CHELSEA — A major developer that demolished a residential building by falsely telling the city it didn't contain any rent-regulated apartments should compensate for the lost units by constructing new, permanently affordable ones, local officials say.
Last week, representatives for The Related Companies attended a Community Board 4 land use committee meeting hoping to secure the board’s support to construct a mixed-use building at a five-lot site at the southeast corner of West 23rd Street and 11th Avenue currently owned and operated by U-Haul.
But ever since the committee discovered that Related filed false information with the city’s Department of Buildings allowing the developer to raze a residential building at 500 W. 28th St. in the Special West Chelsea District that shouldn’t have been demolished, the board has been “very upset,” committee co-chair Betty Mackintosh said.
Department of Housing Preservation and Development records show that the West 28th Street building housed six apartment units before its demolition — at least one of which was rent-controlled or rent-stabilized, according to a letter CB4 plans to send to the DOB.
“... [W]ithout saying whether it was the person who filed it, or whether it was just an error of checking the wrong box… we have initially asked Related to come up with an idea to compensate Chelsea for the loss of six affordable housing units,” Mackintosh said.
Under normal circumstances, the committee would have recommended approval for the developer’s request for the U-Haul site, which involves transferring floor area from one portion of the property to another, she noted.
Related submitted an application with the DOB to partially demolish the West 28th Street building — then a four-story, six-unit tenement — in Dec. 2014, the board's letter said. But the developer failed to state that it planned to change the number of stories, dwelling units or building occupancy, the letter added.
Related purchased the property in October 2013, the letter noted, and it plans to build a one-story commercial building there that will most likely be a gallery space, a spokeswoman for the developer said.
In May 2015, a subsequent filing stated the work would change the initial plan, and that the changes “would be inconsistent with the current Certificate of Occupancy for the building." However, the DOB didn’t take any action on this new information, the letter claims.
Between Dec. 2014 and Aug. 2016, meanwhile, Related submitted 12 forms to the DOB stating the building didn’t contain any rent-controlled or rent-stabilized units, in addition to submitting forms in May 2015 and March 2016 that stated the building “was exempt from anti-demolition restrictions because it was not a multiple dwelling,” CB4 says.
“This information is false and should have raised concerns from DOB,” the letter says. “However, the demolition of this residential building was allowed to proceed.”
The developer got the DOB’s approval on March 29 of this year, despite the fact that the Special West Chelsea District zoning resolution states the agency can’t approve any partial demolitions within the district that decrease the residential floor area of a building by more than 20 percent, the letter says.
While there are some exceptions to this rule, the building on West 28th Street didn’t meet any of them, the letter notes.
“Not having complied with zoning, Related Companies must replace these illegally demolished affordable apartments,” the letter states. "CB4 is pursuing discussions with Related regarding this matter.”
Related is not the only developer guilty of filing documents with the DOB that contain false statements, Mackintosh noted at the meeting.
Over the course of nearly a year, false DOB filings have resulted in illegal demolitions at at least 10 different sites throughout the Garment Center, West Chelsea, Hudson Yards and the Clinton Special Zoning Districts, including the West 28th Street site, the board’s letter says.
CB4 — which only discovered the West 28th Street building had been demolished when a board member walked by the site in October — has lost at least 96 affordable apartment units between those sites since last December due to “lack of enforcement from the DOB,” the letter says.
The DOB issued a full stop work order at the West 28th Street site five days after the discovery, according to the letter.
“One of the reasons we are so upset is because this is part of a pattern where developers are either sloppy or sneaky or both, and are demolishing our affordable housing,” Mackintosh said at the meeting. “I don’t think that we can blame Related for all the rest of them as well, but we can try to formulate something that we think is reasonable.”
A Related spokeswoman on Monday said the company was “pleased to proactively work with the community on a plan to address their concerns.”
“There was an administrative error that we were unaware of at the time, but we believe the application complied with the zoning regulations in regard to unsafe conditions,” she wrote.
The building on West 28th Street was unoccupied “for several years,” and engineering reports deemed it “unsafe and dangerous,” she added. The board did not mention anything about how long the units were vacant in its letter.
A DOB spokesman on Tuesday said the department has since "made numerous changes to help prevent illegal demolitions in special districts."
"...[W]hen a bad actor attempts to violate the NYC Zoning Resolution, we take swift enforcement action, which can include monetary penalties and revocation of filing privileges with the department," the spokesman said, adding that the application for Related's West 28th Street project is currently under audit.
The developer has agreed to build “replacement units” to compensate for the lost units at the West 28th Street site, though the number and location of the units is still up in the air, CB4 member Joe Restuccia said after last week's meeting.
“...[T]o have [Related] sit and say that there was a mistake made, there’s no question that’s a very encouraging thing,” he said. “That’s unusual behavior in this process.”
Committee member Brad Pascarella at the meeting suggested Related build a dozen new, permanently affordable housing units as replacement units, in addition to providing a community space at the U-Haul site project.
"We're dealing with fraud here," he said. "Related or not Related, we have to stop it."