Riverdale Press Point of View: Why We Fight

February 1, 2012
Point of View
Why we fight
By Margaret Groarke

The stalled construction site at 3333 Giles has been terrible for residents of Giles Place. The construction fence collapses with every significant storm and currently sags over the sidewalk, where unheeded violations flutter in the wind. The owner, the shadowy “GRA V LLC” (the subject of four tax lien sales) doesn’t pull the waist-high sidewalk weeds in summer or shovel in winter, making the sidewalk impassable.

But it’s been a much bigger nightmare for the homeowners that abut this property on Fort Independence Street and Cannon Place, since the developer — in his cynical, haphazard and illegal frenzy to beat the clock on new zoning regulations — ripped out the stone retaining wall (likely dating to the Revolution) that had held the land in place for 200 years and replaced it with plywood, rebar and an inches-deep “foundation” they hoped to pass off as complete before abandoning the property. I was happy to see the Press cover their plight.

While I wasn’t around when this drama started, I am a plaintiff in the suit against the City, the DOB, and GRA V LLC, which aims to enforce the current zoning and prevent the construction of a large apartment building on the site. I think this is a very important fight, for several reasons.

All across the Bronx, we see that profit imperative leads to small homes being bulldozed and replaced by multi-story buildings, with no concern for whether there are enough schools, or police, or parks for the new residents. What makes our neighborhood attractive, healthy and viable, is its mix of small homes, green spaces and large buildings. On a very narrow street, it seems inappropriate to replace two homes with 60 apartments. This is not a personal preference — it is the decision made by Community Board 8, City Planning and the City Council in 2004 when they rezoned a large section of our neighborhood. Zoning protects neighborhoods like ours from overdevelopment and the zoning must be followed. It is important.
The callous demolition of the retaining wall, and the rush to pour enough cement to fool the city, perfectly demonstrates how GRA V’s construction was a dangerous sham. (It also hints at what kind of building they might construct.) The same haste led them to build the foundation walls without excavating for a basement and to build the front of their building on the city sidewalk so that if they are allowed to proceed the entire thing will have to be ripped out and moved four feet west.

The city was not really fooled and the DOB’s lawyers, noting the developer’s “bad faith” and “haphazard filings,” argued that “this particular proposed construction isn’t in the spirit of what we consider common law vested rights.” From 2004 until 2009, Buildings Department lawyers fought vigorously for their right to enforce the zoning. But before the state’s highest court in 2009, they suddenly caved. This year they did not even appear before the BSA to argue the case.

In fact, in e-mails acquired through FOIL requests to the DOB, the same attorney quoted above has been quietly expediting review of the case on behalf of the developer, despite the $158,000 in unpaid violations pointed out in last week’s Press article. Now that we are challenging the BSA and DOB in court, the City’s lawyers and the developer’s lawyers are working hand in hand against us, even appearing in court as a team.

This disturbing about-face by the Buildings Department must be questioned. It shows how, under Bloomberg, DOB has transformed from a regulatory enforcement agency into yet another partner for developers, unable and unwilling to enforce even the egregious safety issues we see now at this site. DOB must insure that the retaining wall on Fort Independence Street is restored now, whatever may be built on the site.

Perhaps most importantly, this project’s approval by the Board of Standards and Appeals must be challenged because it will set a terrible precedent for neighborhoods throughout the city. A decision in favor of the BSA, DOB and “GRA V” in this case will mean one thing: a developer can pour foundations that, as a matter of law, must be removed, and they will still get vested rights. If haphazardly built partial foundations that need to be demolished earn one rights to get around zoning rules, every rezoning effort will lead to a frenzy of cement pouring. And after seven years of fighting, we can tell you this will not be a good thing.

Margaret Groarke is vice president of Fort Independence Park Neighborhood Association.

Link to this editorial on the Riverdale Press website:

Point of View is an occasional column open to all readers.

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