Crain's New York Council takes aim at developers who plead poverty to evade zoning by Joe Anuta

Crain's New York
Crain's New York
Council takes aim at developers who plead poverty to evade zoning
Joe Anuta

The City Council is set to discuss a package of bills Wednesday that would make it harder for property owners to bend the city's zoning laws, as they typically request in order to building bigger projects than would normally be allowed.

The 10 bills target the Board of Standards and Appeals, an obscure city body where owners argue that it is impossible to make a reasonable return developing a property without surpassing limits on things like the size and shape of buildings. A lot might be oddly shaped, for example, preventing projects that conform to the zoning and are big enough to justify the investment. In order to make the economics pencil out, an owner might ask the board to relax height restrictions so more revenue-generating apartments could fit on the site.

According to the Manhattan councilman sponsoring five of the bills—which are to be heard Wednesday by the Committee on Governmental Operations—the board is too frequently persuaded. In 2011, it approved 97% of applications, many of which were opposed by local community boards.

"We are taking away the rubber stamp from a government agency that used it far too often over the objections of residents," Councilman Ben Kallos, chairman of the committee, said in a statement. "Developers will have to be honest."

Making a false statement on an application would trigger a $25,000 fine, according to one of the bills sponsored by Kallos. Another would require the board retain a certified appraiser to pore over financial analyses to better vet applicants' claims of financial hardship. Other bills are designed to increase transparency and incorporate opinions from elected officials into the board's considerations. Together, the measures would more thoroughly scrutinize developer's claims of hardship and potentially make it harder to get a zoning variance from the board.

Ryan Singer, the agency's executive director, disputed the notion that the board is a rubber stamp. The 97% approval rate is deceiving because most developers and owners go through a process that weeds out many weak cases before they even begin. In 2015, for example, the board had 96 pre-application meetings. Only around a quarter of those cases proceeded to the formal application phase.

"We have a rigorous standard for granting variances," Singer said. "But we don't waste our time reviewing things that aren't viable."

The Board of Standards and Appeals exists because zoning laws are not perfect. When they are applied broadly over a neighborhood, they can unfairly handcuff owners of oddball properties. Without a mechanism to grant exceptions, zoning could be found unconstitutional.

The inspiration for the reform bills came from a 2004 Municipal Art Society report (authored in part by Vicki Been, who now heads the city's affordable housing agency) calling for more accountability and discourse in the variance process. Good-government group Citizens Union called for similar reforms in 2010, as did Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in 2012, when she was a councilwoman.

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