Variances Granted For Church-Owned Mixed-Use Facility

Street view of 118-27 Farmers Boulevard. Image Credit: Google Maps

Street view of 118-27 Farmers Boulevard. Image Credit: Google Maps

Board granted the variances despite divided community support. On September 23, 2014, the Board of Standards and Appeals voted to grant five variances to St. Albans Presbyterian Church for the construction of a five-story mixed-use facility at 118-27 Farmers Boulevard. The development site is located in St. Albans, Queens, and bounded by Farmers Boulevard to the west, 119th Avenue to the south, 189th Street to the east, and 118th Avenue to the north. The facility will feature two floors in the cellar for community space and five stories for residential space containing sixty-seven units of affordable housing, as well as seventeen parking spaces, and a thirty-five-foot perimeter wall.

On July 14, 2013 the Department of Buildings denied the Church’s application for a construction permit, finding the site located in an R3A zoning district does not permit the proposed use for multiple units, and that the proposed density and amount of housing units exceeded what is permitted under an R3A zoning regulation. In addition, the proposed amount of parking was insufficient. On September 6, 2013 the Church applied to the Board for variances waiving the limits on use, residential floor area ratio, density, height, and parking.

Public hearings were held on June 24 and August 19, 2014. Queens Community Board 12 recommended approval of the project, and written testimony in support was submitted by former Council Member Leroy Comrie, former Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, current Council Member I. Daneek Miller, and current Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. Eric Palatnik, representing the Church testified the development project is to be done in partnership with Trinity Associates LLC, a for-profit developer, as the Church could not secure enough private financing to develop on its own. Mr. Palatnik stated the timeline would have Trinity act as a guarantor and administrator of the site for seven years, after which the Church will take over management, and fifteen years after project completion the Church will buy out Trinity to own the development outright. Mr. Palatnik testified the site was six-sided and irregularly shaped, restricting the number of units the Church could build there as-of-right. He argued the variances were needed because to build as-of-right would not allow the Church to build enough affordable housing units to qualify for local and state financing programs necessary to fund construction. Reverend Dr. Edward Davis, Sr. of the St. Albans Presbyterian Church testified the community facility in the propose building will house the church’s tutoring program, as well as Little League and other sports programs.

Opposition was raised from members of the St. Albans community, arguing the proposed height and number of units was incompatible with both the community and the recent R3A zoning designation. St. Albans was downzoned to R3A in 2007 in an effort to protect the community from market pressures that had forced owners to tear down one- and two-family homes for larger buildings. (See past CityLand coverage here.)

Residents also objected to the project’s further strain on an already overburdened transportation and infrastructure network, lack of an Environmental Impact Statement, and lack of nexus between the church’s programmatic needs and the requested waivers. Delseah Marshall, a local attorney and resident, testified the community fought “a long time” for R3 zoning to maintain the local character of one- and two-family homes. “There is no proposed reason that is compelling to grant a variance in this particular circumstance,” said Ms. Marshall. Ms. Marshall elaborated on existing traffic congestion in the area, and argued conditions would worsen with the inclusion of sixty-seven units’ worth of new residents. Akeelah Alamein testified on behalf of her mother, a St. Albans homeowner. Ms. Alamein testified the area floods repeatedly whenever there are rainstorms, due to infrastructure already overtaxed by the current number of residents. “I am not opposed to affordable housing; I am opposed to something that’s going to change the integrity of the neighborhood that I have lived in all my life.” Ms. Alamein also argued there was no need for the programs the Church plans to offer, as Roy Wilkins Park already offers the same programs in the immediate area.

On September 23, 2014 the Board voted 4-0 to grant the requested variances. The Board dismissed arguments about the lack of nexus between the Church’s programmatic needs and the requested relief, stating the primary component of the variance requests was the irregular shape of the site combined with the economics of financing affordable housing construction. The Board conducted its own environmental assessment and found the proposed project would not have significant adverse impacts on the area infrastructure, traffic, or neighborhood character. The Board also found the recent rezoning to R3A does not per se make a site ineligible for otherwise appropriate variance relief.

BSA: 118-27/47 Farmers Boulevard, Queens (265-13-BZ) (Sep. 23, 2014) (Eric Palatnik P.C., for St. Albans Presbyterian Church, owner).

By:  Michael Twomey (Michael is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2014).

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