Volume 74, Number 29 | November 24 - 30, 2004

Villager by Jennifer Bodrow

Plans for four floors of faculty housing added increased bulk to a new 20-story building at 4 E. Third St. The developer is now seeking to convert these four floors and six more to a hotel.

Self-certification is blamed for bulked-up buildings

By Nancy Reardon

The homeless shelters near the corner of E. Third St. and the Bowery will soon be joined by another temporary housing provider, but this one will attract a completely different clientele.

Architects for the new building going up at 4 E. Third St. submitted a proposal to the Department of Buildings on Nov. 12 for a boutique hotel that will occupy 10 of the building’s 20 floors. This hotel proposal comes after more than a year of rearranging the building’s residential and commercial uses as part of a zoning jigsaw puzzle.

Initially, the building was expected to have retail stores and a lobby on the ground floor, a second-floor parking garage, four floors for faculty housing and 10 floors for residential apartments.

These plans were approved under D.O.B.’s Professional Certification program — commonly known as “self-certification” — with the end result being that nobody at D.O.B. looked at the plans. The project’s architects, Scarano & Associates in Brooklyn, submitted the plans with the guarantee that they were 100 percent zone and code compliant. But one year later, D.O.B. raised 48 objections with the project, which spurred the switch from faculty housing to hotel space.

Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani implemented the program to expedite the permit process, which took anywhere from four to six weeks for an examiner to look over the plans, raise objections and then issue a permit.

Under Professional Certification, only 20 percent of the plans are audited at random each year, said D.O.B. spokeswoman Ilyse Fink, and 4 E. Third St. was not one of them.

D.O.B. issued a permit on May 29, 2003, and work started at the site. On May 24, 2004 — one year after construction had started — D.O.B. issued a stop-work order after an examiner found 28 objections in the project’s first audit. The audit was conducted because someone in the community had raised an objection, said Fink.

The objections included problems with egress stairs and zoning and occupancy uses. The objections also noted the absence of a required demolition plan and plumbing, boiler, mechanical, sprinkler and standpipe plans.

On June 7, D.O.B. issued 19 more objections. According to the objections, apartment units and hotel rooms were mixed on the same floor, and the building had more apartments than permitted. The developers had also manipulated floor area by deducting mechanical space — such as the wall slots for air-conditioner units — to increase the building’s overall floor area, which is not permitted.

John Ruha, co-owner of the project, said that large building projects can “easily get 100 to 200 violations.” He said that the 47 total objections raised by the audit were typical.

“This is normal for a project of this size,” he said. “We budget around $25,000 for potential violations.”

Fink said that Buildings considered the objections to be minor. “It’s more violations than anybody would want to see,” she said. “I would look to the quality of the objections rather than the quantity.”

D.O.B. conditionally accepted the plans, which Fink said means that “none of the objections are insurmountable.”

On June 14, the developers changed the proposed faculty housing on floors 3 through 6 to hotel space because they did not have any formal agreement with an educational institution for dormitory space or faculty housing.

The hotel area was increased from floors 3 to 12 two weeks ago, which caused concern among members of the Housing, Zoning and Land-Use Committee at Community Board 3. The committee heard updates from Ruha and Corinne Lindo, D.O.B. deputy director of intergovernment relations.

Members said they were “speechless” and “shocked,” but Ruha insisted that the board and D.O.B. had left the architects with no other choice.

“If you don’t like the hotel idea either, then let’s just turn it back to dormitory space,” he said. “We were forced to change it.”

Lindo offered an explanation of D.O.B.’s policy on requiring agreements with schools for proposed faculty housing. “Last year there was a lot of misuse of faculty housing to get extra bulk. It was exploited by many developers,” she said, adding, “and I’m not saying by anyone here.”

The committee asked Ruha and D.O.B. to report on the proposal for 10 floors of hotel use at their December meeting.

Community Board 3 has taken a strong stand against the Professional Certification program, which it sees as a major problem.

“Developers are getting a message that they can do whatever they want and not get caught,” said Susan Stetzer, the board’s district manger. “What motive do they have for not trying to get away with anything? The worst that can happen is if they get caught, Buildings will work with them to try to fix it.”

Stetzer said that Board 3 suggested allocating more money this fiscal year for inspectors. “We think it’s really important that they have more inspectors for violations and looking at plans,” she said. “Self-certification doesn’t seem to work. The Department of Buildings is not monitoring and enforcing its own regulations.”

Even Ruha said he may avoid Professional Certification on future projects. “I have already submitted certain aspects of a plan for another building prior to Professional Certification to make sure it’s O.K.,” he said.

Ruha said he opted for the expedited process on 4 E. Third St. because it seemed quicker, but, in the end, was perhaps most responsible for delaying progress.

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