Wednesday, September 02, 2015

As I prepare to go to a Community Board public hearing, let's have the Borowitz Report update us on key national developments


With post-hearing update -- see below
(Plus an update to the update)

by Ken

To the best of my knowledge I have never attended a public hearing of a NYC community board before tonight -- or maybe even a public hearing of any governmental agency. (For the uninitiated, as a gesture to local input to government, NYC is divided into 59 community boards, numbered separately for each borough -- 12 for Manhattan, 12 for the Bronx, 18 for Brooklyn, 14 for Queens, and 3 for Staten Island.

Their powers are mostly advisory, but lots of things have to go through the CBs. The theory is that this has something to do with something called "democracy," which sounds to me like a fad that's bound to pass.) However, the above notice got my attention, because this meeting is supposed to be dealing with a zoning-modification request for a property at the end of my very block.

True, when I first saw it a few days ago, that attention took the form of a hazy note to the effect that that's, er, something. But when I saw it again this morning and realized that the meeting hasn't happened yet, I thought that it's maybe something I should, you know, look into. Like maybe actually going to the hearing. And as of this writing, I haven't yet thought of a convincing reason not to, even though I'm surprisingly easy to convince.

What's on the site now looks something like this:

It's a single-story building adjoining the entrance to the tunnel to the 191st Street station of the IRT Broadway local, housing several storefronts that were vacated a couple of years ago -- and have since remained shuttered -- in anticipation of, as I recall, a much more grandiose development project that wound up not happening.

Naturally I'm against this proposal, which in my opinion is unsuitable for the neighborhood, but what's got me thinking I really ought to go to tonight's meeting of the Land Use Committee of Manhattan CB 12 isn't so much my opposition (which I expect will be of interest to approximately no one) but my curiosity. According to the hearing notice, in order to build this 16-story, 235,458-square-foot mixed-use building, the unnamed developer wants (among the requested zoning modifications, you'll note):
an increase in residential floor area ratio (FAR) from 3.6 to 9.1;
an increase in the maximum building height from 80 feet to 165.25 feet;
an increase in the maximum number of units from 128 to 241;
and a decrease to the required parking spaces from 121 to 50.
Well, I want a lot of stuff too. I'd be happy to make a list if anyone's interested, but I don't think CB 12M would be very interested. Now, if this unnamed developer (I assume we'll get a name tonight) wanted to build an 80-foot-high building with an FAR of 3.6, 128 units, and the mandated 121 parking spaces, it appears that I wouldn't have a blessed thing to say about it, because the zoning allows all of that. I'm not sure I get to say a blessed thing about it anyway, but what I'm curious about is why the developer thinks he should be allowed to build a 165.25-foot-high building with a 9.1 FAR, 241 units, and only 50 parking spaces.

My gut feeling is that the reason is: I wanna! But I assume that even for such a lowly body as the Land Use Committee of a humble community board, the applicant is going to have to cobble together a fancier explanation than that. I can't help thinking, though, that the fancier explanation is going to boil down to: I wanna.

If the reason is that he can't make money, or enough money, putting up an 80-foot-high building with an FAR of 3.6, 128 units, and the mandated 121 parking spaces, my countersuggestion would be: Well then, don't. (Never thought of that, didja? Huh? Huh?) True, this leaves those vacated storefronts still shuttered, awaiting some sort of reuse of the site. But with all the smart people we've got in NYC, surely somebody can think of an economically viable use for an 80-foot-high building with an FAR of 3.6, 128 units, and 121 parking spaces. Or perhaps even a smaller building!

Granted, I'm a novice when it comes to NYC zoning regulations. Mostly what I know is that those regulations are so vast and complex as to provide gainful, likely even prosperous, employment for and industry of lawyers and others who specialize in understanding, exploiting, and abusing them. (Donald Trump is likely on a first-name basis with many of them.) Still, in my simpleminded understanding, it seems that if the regulations serve merely as a floor from which developers begin the process of negotiating for their desires, there's hardly any point in having the zoning regulations.

At which point I fear I'm apt to have put developers citywide in a state approaching orgasmic eruption, so I best back off. I expect I'm going to come away from tonight's hearing disillusioned, but that's the price to be paid by a humble city dweller who has been foolish enough to hold onto any illusions. Assuming I don't lose my nerve about attending the hearing, I'll let you know what I find out.


"Across the U.S., whose rail system is a rickety antique plagued by deadly accidents, Americans are increasingly recognizing that building a wall with Mexico, and possibly another one with Canada, should be the country’s top priority."

"Scott Walker is a fine individual, and we wish him well. We are confident that he will be a good fit for some other billionaire industrialists."
-- from a statement by Koch Industries, quoted by The Borowitz Report

Yesterday I had gathered a couple of breaking Horowitz Reports for sharing before I was sidetracked into looking at Greg Sargent's report on surprisingly widespread local compliance with the Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage. There's still time, though, to catch up on these developments emanating from and rebounding onto the deep discussion of issues taking place in the 2016 presidential conversation.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—As America’s bridges, roads, and other infrastructure dangerously deteriorate from decades of neglect, there is a mounting sense of urgency that it is time to build a giant wall.

