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Luxe High-Rise Owner Cited for Locking Community Out of Public Plaza

By Amy Zimmer | March 15, 2012 6:56am
Residents at 303 E. 83rd St. said the gate went up at least a year ago, locking off a space that once housed a playground.
Residents at 303 E. 83rd St. said the gate went up at least a year ago, locking off a space that once housed a playground.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

UPPER EAST SIDE — A barren patch of concrete that once contained a small playground and recreation space is now behind a locked gate despite city regulations requiring it be open to the public at all times.

The bedraggled lot, approximately 20 feet by 60 feet, is nestled next to the Camargue high-rise apartment tower — where rents start at $3,435 a month — and was created under an agreement with the city that required the building's owners to provide the community space in exchange for being allowed to rise taller than zoning allowed.

After an outcry from neighbors of the 303 E. 83rd St. building, the Department of Buildings has announced that it will issue a violation in the hopes of forcing the land to be returned to its rightful public use, a DOB spokeswoman said. 

The DOB received a complaint Feb. 21, the spokeswoman confirmed.

"[The DOB team] didn't find a public space when they went out," the spokeswoman said. "The inspector had to do further research on what the requirement was."

Now the Camargue will have to go before an Environmental Control Board Hearing at which point they could face a fine, she said.

The Camargue did not respond to multiple calls for comment.

The DOB sanction was welcomed by many in the community who have been frustrated with the unwillingness by some apartment buildings to abide by the terms of their past agreements with the city, as well as the city's difficulty regulating the problem.

The Camargue's plaza is one of the city's nearly 500 privately owned public spaces — locations across the city that fall into a confusing grey area between a park and a private property.

The spaces gained notoriety after the Occupy Wall Street movement camped out in Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public space that spawned confusion about what rights the city had to eject protesters camping there.

The Upper East Side has 97 privately owned public spaces, 87 of which are associated with residential buildings, according to the Department of City Planning. These spaces account for a total of 51,000 square feet, or roughly 1.8 acres of open space. 

Community Board 8 members said that several plazas in their open space-starved area were not staying open to the public as required.

While some buildings that took advantage of the rule to build higher in exchange for providing public space have since gone back on their word, they're still allowed to profit from their bigger buildings, said Elaine Walsh, Community Board 8's zoning and development co-chair.

She believes they should continue giving back to the community by being forced to maintain the open space.

The Camargue's plaza, built in 1977 and approved under 1961 guidelines, is required to be open and accessible to the public at all times under the terms of their agreement the Department of City Planning, DCP officials said.

As a "1961 plaza," it does not, however, need any signage, plantings or even seating, as newer plazas are required to do.

Archstone-Smith, a nationwide apartment building operator owned by Tishman Speyer and partner Lehman Brothers, bought the building for $169 million in 2007, according to the Observer.

"Plazas can’t just be removed from the program, no matter if the ownership changes. There is an obligation to maintain that plaza," Melissa Cerezo, of City Planning, told a neighbor frustrated about the Camargue's closed-off public space at a recent Community Board 8 meeting.

The DOB's own path to the Camargue violation was a bumpy one. Inspectors visited the site earlier this month, and initially declined to issue a violation of use, writing that the building had no plaza, and therefore couldn't be docked for closing that plaza off,  according to the Buildings Department website.

But a spokeswoman for the agency said this week the inspector then researched the building's history and decided to change that decision.

Several residents and workers at the Camargue weren’t aware the space was supposed to be publicly accessible.

"I don’t know if it’s public," said the building’s concierge. "I’ve never seen anyone there." 

But others remembered when it once held a playground and a bike shed.

Penny Arbell, a tenant in the building for 30 years, recalled the jungle gym, saying, "It was great for after work when you didn’t want to go all the way to Central Park."

But now, she said, the place looked uninviting.

"It doesn’t look to public to me," Arbell said. "But I don’t know. Right now, the way it looks, you wouldn’t want to bring kids in there."