The question now isn’t what caused the fire at 267 East 202nd Street, but what happens next.
The answer is important, of course, to the four families who lived at the two-story structure when flames ripped through it in the wee hours of August 11.
But neighbors and activists who’ve worried for months that the building was a canary in the coal mine—a harbinger of developers taking advantage of out-of-date zoning in their area of the Bronx—are also watching closely.
No one was killed in the fire but one man who had to jump from a second-floor window to safety was severely injured and remains in critical condition at Jacobi Medical Center. After the Department of Buildings ordered the building vacated, one of the families living there at the time of the blaze secured a short-term residence in Queens, while other former residents have been staying with family in the Bronx awaiting placements by city housing agencies or the Red Cross, according to the office of Councilman Andrew Cohen.
An accidental fire
The building recently changed hands, sits well below the height that’s allowed under existing zoning and is the subject of a housing court dispute involving tenants who received eviction notices shortly before the sale. That’s why the fire raised some eyebrows.
“We’ve been very concerned over the past six months that the tenants have been harassed and told they were going to have to get out,” John Reilly, who lives on the block, told a press conference last week. They were told if they weren’t out in August they’d get nothing. And now here it is in August and they’ve lost their apartments in a very tragic and suspicious way.” Cohen told reporters last week that he’d been assured there’d be a full investigation.
An FDNY spokesman told City Limits on Wednesday that fire marshals have closed their probe after determining it was “an accidental, electrical fire.” A spokesman for the building’s owners says, “according to the initial report from the FDNY … the fire was started by a faulty air conditioner and potentially the fact that a person living in the building was charging dozens of lithium batteries just below the window where the fire started.”
An “evidence” seal was seen at the site earlier this week bearing the stamp of EFI Global, a private investigation firm. The local director for EFI wouldn’t say who the firm is working for, but Michael McKeon, the spokesman for building owners 267 East 202nd LLC, indicates it is employed by the company that insured the property.
“Any implication of foul play is outrageous, reckless and not supported by any facts,” McKeon adds.
Dispute preceded sale
267 East 202nd Street LLC is controlled by Peter Fine, a well-known developer whose portfolio includes both affordable and market-rate housing. Fine’s firm purchased the building in May. Before that sale, Fine was authorized by the previous owner to serve eviction notices on tenants and did so.
That’s one reason the building’s tenants went to housing court. Another was the accumulation of housing-code violations at the site: 169 at last count, a stunning number for a four-unit building. Most of those are not considered threatening to life or health. McKeon indicates the lapses were the fault of the previous owner. “We had agreed in housing court to a plan to address them. We had addressed nearly 60 of them by the time of the fire and were well on our way to deal with the remainder of them within the proscribed time we had been given by the court,” he says.
Current conditions, however, are but one concern. Neighbors like Reilly, a veteran Bronx affordable apartment manager who operates Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation, are just as worried that the building could be torn down to make way for a much larger structure.
Like much of the Bronx, that area of the Bedford Park neighborhood has since 1961 been zoned R8, which permits apartment buildings of 10 stories or more in height. The street that exists today is built below that, featuring a few six-story apartment buildings mixed with several attached and detached two- and three-story houses.
In 2011, nearby areas of Bedford Park and Norwood were rezoned: Major streets were permitted to host taller structures while some interior streets had their current look protected through downzoning. Over the objections of Reilly and others who wanted protections against a wave of development they feared would wash onto their block, 202nd Street and its environs were left out of the changes.
Beyond the boundaries of a rezoning
The issues seen on 202nd Street could echo elsewhere. As in all rezonings, the dozen or more neighborhood redevelopment efforts that the de Blasio administration has contemplated could trigger spill-over effects on blocks that lay outside the actual rezoning footprint.
City Planning’s resistance to downzoning East 202nd Street may have owed to the block’s motley status quo. Planners like to avoid imposing zoning that puts many existing buildings out of step with the code. With its uneven landscape of tall and short buildings, it would have difficult to find a zoning designation that was consistent with what exists now and also afforded meaningful protection in the future. Still, Reilly and his allies don’t feel the department tried hard enough. In the end, East 202nd Street was left out of the 2011 remapping and there was no follow-up.
Earlier this year, the previous owner of 267 East 202nd Street filed notice with the city that he wanted that parcel and a large parking lot next door that he also owns considered as one lot for zoning purposes. That move would allow the new owners to erect a significantly taller building than if 267 East 202nd were treated independently.
The local community board, Bronx Board 7, is in the process of hiring a planner to study the impact on the neighborhood of zoning that predates manned spaceflight.
“I think this is an example of dated zoning,” Cohen told City Limits. “It’s a hard balance because the mayor and city planning are trying to find areas to upzone, not downzone,” he adds, but he feels East 202nd merits downzoning because of its narrow street and mostly short buildings. The test will be “if we can come up with a package [that] promotes development where it’s appropriate and protects the other stuff.”
The planner’s study is unlikely to lead to action for at least a year. The board would be given a chance to act on the recommendations, and then City Planning could decide whether to make changes.
Asked that the future holds for the building, McKeon said: “We continue to deal with the aftermath of this fire and have not given any consideration of next steps for the site at this time.”
A spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development said Thursday that HPD is in the process of issuing an order requiring the building’s owner to make repairs.
It was unclear if any of the apartments at the site were rent-regulated; if any were, the state’s Department of Housing and Community Renewal would have to sign off on any demolition of the existing structure.