Community Board 3 this evening is expected to vote against a proposal from developer Samy Mahfar to rezone a two-and-a-half block stretch of East Houston Street. CB3’s land use committee weighed in earlier this month on the application, which is winding its way through the city’s land use approval process. The full board will now have its say.
The panel drafted a resolution that cited Mahfar’s “well-documented history of illegal construction and construction harassment” in buildings throughout the Lower East Side. The developer wants to build a 13-story rental building with ground floor commercial space (likely a restaurant) at 255 East Houston St. Members of Community Board 3 said Mahfar bears responsibility for the permanent displacement of two daycare centers from the site.
The project would include 63 apartments. Under the city’s voluntary inclusionary housing program, 12 units would be affordable rental units. Current zoning would only allow a community facility (likely a doctors’ office) on the ground floor. Attorney Nick Hockens told land use committee members on March 9 that Mahfar and his partners are seeking to map a C2-5 commercial overlay on the parcels they own, as well as 18 other lots in the surrounding area. He acknowledged that his clients envision a restaurant in the commercial space.
The sites in question were part of the 2008 rezoning of the Lower East Side, an initiative meant to curtail overdevelopment. At the committee hearing, Chairperson MyPhuong Chung, told Hockens before he even began his presentation, “The rezoning that was enacted (eight years ago) did not allow for commercial, and I don’t think that was an oversight. It was because we wanted a community facility (at this location).”
In April of 2010, construction on a neighboring site caused cracks in the facade of 255 East Houston St. Action for Progress and another day care center were displaced as a result. Community Board member Lisa Kaplan recalled the events that transpired back then. “This was the site of two very well regarded and really important daycare centers in our neighborhood for decades,” said Kaplan. “They were ACS (Administration for Children’s Services) facilities that were affordable to low-income people. They were run by community organizations. Now we’re going to get another bar.”
Another board member, Enrique Cruz, spoke out against the application. As a former investor in the neighboring project, at 265 East Houston St., he was privy to the back-and-forth that followed the 2010 displacement of the day care centers. Action for Progress, he said, had 20 years left on its lease. While a full vacate order was slapped on the property, the city lifted it within 72 hours (it became a partial vacate order). Addressing Hockens, Cruz said, “Your client refused to repair (the building)… He got money from his insurance company to fix the building. He didn’t (fix it). He got money from the developer next door to fix the building. He didn’t. He used it as an excuse to get out of a 20-year lease for an affordable daycare center.”
Hockens outlined the developers’ rationale for making the change. He noted that commercial zoning is prevalent across East Houston Street, and that the proposed commercial overlay would “fill a gap” that exists in relatively small area. There are four grandfathered businesses in the zoning district.
Hockens said the developers had no interest in bringing a rowdy bar to the building. “This is going to be a rental building,” he said, “so we’re not going want a use in there that is going to make a lot of noise or have odors and not really be compatible with the residential uses.”
Mahfar is a controversial figure on the Lower East Side. In the past several years, residents, advocacy organizations and local elected officials have taken him to task for allegedly illegal tactics against rent stabilized tenants. Earlier this month, tenants in four Lower East Side buildings settled lawsuits with Mahfar.
They received more than $200,000 in rent abatements. Some of those residents testified at the land use committee hearing. Among them was Seth Wandersman, who lived at 210 Rivington St. “Our experience there,” he said, “was difficult and hazardous to our health and Mahfar broke a lot of regulations all the time.”
Referencing high lead levels in the building, Wandersman argued, “This is not a company that follows regulations. If you’re thinking about giving them extra room, they’re going to take even more than that.” Mahfar did have his defenders. Three commercial tenants testified that they have experienced no problems with their landlord. Community board members asked if Mahfar had asked them to appear at the committee meeting. They all responded, “No.”
The full board will consider the land use committee’s recommendation tonight at 6:30. The meeting takes place at P.S. 20, 166 Essex St. The borough president and City Council will also way in on the application. City Council member Margaret Chin has not yet stated whether she will support Mahfar’s proposal. In the past, she has been publicly critical of the developer’s treatment of tenants.