UNDER THE WIRE: DEVELOPERS
RACE TO BUILD BEFORE REZONING

Print More

Lilly Pappas was surprised to see construction workers digging up earth and pouring concrete at a long-vacant lot on Barker Avenue in the Bronx this fall. But Pappas, who runs the Olinville Taxpayers and Civic Association, a neighborhood organization active on development issues, was even more surprised when, in the weeks that followed, she received a flurry of complaints about late night and weekend demolition at this and other properties in the area. “The real estate developers were trying to sneak in under the law,” she said.

Olinville is one of several neighborhoods throughout the city facing new zoning regulations that will, in most cases, restrict the size of buildings in residential areas. But in their mad dash to complete projects before the deadlines hit, neighbors say, some developers are skirting noise restrictions and building codes.

City Councilmember Tony Avella, chair of the council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, is hoping to put the brakes on such development with legislation that would freeze new building permits during the roughly 45 days between the Planning Commission’s approval of a rezoning and the City Council vote that makes it law.

Avella’s council district in Queens includes Bayside, which had over 100 stop-work orders issued during the rezoning that went into effect in April 2005. But the problem, he said, goes far beyond Queens, and has outpaced the city’s response. Without sufficient resources, he said, “the Department of Buildings has problems catching even the most egregious problems.”

Since September 2004, 21 patches of the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn have been rezoned, placing new building restrictions on over 2,100 blocks, most recently in Olinville, South Park Slope in Brooklyn, and Whitestone in Queens. Ten more proposals, including ones for Pelham Bay in the Bronx, Middle Village/Glendale in Queens and Midwood in Brooklyn, should face a final City Council vote in the coming months. If all the proposals pass, it would mean an additional 800 blocks of rezoned land.

“The minute we submitted the rezoning application, there was more development than I’ve ever seen,” said Carmen Rosa, district manager of Bronx Community Board 12, home to Olinville and recently rezoned Woodlawn.

Councilman James Oddo, whose district was part of a borough-wide rezoning in Staten Island, saw the same “beat the clock” phenomenon there. “You literally saw cement trucks flying all over the island trying to get their foundations poured. It was bedlam,” said Oddo, one of the bill’s 21 co-sponsors.

Zoning changes are an increasingly popular tool sought by residents hoping to cap the size and type of buildings that can be built in an area. Until recently, many neighborhoods had decades-old zoning laws. But since Amanda Burden was appointed chair of the department in 2002, it has become increasingly proactive in responding to community requests for zoning studies.

But many neighbors don’t anticipate the frantic activity prompted by pending changes. Aaron Brashear, a resident turned activist in South Park Slope, saw cement trucks clogging the streets and heard jackhammers pounding as he ate dinner. “We were seeing properties full of violations, demolition and construction that was endangering adjacent properties,” he said.

Citywide, the level of citizen complaints about construction sites has risen from an average of about 4,000 complaints per month in 2000 to an average of 10,000 per month in 2005. This increase is well above the percentage growth in new building applications in the same period. Jennifer Givner, a Department of Buildings spokesperson, attributed the rise to the ease of making complaints through the new 311 hotline and an increase in public awareness. She said the department would be hiring and assigning more staff to investigate citizen complaints and increase enforcement.

Meanwhile, Avella expects his moratorium bill, which was introduced last year but didn’t reach a full vote, to be reintroduced in the next few weeks.

Allen Cappelli, counsel for the Building Industry Association of New York City, called Avella’s bill “politically motivated” and “dangerous.” People, he said, need to stop worrying and embrace bigger buildings. “Everyone’s so housing-phobic that the idea of any density scares the hell out of them,” he said.

Brashear disagreed. “We’re not anti-development,” he said. “But it has just been so out of scale that it’s changed the neighborhood.”

–Bruce Wallace