Volume 75, Number 50 | May 3 - 9 2006


Misuse and abuse of zoning, variances has got to end now

Two contentious Downtown building projects highlight why the city must continue to be vigilant about the misuse and abuse of zoning and variances.

On the East Side, at 4 E. Third St. on the Bowery, a 16-story building designed by architect Robert Scarano, almost completed, illustrates what happens when zoning loopholes are abused. This building is grossly out of proportion with its mostly low-rise neighbors. By using loopholes, such as mezzanines — which don’t count toward a building’s total maximum floor-to-area ratio — and alleged community facilities space, Scarano added on probably four floors more than should have been allowed.

On the West Side, the Arman Building project at the corner of Greenwich and Canal Sts., to be developed by Red Brick, represents how developers try to flout carefully considered new rezonings intended to keep neighborhoods contextual in terms of height and bulk.

Both projects have hearings pending at the Board of Standards and Appeals.

There’s no question the Scarano project is chock full of irregularities. For one, its uses have constantly morphed: First there were supposed to be several floors of faculty apartments, now it’s primarily a hotel. Yet, it was built with one set of uses in mind, and now is to be used for others. And the inclusion of open mezzanines on lower floors to get added height and bulk is a trick that city agencies are now finally catching onto, albeit after this building exploited it. The city should make an example of this building — and also of this architect, who has designed scores of buildings using these dubious gimmicks. Four floors, at least, must come down.

As for the Arman Building, the B.S.A. must not allow an overreaching developer to flout the new Hudson Square rezoning. There should be no additional F.A.R. allowed — after all, this site’s F.A.R. was increased from 5.0 to 6.02 under the rezoning. A variance from required setbacks should not be permitted, either, since setbacks were included to keep new buildings from being oppressive with sheer walls, as well as to blend in with existing lower buildings. And why allocate the project greater lot coverage? This only will add to the building’s bulkiness, again thwarting the intent of the rezoning.

Thankfully, there are encouraging signs from the city that lead us to believe maybe the pleas of neighbors regarding these two buildings will not go in vain. The Department of Buildings is said to be tightening up its oversight of architects’ self-certification of building plans, as well as cracking down on use of the mezzanine loophole, both of which have allowed architects like Scarano to design his abnormally large projects. And City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden has already weighed in strongly against the Arman Building. We hope the B.S.A. follows suit and does the right thing on these two buildings. It’s time to draw the line against abuses and misuses of zoning and variances.

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