter to the city’s standards and appeals board last month rigorously opposing an open variance request from owners of 5278 Post Road, just west of Broadway, slightly south of West 253rd Street. In the letter, Cohen claims the variance would unilaterally alter the neighborhood’s character.
“The topographical features of this location were obvious and clearly visible to these owners prior to purchasing the property,” Cohen writes. “A variance should not be issued for a condition that was apparent when the decision to purchase this lot was made.”
The main obstacle, according to Cohen, seems there’s a sizeable rock — “plainly obvious” — on the site, visible even from Broadway.
The developer — listed as Destem Realty LLC and Petra Broadway LLC, according to public records — didn’t return multiple requests for comment.
Conceding the variance wouldn’t just make zoning rules irrelevant, Cohen said, but it also would “make a mockery of” the board’s role as an independent body that regulates land use, development and construction with the authority to grant relief from the zoning code.
“Regardless of how much the current owners paid, it is not the responsibility of the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals to reward real estate developers with poor judgment,” Cohen wrote.
Just how much Destem Realty and Petra Broadway may have shelled out for the property remains unclear since it’s not apparent from public records what the price tag was, nor did the city’s finance department provide a figure.
Each plot of land under the city’s authority has a zoning jurisdiction, Cohen’s office said — whether residential, commercial or manufacturing — to establish relevant parameters for building and land use. Numerous zoning districts, meanwhile, are mapped to preserve a neighborhood’s varying density and character. It’s these limits that help give shape to neighborhoods, as well as predictability to their future.
The Post Road property sits across from an R4 district. This type of zoning applies to general residential districts, allowing a variety of housing types including low-rise attached houses, small multifamily apartment houses, and detached and semi-detached one- and two-family residences.
The property itself, meanwhile, is entirely within an R6 district, said Carlo Costanza, executive director of the standards and appeals board. Based on current plans filed with the board, the proposal is for a mixed-use nine-story structure plus a cellar and sub-cellar. The building would be comprised of 120 residential units as well as a medical facility at the cellar level and a commercial pharmacy in the sub-cellar.
That’s too many units for a building with R6 zoning, Costanza said, and it also exceeds the maximum permitted residential floor area. Moreover, commercial use isn’t permitted within the underlying zoning district, and the proposed building exceeds height requirements.
The variance application was scheduled for its initial hearing twice — first last August, then again last month — but was postponed both times, Costanza said. It’s now scheduled for an initial hearing in February.
What’s actually going to happen to the property remains somewhat murky, and not just because the owners’ remained mum. The application for a seven-story residential structure was filed in 2014, spokeswoman Abigail Kunitz said. The department issued a new building permit for the application the following year, but the current permit was set to expire Dec. 8, meaning any plans for the site could come to a halt barring renewal or issuance of a new one.
Community Board 8 land use chair Charles Moerdler — whom the board has authorized to act as its pro-bono counsel opposing the application — said Cohen is “100 percent correct” in urging the standards and appeals board to reject the variance request. But there are additional reasons why it’s “grossly inappropriate,” Moerdler added.
“Topographically, it’s not right,” Moerdler said, since while the Broadway side has no shortage of high-rises, the Post Road side is mainly single-family homes or low-rises.
The developers “don’t want to just build up front,” Moerdler said. “They want to build in the back,” potentially leading to a jumble of high-rises and private homes, opening the door to more unwanted development. “That’s why we will go to court, if necessary.”
Court battles notwithstanding, however, the main issue for Cohen remains.
“Issuing a variance for this open and obvious condition under economic hardship is a perversion of the law,” he said. “There was a huge rock on this site, and (the developer) bought it anyway. If they had bought the property and it turned out —unbeknownst to them — there was an underground stream, it might justify a variance.
“But the condition on this property is as plain as the nose on your face.”