Variances Granted For Twelve-Story Mixed-Use Facility

BSA granted the variances over Community Board and resident opposition. On August 19, 2014 the Board of Standards and Appeals voted unanimously to grant variances to SoBro Development Corporation for the development of a twelve-story mixed-use facility at 1769 Fort George Hill. The development site, at the corner of Nagle Avenue in Washington Heights, Manhattan, is crescent-shaped, measuring 620 feet in length and 46 feet wide at the widest point. The facility will feature two floors of community facility/church space for Movimiento Mundial Church, 125 units of affordable housing, and an underground parking garage. The Church previously owned the site and sold it to SoBro in partial exchange for providing space in the final building.

On September 18, 2013 the Department of Buildings denied SoBro’s application for a construction permit, ruling that the proposed building was taller and covered more lot space than permitted under the R7-2 zoning regulation, as well as having an insufficiently large rear yard. On September 27, 2013 SoBro applied to the Board for variances waiving the limits on residential floor area ratio, lot coverage, rear yard size, and height and setback to allow construction as designed. A variance request to waive parking space requirements was originally made, but later withdrawn.

Public hearings were held by the Board on May 6 and July 15, 2014. At the May 6 meeting, Victor Body-Lawson of Body Lawson Associates testified on behalf of the requested variances. Mr. Body-Lawson stated significant cost would come from pre-construction work to make the site suitable for building. Mr. Body-Lawson testified that the development site was hindered by its unique dimensions, poor soil quality, a forty-foot slope from the south to north end, and the immediate proximity of the No. 1 train and the Dyckman Street subway platform on the site’s western boundary. President and CEO of SoBro Phillip Morrow testified that the steep costs for construction prohibit building as-of-right and offering affordable housing at the same time. “If we did as-of-right building, the cost per unit…would be beyond the scope of feasibility.” SoBro later submitted estimates to the Board that it would cost $2,023,350 to prepare the lot for construction. SoBro stated that an as-of-right building would only permit 37 dwelling units, resulting in a cost of $54,685 per unit. SoBro testified that their proposed building with 113 units would bring the individual unit cost down to $17,909, making affordable pricing feasible.

Manhattan Community Board 12 recommended disapproval of the project, citing concerns over the proposed height, unit affordability, and insufficient parking associated with the project. At the July 15 meeting, CB12 District Manager Ebenezer Smith testified that SoBro failed to meet the requirements for a variance, saying “The project as presented will definitely alter the character of this neighborhood.” This is one of five requirements an applicant must meet for a variance, as well as showing that unique physical conditions of the lot create a practical difficulty in development, that as-of-right development on the lot won’t provide a reasonable return on the developer’s investment, that the hardship was not created by the owner, and that the variance is the minimum necessary to alleviate the hardship.

Barbara Frazier of the Hillside Bogardus Community Association also testified in opposition and echoed Mr. Smith’s comments. Ms. Frazier stated “The other high-rises [in the community] have a very small footprint surrounded by very large acreages. …The proposed Fort George building is right there at the subway stop, overwhelming the neighborhood.” Ms. Frazier also alleged the building was not affordable but a “move in the gentrification area” and argued the proposed units would not be affordable in Washington Heights where the median income was between $35,000 and $40,000. Ismail Trinidad of Movimiento Mundial Church testified in support of the building, saying both he and the church had been in the community for over twenty years, and that “I can assuredly say…the majority of [the community] would not be concerned with having a building in this place.” Mr. Trinidad went on to argue that the majority of people in the community are not concerned with shadows cast by buildings, and that people with those concerns are not reflective of the community as a whole.

During the hearing process, Commissioner Ottley-Brown requested SoBro explore the feasibility of increasing the number of multi-bedroom units in the proposed building in response to community concerns. In response to the Commissioner requests, the building plans were later modified to remove the studio units to make room for more multi-bedroom units, as well as to decrease the building from fourteen to twelve stories. A Board-requested parking study found that the new design brought the building within the zoning requirement for minimum parking spaces, and SoBro withdrew their request for a waiver from the requirement. On August 19, the Board voted to approve the remaining variance requests.

BSA: 1749 Fort George Hill, Manhattan (277-13-BZ) (Aug. 19, 2014) (Jeffrey A. Chester, Esq./GSHLLP, for SoBro Development Corporation, owner).

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

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