EAST VILLAGE — The city's Board of Standards and Appeals has been flooded with hundreds of letters from community members opposing a plan to build four stories higher than is allowed under the current zoning at the site of the former Peter Stuyvesant Post Office at 432-438 E. 14th St., where a developer is planning residential and retail space, according to board chair Margery Perlmutter.
The board received 305 letters imploring members to reject the developer’s request for a variance that would allow for building 12 stories, instead of the initially approved eight, in the weeks leading up to a public hearing on the proposal, Perlmutter stated at the start of the meeting on Tuesday.
She added the petitioners were concerned the added height would clash with the rest of the largely low-rise East Village block.
In addition to the stack of letters, roughly a dozen community members and several elected officials' representatives showed up in person to testify against the plan, begging the board to reject a height variance they say would forever alter the character of the surrounding neighborhood.
“This community has fought long and hard to retain the local character of the East Village and to preserve it from becoming overdeveloped in terms of height as many other neighborhoods in this city have succumbed to,” said Nicholas Tebelekian, board president of neighboring residence 425 E. 13th St.
“We do not want this developer, who doesn’t even live here, who is looking for greater profits through changing the character of our neighborhood to undo the height restrictions and set a terrible precedent for other applications.”
Benenson Capital Partners and the Mack Real Estate Group claim the revenue that would be reaped from additional floors of apartments are necessary to make up for pricey complications that sprung up when they broke ground and discovered groundwater and soil conditions that made construction more difficult and expensive.
But developers plowed ahead with construction on a basement level even after discovering the conditions, not knowing whether the variance they deem necessary would be granted — making their claim the project would be infeasible without the added height difficult to swallow, opposing neighborhood groups and elected officials said.
The skepticism was echoed by Perlmutter herself, who was baffled as to why the applicants would continue to invest time and money on a project they believed would be impossible if the board issued a denial, calling their continued work "very hard to justify."
"You don't go ahead and spend millions in anticipation of a variance," said Perlmutter. "But in addition, why would anyone spend millions on building a cellar that can't support an as-of-right project? You just wouldn't do it."
An attorney for the developer said it was necessary to get the foundation in the ground in order to hold onto the 421-A tax breaks they had already secured, locking in the below-market-rate units that were slated to make up a chunk of the building's apartments.
The project is self-funded, he added, and in a worst-case scenario the developer is willing put it on hold until market conditions "become more favorable."
The board also questioned whether the financial hardship was self-imposed, questioning whether the developer could have built a more shallow basement or nixed the basement altogether, or whether they would be willing to toss the affordable units and make all the apartments market-rate — a possibility representatives said they would be willing to look into.
"Most of the variance applications that we've seen where affordability continues to exist in the process, it doesn't seem to drive the hardship," said Perlmutter. "This one seems to be driving the hardship."
Under the current 12-story plan, 31 of the proposed 155 apartments would be set aside for those making around 60 percent of the city’s area median income — roughly $38,000 for a one-person household and roughly $48,000 for a three-person household — and would remain “affordable” for 30 years.
Though an official determination was not made, Perlmutter sided with locals and politicians who claim 12 stories is too tall for the neighborhood, even taking into account the added height would only be on the side of the building facing 14th Street.
"That's a tall building on the block by comparison to its neighbors, which is really tenement world, so they're all five and six-story buildings," she said.
"So how much more, really, can it handle and not be completely out of character?"
The board did not vote on the variance and asked developer reps to return in March. Attorney John B. Egnatios-Beene said the developer would consider all comments made by the board while preparing for the next hearing.