standard Riverside Houses Parking Garage Permit Granted, But May Be Revoked (UPDATED)

Landlord Claims New Underground Facility Will Benefit Residents While Keeping Courtyard Intact
Opponents Fear Loss of Public Space, Environmental Hazard, ‘Scheme’ to Orchestrate Their Eviction
The courtyard of the Riverside Houses (Photo by Matthew Taub)

The courtyard of the Riverside Houses–an unrelated renovation of the buildings’ trash compactor led to a pile-up of refuse (Photo by Matthew Taub)

UPDATE: A judge has now denied the Pinnacle Group’s Article 78 Petition, while the Department of Buildings (DOB) permit remains in effect. The Riverside Tenants Association (RTA) is contemplating a “contempt of court” process or even legal action against the City of New York if the DOB permit is not revoked, sources say.

“We believe the Court’s decision was wrong and are reviewing next steps,” said Ken Fisher, a lawyer for the Pinnacle Group. “We will address efforts by the tenants association to interfere with the professional judgment of the Buildings Department if and when it occurs.”

Original story below.

Controversy over proposed construction of a parking garage within the courtyard of the Brooklyn Heights Riverside Houses is heating up again, with a Department of Buildings permit that was recently granted but which officials may nonetheless revoke, sources say. While tenants fear a loss of public space, increased traffic congestion, environmental hazards, and even a plot to orchestrate their ouster, the developer claims earlier, more contested plans have been scrapped and that the parking lot, to be built entirely underground, will be covered by a new garden-courtyard designed by an award-winning landscape architect.

The intent to revoke the existing permit was privately announced by the Intergovernmental and Community Affairs Office of the Department of Buildings (DOB), citing a lack of approvals from the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Landmarks Preservation Committee (LPC), and the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR).

The Pinnacle Group, which owns the Riverside Apartments through a subsidiary LLC, advised that some of these agencies had already approved the new version of the project. Furthermore, the company insists it was merely trying to improve upon the property for the benefit of everyone, and accordingly, the permit may well be upheld.

“DOB has only issued a notice that they intend to revoke the permit, not that they have done so,” said Ken Fisher, a lawyer for the Pinnacle Group. “This means that the owner is given an opportunity to show that it should not be revoked, which we fully expect we will be able to do. The plan was developed by an award winning landscape architect and a respected professional engineering company, which was why it was approved by the Landmarks Commission in the first place. They found it to be a complete restoration of the courtyard.”

Taking no chances, attorneys for the Riverside Tenants Association (RTA), which represents tenants at the property, sent a letter on Tuesday to DOB Borough Commissioner Ira Gluckman (copied to Citywide Commissioner Rick Chandler) imploring them to revoke the DOB permit, deeming the construction “a potential environmental disaster waiting to happen,” necessitating significant further environmental reviews in addition to the lacking agency approvals mentioned by the DOB.

“The excavation of the lot, once part of the East River, could disrupt sandy riverbank soils and landfill, negatively effect the water table below the property, increase the risk of flooding, and threaten the structural integrity of the adjacent ‘triple cantilever’ BQE highway segment,” the letter reads, quoting an analysis by the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project (NYELJP), a non-profit public interest group.

The Riverside Apartments Courtyard (Photo by Matthew Taub)

The Riverside Apartments Courtyard (Photo by Matthew Taub)

The long-running saga of the landmarked eclectic brick housing complex has been extensively covered previously, from the annexation of about a third of the property to make way for the Brooklyn Queens Expressway to Pinnacle Realty’s repeated attempts to institute a parking garage plan over the years since it became the owner in 2002.

Though the permit reversal has not yet taken place, opponents of the parking garage plan cheered the news anyway, claiming relief for the occupants of the 150 or so residential units who they feared were in a position to lose their homes over a slight-of-hand commercial parking-lot scheme within the confines of the Brooklyn Heights Historical District, displacing tenants and significantly increasing the amount of vehicular traffic in the area.

