The de Blasio administration is accelerating plans to tighten a loophole that allows developers to boost the height of luxury apartment buildings, according to multiple sources. A tower on the Upper East Side proposed by Extell Development Co. is directly in regulators' cross-hairs.
Crain's New York
Crain's New York Kushner's got company: Despite new laws, city fails to collect $1.5B in fines by Joe Anuta
"I was hoping for a lot more," said City Councilman Ben Kallos, who sponsored the series of bills along with former Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland.
"It would be news to me if any agency was actually following this law," Kallos said.
The other two bills required agencies to be more precise in writing out the property and person responsible for the violations in an effort to prevent New Yorkers from weaseling out of tickets
The project has a tortured history that began in 2015, when Connecticut developer Joseph Beninati bought a run of small apartment buildings and filed plans for a 950-foot condo tower. He later lost the site to lender Gamma Real Estate, led by Richard Kalikow.
During the protracted foreclosure process, a neighborhood group aligned with City Councilman Ben Kallos was able to gain approval for a rezoning that prohibited such a large structure there. Because Gamma had not started work on the 800-foot tower before the rezoning, Sutton 58 appeared to be kaput. But in late June, a city board granted the project an exemption. Now Gamma is building, and the neighborhood group is planning to sue.
Get the popcorn ready.
With as much as a 50% staffing increase, the City Council is prepping for a more active role in shaping development.
The City Council is getting closer to adding several land-use staffers as lawmakers push to take a more active role in shaping development in the five boroughs.
In March council Speaker Corey Johnson announced that he would increase the legislative body's budget by 27%, to $81.3 million. And now that the budget has been approved, the council has $1.8 million to spend on 21 staffers, up from nearly $1.3 million and around 15 people who worked in the division in the previous fiscal year.
City Councilman Ben Kallos is aiming to have one of the new hires work with the Committee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions, which he chairs, to examine claims from developers and the city about how much affordable housing a particular development might be able to support. The implication is that the council would be able to squeeze more amenities or affordability out of certain projects if it had someone with the expertise to take a deep dive into a project's finances.
"The City Council has been outgunned by the real estate industry and the city's [Office of Management and Budget], the Department of City Planning and the [Department of Housing Preservation and Development]," he said. "Combined, those agencies have thousands of people at their disposal, and the council hasn't had enough staff to take on the onslaught of projects."
The council also has taken an interest in doing more proactive rezonings in areas such as Bushwick. And a spokesman said the additional headcount would help produce environmental-impact studies, for example, which are lengthy research documents about a land-use action's potential effect on a variety of conditions. Other members are pushing priorities that include incentivizing more grocery stores, increasing the number of affordable units for homeless households and, in several cases, blocking development projects proposed in their districts. However, it is still unclear exactly what the extra employees will do and when the positions will be filled.
There's no law mandating when dormant sheds must be removed, but city Councilman Ben Kallos is trying to create one. In 2016 he introduced a bill that would require private landlords to take down a shed if no work were underway for seven days, with exceptions for bad weather. If a landlord refused to undertake repairs, in some cases the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development could step in and arrange to have the work done.
"It's a law of nature that what goes up must come down," Kallos said, "but not in New York when it comes to sheds."
Kallos' bill hasn't gotten any further than a single hearing in November, mainly because neither the Real Estate Board of New York nor the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group, wants the city meddling any further with sheds and construction work. Nor is the de Blasio administration—which already has its hands full managing public housing—interested in getting involved with costly, complex repair projects that come with potentially significant legal risk thanks to the state's scaffolding law, which holds building owners and contractors 100% liable for any gravity-related accident even if they are only partially at fault.
Crain's New York City board approves Sutton Place tower, but the fight is far from over by Joe Anuta
The 800-foot tower proposed for East 58th Street was first begun by Connecticut developer Joseph Beninanti, who took a huge financing gamble and ultimately lost the property to one of his lenders, Gamma Real Estate. During the foreclosure process, a coalition made up of nearby residents opposed to the soaring scale of the building and City Councilman Ben Kallos began advancing a rezoning proposal to cap heights in the area. The goal was to push through changes before Gamma completed the foundation work, which would have ensured that the project would be subject to existing zoning rules.
The Department of Buildings decided to release the data to give residents a better idea of when permits are issued and when they expire, and allow watchful neighbors to track sheds they suspect of overstaying their welcome.
"Real-time mapping not only increases our ability to monitor structures such as sidewalk sheds, but also shows how we are harnessing technology to hold building owners accountable," Rick Chandler, commissioner of the department, said in a statement.
Many attempts to reduce the proliferation of unwarranted scaffolding have been made over the years. After New York City Housing Authority residents complained that scaffolding at their developments was left in place long after work finished, the state passed a bill requiring them to be removed. And in 2016, City Councilman Ben Kallos introduced a bill that would penalize owners who leave scaffolding up when work is not being done, though the legislation has yet to gain traction.
Crain's New York Community groups launch lawsuit to block in-progress Upper East Side tower by Joe Anuta
Community groups and elected officials representing the Upper East Side filed a lawsuit targeting DDG’s 32-story luxury condo tower rising at 180 E. 88th St. The suit against the developers and two city agencies contends that the project’s height and configuration were achieved by exploiting a quirk in the zoning code.
“The loophole being abused here is just an example of what residents have endured from overdevelopment in our city,” City Councilman Ben Kallos, who is a party to the suit, said in a statement released Friday.
DDG broke ground on the project in April 2015, but a year later ran into trouble after community groups complained about an unusual aspect of the site’s zoning: The developer had carved out a separate, 4-foot by 22-foot lot along East 88th Street that allowed it to alter the building to a more advantageous shape.
Crain's New York Council takes a page from developers' handbook against Sutton Place tower by Joe Anuta
Last week City Councilman Ben Kallos shepherded through his chamber a 10-block rezoning of the Sutton Place area that will result in shorter and squatter buildings than are currently allowed. He said they would fit in with the varied character of the tony enclave without sacrificing too much of the square footage that could be built in the future. While that sounds like a reasonable proposal, his motivation was far different. Kallos and a group of residents known as the East River Fifties Alliance wanted to zone out of existence a luxury condo tower being built along East 58th Street. To do so, they pushed the limits of the city's land-use rules in the same way that developers are often criticized for doing.
So blatant was their gambit that the City Planning Commission put a clause in the rezoning to protect the 800-foot project. But Kallos removed it and then fast-tracked his legislation's approval to ensure the developer, Gamma Real Estate, could not complete a foundation in time to squeak in under the old zoning rules.
Gamma's victory was short lived, however, as Ben Kallos, the Upper East Side's city council member, vowed to snip the newly created lifeline once the proposal lands on his desk.
"I disagree with the grandfathering clause, and I plan to remove it from this application and move forward," he told Crain's.