Sunday, October 24, 2010

Buyer Beware

As of yesterday, my dream of building the first net Zero-Energy work live building in Brooklyn seems to be officially DEAD!  Thanks in part to the never ending bureaucracy and stale thinking at the NYC Department of Buildings.  I think its best for us to go back to the beginning of this project to understand the roots of my current predicament.  
On November 10th of last year, in my post “How To Become A Land Owner”, I discussed the land situation in Brooklyn, specifically as it refers to zoning .   There are three general classifications of zoning here in NYC: C=Commercial M=Manufacturing and R=Residential .  Since I was planning on devoting a large percentage of space to garages, a workshop and offices, it seemed I could justify building on manufacturing or commercially zoned land.  Actually, I later discovered another classification MX=Mixed Use, which would actually have been perfect for my use as it was precisely design for the I envisioned.  While life would have clearly been simpler if I could have purchased a plot that was designated “R” or "MX", nothing that met my need was available on a corner (optimal for solar power).  I was advised that given my particular use, I could  make an “M” zoned plot work.  What that means is that given the majority of my structure was to be dedicated to commercial use, the living quarters would be an ‘accessory’ to the true function of the building.  Therefore we would request the building department grant us permission to live in what would is called a “caretakers apartment”, which would be incidental to it’s primary use.   Jim Garrison assured me on the advice of a former NYC Building Commissioner and “a careful and correct reading of the zoning law”, that this was very common and would “sail through the building department” without incidence.  
So on November 16th, 2009 I posted “It’s A Deal”  announcing my purchase of a 5,000 square foot plot of land, zoned M2-1 in Redhook, Brooklyn and began developing plans confident that I would be allowed to use the land to realize my dream.  We filed the permits and with them a ZR § 12-10 (“Accessory use”) request (July 21st), continuing to believe that we were doing something great for the community, building a state of the high performance, energy conserving building in the place of an weed infested lot.  Beyond that I was clearly and regularly communicating our dreams, ideas, progress and even actual plans to the community  and beyond through this blog. 
After two months, I received an email from Garrison Architects with an update  “Our expeditor has just received word that the "reconsideration for caretakers apt" review has been performed by the borough commissioner.  This was a review required in addition to the general documentation”.  Days later I was advised that “The Brooklyn Borough Commissioner denied the caretakers request.  As expressed by the expeditor, reasons for refusal are “bogus”.  A resolution (basically an appeal, see link) form has been drafted to present to a higher power.  It clearly lists all restrictions and how our building complies.  This will be submitted first thing Monday morning to technical affairs”.  It looked like we had crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's.
That brings us to where I am today (basically screwed)!  After a telephone hearing last week, the all knowing, politically charged and narrowly minded men and women of the NYC building department capriciously determined “that the proposed living or sleeping accommodations for caretakers in this case is not incidental to the principal use”.  To quote James P. Colgate; Assistant Commissioner of Technical Affairs and Code Development “ The request to have a living or sleeping accommodation for caretakers as per ZR 12-10 as an accessory use to this new office building is DENIED.” 
How can they say that, when a former commission basically said it was usual and customary?  What is it that these underpaid public servants could possibly be protecting the “unsuspecting” public from in this case?   It seems like the DOB no longer exists for the individual, but only for the largest developers and their deep pocket political contributions.  I wish I could let our Mayor (who thankfully does not need those deep pockets) know that a prime example of his green vision PLANYC 2030, died on the table of HIS Building Department.  If this bothers you, please HELP!  I am running out of ideas.
The only options left to me as I see them are:
  1. Build a green office building - It’s too small and off the beaten path to make a sound business case for such a structure in the next few years.
  2. Apply for a zoning variance - 60 to 100K in professional services expenses, one year and no guaranty that it will be successful.
  3. Walk
None of these seem particularly appealing.  Any thoughts, ideas, recommendations, contacts or kind words of encouragement would be appreciated.  I will think about this a bit and keep you posted on my progress.
Oh, by the way, we did figure out a way to build it very close to budget, but alas that seems to be a bit of a moot point.  More later.

ZRD1: Zoning Resolution Determination Form