A widely-held belief among some of the rent-stabilized tenants who have lived at the property for decades is that any construction plan is merely a scheme to orchestrate their eviction. Construction could create structural instability, they have claimed, thereby triggering a vacate order that would temporarily displace all residents, ultimately leading many to permanently resettle elsewhere. At the very least, a go-ahead order from the Department of Housing Community and Renewal (DHCR) could provide the imprimatur to reduce rent-regulated units (or raise the rent on these units) in tandem with allowing the construction, through a provision of the rent stabilization code (RSC § 2522.4(d)) that allows for same.

A rendering of the proposed plan (via Pinnacle Group)

A rendering of an earlier proposed plan that has been scrapped (via Pinnacle Group)

“These are either paranoid delusions or an outrageous effort to scare people into helping a misguided effort to stop adjustment of rents which have been frozen at the same levels  since the 1990s –that’s right frozen- because of what a prior landlord did to the courtyard,” Fisher said. “It’s is ridiculous and untrue to suggest that the owner would deliberately damage the buildings, let alone put residents and the public at risk and just as ridiculous to think that the Landmarks Commission, made up of architects and historic building experts, didn’t consider whether that the work could be done safely before they approved the design.”

Over the years, Pinnacle has continued to push for its long-sought parking garage despite community opposition and setbacks on its earlier project renderings. A proposal in 2008 failed to passed muster with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), though a revised plan shortly thereafter did receive approval. Still, an order by the state’s Division of Housing and Community Outreach (DHCR) blocking the project is presently in effect.  That order states that Pinnacle must obtain all appropriate permits and licenses before it can submit a new application to the DHCR.

Nonetheless, new developments in the saga come as a result of Pinnacle’s recent request for an administrative determination, known as an “Article 78 Proceeding,” filed in June to challenge the DHCR’s decision in the state’s Supreme Court and ultimately receive a ruling allowing them to commence construction without approval of the other various city agencies. In its petition, Pinnacle claims DHCR has never requested such approvals from any other owner before and that it wasn’t their policy to request same.

The RTA has joined the DHCR as an “intervener” in opposition to Pinnacle’s petition. Among its sticking points are the fact that only four residents have even indicated interest in securing one of the the 100 parking spaces that will become available, and that a land use review and oversight by the City Planning Commission is warranted.

The Riverside Houses (Photo by Matthew Taub)

The Riverside Houses (Photo by Matthew Taub)

“The DOB issued permits based on the false contention that the parking garage is ‘accessory’ to the use of the buildings, and that construction can be done ‘as of right,'” said Steve Dobkin, an attorney for the Riverside Tenants. “This is incorrect since very few of the tenants at Riverside intend to use the parking facility, which, as a commercial parking lot, is inconsistent with the present residential zoning and requires a land use review and approval of the City Planning Commission and City Council.”

Should Pinnacle’s legal petition fail, among the permits it might have to obtain (or re-obtain) would be approval of Community Board 2, the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB), Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), because the site is within 100 feet of the train beds under Joralemon Street for the 4 and 5 subway lines. Despite its present petition claiming such approvals aren’t needed, Pinnacle is also commencing the legwork of petitioning some of these government agencies to get the needed approvals and certify that all is in order.

Over the years, Pinnacle has also been accused of harassing rent-controlled tenants. In a prior lawsuitPinnacle owner Joel Wiener was accused by tenants of filing thousands of false eviction proceedings on grounds of non-payment. While Dobkin portrays the case’s resolution as “a federal court class action order [for Pinnacle] to cease and desist from harassing tenants,” Fisher advised only that the matter was settled without trial, with no admission of liability by the owner or any substantiation of the allegations by a government body.

“Pinnacle is proud of its record of providing safe and well-managed housing for thousands of New York families,” Fisher said. “Regrettably, as with any large organization, inadvertent mistakes occur, and when brought to management’s attention, they try to address them and work to make sure they don’t happen again.”

The Willowtown Association, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Buildings, the Landmarks Preservation Committee, and the Division of Housing and Community Renewal did not return requests for comment.