Across the U.S., whose rail system is a rickety antique plagued by deadly accidents, Americans are increasingly recognizing that building a wall with Mexico, and possibly another one with Canada, should be the country’s top priority.

Harland Dorrinson, the executive director of a Washington-based think tank called the Center for Responsible Immigration, believes that most Americans favor the building of border walls over extravagant pet projects like structurally sound freeway overpasses.

“The estimated cost of a border wall with Mexico is five billion dollars,” he said. “We could easily blow the same amount of money on infrastructure repairs and have nothing to show for it but functioning highways.”

Congress has dragged its feet on infrastructure spending in recent years, but Dorrinson senses growing support in Washington for building a giant border wall. “Even if for some reason we don’t get the Mexicans to pay for it, five billion is a steal,” he said.

While some think that America’s declining infrastructure is a national-security threat, Dorrinson strongly disagrees. “If immigrants somehow get over the wall, the condition of our bridges and roads will keep them from getting very far,” he said.
This one's from yesterday, not "today." (It was today yesterday.)

WICHITA (The Borowitz Report)—Saying that “things just didn’t work out,” the billionaire Koch brothers have decided to put Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker up for sale.

The Kochs, who earlier had purchased Gov. Walker with great fanfare, announced their plan to sell the politician in a terse statement from Koch Industries headquarters in Wichita.

“Scott Walker is a fine individual, and we wish him well,” the Kochs’ statement read. “We are confident that he will be a good fit for some other billionaire industrialists.”

Republican insiders, however, called the Kochs’ plan to sell Walker highly optimistic, and noted that the market for the Wisconsin Governor was, at this point, virtually nonexistent.

The Kochs, who reportedly had been frustrated by Walker’s poor performance in the polls, finally decided to sell the Wisconsinite after last weekend’s odd pronouncement, in which he seemed to support a border wall with Canada.

According to a Koch associate, “Ignorance has always been a part of Scott’s appeal, but that Canada thing was just too much.”

After their plan to sell him was announced, the Kochs immediately pulled Walker off the campaign trail for fear that he might say something that would further reduce his dwindling market value.

In Iowa, an aide to Walker said that the Governor was “still processing” the news that he had been put up for sale. “It takes a while for Scott to understand things,” the aide said.


Surprised myself, actually. I made it to the neighborhood so ridiculously early that I wandered around for 15 or 20 minutes until it was merely way early, then was cordially ushered to the 6th floor office of CB 12M, where the little hearing room was still mostly empty. Eventually it was packed, though, and Land Use Committee chair Wayne Benjamin did, I thought, a lovely job shepherding the proceedings while helping us non-initiates understand what exactly was at issue tonight in terms of the committee's need to formulate a recommendation to the Board of Standards and Appeals, which is where the proposal needs to go in pursuit of a zoning variance, notably explaining the five "findings" that need to be found -- on several of which the proposed building seemed to me to fail pretty miserably, notably the requirement that it not alter "the essential character" of the neighborhood and that the variance requested be the minimum needed to offset the other "findings."

It was a fairly miserable presentation, and while it was easy enough to see how the oddities of the building undoubtedly responded -- in their peculiar way -- to the extreme peculiarities of the site, nobody involved seemed to have stepped back and noticed that it's not only an awful building, which isn't an issue for the BSA to consider, but one that would be fairly disastrous for the neighborhood, which is. Moreover, it happened the committee is extremely familiar with the site, having been through so much discussion of it with other would-be developers, and has been through discussion of all sorts of other possibilities for the site, which Wayne noted isn't all that peculiar for Washington Heights, given our extreme topography. All of this, he pointed out, should have been well known to the present owner, who bought it after the last round of hearings at which so much about the site had been so thoroughly discussed.

In the public question period, one resident voiced horror (yes, he declared himself "horrified"), not by the proposal, which he made clear he didn't like, but by what he deemed the NIMBY quality of the public comments, which he insisted will make it impossible to bring any development to the neighborhood to restore amenities like movie theaters which have been lost over the decades. It's a reasonable caution, except that that isn't what I heard at all.

In the end, the committee crafted the framework for a note-votes-against recommendation to the BSA against granting the requested variances, for which a count was also taken among the public attendees, which included four abstentions but, again, no votes against the "no" recommendation. Of course this isn't necessarily the end of it, but I'm guessing that the developer is going to have to field a much sharper team to make any headway.

At that point I slipped out of the hearing room to catch an elevator down to the lobby, then walked around the corner to Broadway and up the block toward the bus stop, and lucked into a Bx7, which stops right in front of my building, just beginning its uptown route. I was the first person on the bus, and 10 or 15 minutes later I was home. Hey, I was in my "community."


If you're curious, DNAinfo New York's Lindsay Armstrong has a detailed report on Wednesday's Land Use Committee hearing.

No, that huge thing (shown here in white) wouldn't change the "essential character" of the neighborhood. (As you see in the photo up top, all that's on the site now is a one-story structure on just the very front part of the Broadway frontage, at right.)

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