Thursday, November 21, 2013

What's Next for 248 and 250 Columbia Street?

Last night, the Zoning Board of Appeals denied an area variance to Per Blomquist to build a five-unit apartment building on the site of 248 and 250 Columbia Street.

Last month, the ZBA kept the public hearing on Blomquist's project open because they had not received a recommendation from the Planning Commission. Last week, the Planning Commission, on the phoned in advice of city attorney Cheryl Roberts, declined to give that recommendation and tabled the application until their next meeting, to take place on Wednesday, December 11. Since the Planning Commission had tabled the project, it wasn't clear what the ZBA would do, but last night, although ZBA chair, Lisa Kenneally, was absent, as was ZBA member Phil Abitabile, the ZBA, chaired by Russ Gibson, closed the public hearing and, after some discussion, ruled on the project.

Blomquist was at the meeting with attorney Mitchell Khosrova, who was standing in for Blomquist's attorney, Ken Dow. At the outset of the meeting, Khosrova told the ZBA that the notion that every unit in a multi-family dwelling had to be at least 1,500 square feet was a misinterpretation of the Bulk and Area Regulations in the city code. The 1,500 square foot minimum had to do with lot size not apartment size. The discussion of the project, however, was postponed until later in the meeting, when it was expected that Roberts, who had been at the public hearing about the police and court building, would arrive. Roberts never did arrive. In the end, she was contacted and advised the board via speaker phone.

When told that, in the judgment of Blomquist's attorney, the 1,500 square feet requirement pertained to lot size not apartment size, Roberts declared, "That's not the interpretation the City is taking." Gibson disagreed with her, saying she was "in the right church but the wrong pew." Roberts insisted that her interpretation was correct but told the members of the ZBA, "You don't have to argue with me. You are the administrative agency that interprets the code." 

When the members of the ZBA deliberated on whether or not to grant the area variance, it wasn't entirely clear which interpretation they were using. ZBA member Kathy Harter spoke of the "huge variance," but it wasn't clear if she was referring to the fact that 770 square feet for the apartment size was 48.6 percent less than 1,500 square feet or that the 5,227.2 square foot lot was 30 percent less than required 7,500 square feet (1,500 square feet per dwelling unit x 5). Perhaps it didn't matter since Gibson concluded, "Regardless of which interpretation, it's a substantial variance."

In making their determination, the ZBA seemed to skip over the major consideration set forth in the New York State General City Code--"the benefit to the applicant if the variance is granted as weighed against the detriment to the health, safety and welfare of the neighborhood or community by such grant"--and focused instead on the five criteria meant to help them do that. In response to the first--"whether an undesirable change will be produced in the character of the neighborhood or a detriment to nearby properties will be created by the granting of the area variance"--the board decided that no, it would not. In response to the second--"whether the benefit sought by the applicant can be achieved by some method feasible for the applicant to pursue, other than the area variance"--the board decided yes, it could be achieved by some other method. They did not specify what alternative they had in mind, but ZBA member Mary Ellen Pierro spoke of reducing the number of apartments to four. In response to the third--"whether the requested variance is substantial"--the board decided yes, whether it was 48.6 percent or 30 percent, the variance was substantial. In response to the fourth--"whether the proposed variance will have an adverse effect or impact on the physical or environment conditions in the neighborhood or district"--the board decided no. In response to the fifth--"whether the alleged difficulty was self-created"--the board decided that it was self-created because the applicant could realize an economic benefit from the property in some other way. Having considered the five criteria, the members of the ZBA present--Gibson, Harter, Theresa Joyner, Mary Ellen Pierro, and Geeta Cheddie--voted unanimously to deny the area variance.

1 comment:

  1. So, does this mean the ZBA has decided the 1500 sqf rule applies generally and that any development plan that intends to provide less than 1500 sqf per dwelling requires a variance?