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Owner of 183 E. Bwy. Entices Community with New Offer

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For the past few months, we’ve been following the saga of 183 East Broadway, a stalled development a few doors down from the historic Forward Building.  Last night, the owner appeared before Community Board 3 for the fourth time in a year, hoping to gain an ally in his protracted fight with the Department of Buildings.

In the spring of 2009, the city slapped a stop work order on the building, ruling that it was too large for the lot (which extends from East Broadway to Henry Street) but also that it violates New York’s “Sliver Law.”

The owner, Wai Sun Realty, is hoping the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) will grant a variance, allowing it to complete a scaled down, 7-story, version of the building. In the past, CB3 has declined to get involved. Last night, the company tried a new tactic — offering to set aside affordable community space in the development in exchange for CB3’s support.

At a meeting of the community board’s housing & zoning committee, the owner, Norman Wong, and members of his family were on hand to make a personal appeal. Mr. Wong’s son said the family bought the building in 1983 as a headquarters for their company, West Lake Noodles. They moved the business to Brooklyn in 1990, at the urging of the city, but retained ownership of 183 East Broadway. In deciding to develop the site in 2005, Mr. Wong said, ““we really jumped into it without understanding what we were getting into.”

“The Buildings Department never should have given us the approvals,” he added.  Indicating his family has a long history in the neighborhood, Mr. Wong said:

“We are part of this community. We have been here for 40 years. We’re going to stay. We believe in giving back to the community, which is why we support a number of local charities. It’s also why we designed our building to be 12 stories, with 6 stories of non-profit space. We’re not interested in having a conflict with the Buildings Department. We just want to keep what we’ve already built and not demolish the structure.”

Mr. Wong’s remarks were followed by a presentation from the family’s attorney, Pat Jones.  He told CB3 members Wai Sun Realty is asking the city to allow a 91 foot building on the East Broadway site, which is 16 feet above what the law allows. But, Jones explained, the height restrictions are not the only problem.  On lots that extend from one street to another, Jones explained, the Sliver Law requires builders to set aside a certain amount of open space in the middle of the building site. In this case, he said, the requirement could not be met without tearing down the building and digging a new foundation.

Instead, the family’s architect has proposed carving out open areas on both ends of the building (adjacent to East Broadway and Henry streets).  Landscaping would be added and parking eliminated to make the streetscape more appealing.

Last night, there were some CB3 members who favored supporting the proposal. They agreed with the notion that the owner had been victimized by the Buildings Department, which first approved the project, and then changed its mind when neighbors complained it was “out of scale.”  Linda Jones, a CB3 member who lives in the cooperatives across the street, said 183 East Broadway has become an eyesore. “If we say no,” she argued, we’re going to end up with this stalled site for years to come.”

But other members said the owner, and his architect, should have known better. Harvey Epstein and Mary Spink asserted that builders have a responsibility to follow the law, whether city agencies enforce it or not. Epstein said CB3’s approval would send a bad message to developers that they can ignore city and state laws whenever they like.

In the end, some board members suggested the owner would need to give something substantial back to the community if he wanted their support.  The attorney, Mr. Jones, discounted the possibility of setting aside some apartments in the building for affordable housing.  In the current economic climate, he said, the city would surely reject any plan that includes owner-backed housing subsidies.

But the idea of renting space to non-profit groups at drastically reduced rates seemed to appeal to some members. Committee Chair David McWater asked the owner to draw up a proposal for the full community board to consider at its meeting later this month.

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