Fight the power! With right tactics, we can win

A united front of opposition forced the developer of the former Peter Stuyvesant post office branch in the East Village to scale back drastically the variance he was requesting from the city.

A united front of opposition forced the developer of the former Peter Stuyvesant post office branch in the East Village to scale back drastically the variance he was requesting from the city.

BY ANDREW BERMAN | Last week we scored an important victory, defeating an attempt by a developer to get a zoning variance to build more than 50 percent taller and 25 percent larger than zoning allows on the site of the former Peter Stuyvesant post office branch, between E. 13th and 14th Sts., west of Avenue A, in the East Village.

This was exactly the kind of attempt to get around our zoning protections that developers have used time and again, and that skeptics often say you can’t beat.

In this case, the attempt came straight from the developer playbook: Claim that soil conditions and underground water that were well known and are commonly found throughout the area create an unforeseen and unique “hardship” that entitle you, under the law, to relief from zoning restrictions. And also point to structures that are anomalous or from a completely different context — in this case, the much larger towers of Stuyvesant Town — as justification for building larger than normally allowed, claiming these neighboring buildings define “neighborhood character.”

We at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation didn’t buy it, nor did neighbors, including those living in nearby recent developments with the same underground conditions as this site that did not require variances. The community board and local politicians weren’t duped, either. And, fortunately, at the end of the day, neither was the Board of Standards and Appeals.

In fact, in this case, the B.S.A. seemed not only to listen to the hundreds of letters it received from G.V.S.H.P. members and the arguments we presented it with, but to approach this developer’s application with appropriate skepticism and a deep level of scrutiny.

Through Harry Bubbins, our East Village director, we dug deep into this application, showing that the developer’s case was based on specious propositions and inconsistent evidence, and we reached out to and organized neighbors to turn out in force for hearings. We also had the help of SEIU Local 32BJ, which opposed the proposal due to labor issues with Richard Mack, one of the project’s partners. And we pointed out how not only the building’s size but its insensitive design would stick out sorely amid its surroundings.

We had the developer on the ropes from the start. After the opposition’s huge turnout and B.S.A. members’ tough questioning at its January hearing, the developer came back in late March with a revised application chopped down to just one-third the size of the original variance request.

Pleased as we were with this reduction, we still felt the developer’s “hardship” claim was bogus. Even the much smaller request for an increase in the development’s allowable size and height was still unjustified, we felt, and would still negatively impact neighborhood character. After we, along with neighbors and the union, let it be known that we would continue to fight the variance, and after continued skeptical questioning by the B.S.A., last week the developer withdrew the application entirely, just before it was scheduled to be heard again. With that, the developer is now limited to building no more than the neighborhood contextual zoning for the site allows — about 80 feet in height — and must play by the same rules as everyone else.

There are a number of important lessons to be taken from this win:

Do your homework: There are rules for when zoning variances are and are not supposed to be granted. On some occasions, property owners actually have good arguments as to why they deserve one. This one did not, but certainly tried to make it sound like he did. It’s not enough for opponents just to say, “It’s too big” or “We don’t like it”; you have to look at the law and argue why a given case does not meet the requirements.

Turn out in force: We were greatly helped by the fact that dozens of neighbors showed up for the hearings, and hundreds of neighbors and G.V.S.H.P. members wrote letters to the B.S.A. (The board’s chairperson made note of the intense public response.) If you don’t participate, you can’t complain about the outcome.

Make alliances: This was a group effort. Other community groups opposed this application, as did Community Board 3, City Councilmember Mendez, state Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh. SEIU Local 32BJ was also against the project and turned out members for the hearings and a rally. Showing local, political and labor support always helps.

Let the city do its job: Unfortunately, this one you can’t control, and all too often it feels like it’s not what happens — that is, the city doing its job. But this time it did. The B.S.A. commissioners were skeptical of this project’s application from the beginning, pointing out its weaknesses and inconsistencies. At the end of the day, it’s almost always government bodies like these that make the decisions. It’s a lot better when an agency understands the law and applies it fairly, as it seemed to do in this case. (Along these lines, G.V.S.H.P. will be co-hosting a forum on the B.S.A., how it works, and how to reform it on Thurs., April 27, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the N.Y.U. Silver Center, 31 Washington Place, Room 300. (Find out more and RSVP at www.gvshp.org/bsaforum .)

Of course, not every fight has such a happy ending. We’re still struggling to get the mayor to rezone University Place, Broadway and Third and Fourth Aves. — as we repeatedly have been calling for — to prevent a wave of oversized, commercial developments. And it’s unclear if the mayor will allow the deed restriction on the East Village’s former P.S. 64 / CHARAS / El Bohio to be undermined by approving a “fake dorm” in this building which for generations served as a true community center and resource.

Yet, we continue to show we can fight powerful interests — even City Hall, when needed — and that we can win. We did that with this recent victory on E. 14th St. We did it when we landmarked the final phase of the South Village Historic District. And we did it when we secured zoning protections for the Greenwich Village waterfront against any more Hudson River Park “air rights” transfers after the St. John’s / Pier 40 deal, plus eliminated traffic-generating “big box” and “destination retail” stores from the huge, planned St. John’s development at West and Houston Sts.

Now we have to make it happen by rezoning University Place and by protecting the old P.S. 64 (CHARAS / El Bohio), as well.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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