Council Member Mendez, Samy Mahfar Face Off Over Zoning Change

255 East Houston St.
255 East Houston St.
255 East Houston St.

Following a victory at the City Planning Commission, developer Samy Mahfar took his battle to rezone a portion of East Houston Street to the City Council this morning. He was met with strong opposition from City Council member Rosie Mendez, Community Board 3 and community activists.

Mahfar has filed an application to map a C2-5 commercial overlay in a residential (R8) district, extending from Suffolk Street to the middle of the block between Clinton and Attorney streets. The change, impacting the south side of East Houston only, would allow him to establish a restaurant or retail store in the ground floor of a 13-story rental building he’s planning at 255 East Houston St. Under current zoning, only community facilities (such as a school or a medical office) are allowed in this area.

The planning commission approved the application over the objections of the community board and the Manhattan Borough President. At today’s hearing of the Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, Mendez said, “I am greatly concerned about this application.” While a vote has not yet been scheduled, Mendez’s opinion is likely to weigh heavily on her colleagues when the time comes to approve or deny the zoning change.

Mendez, right, with fellow Council members.
Mendez, right, with fellow Council members.

The District 2 council member said she participated for six years in a painstaking rezoning of 111 blocks of the Lower East Side, including the area now under review. Main goals of that process, she explained, were curtailing out-of-scale development, protecting neighborhood character and preserving community-based services. The new project will be replacing a building that housed low-income daycare centers for 40 years.

The developer argues that it makes little sense to restrict ground floor uses along a thoroughfare that already features many different kinds of shops and food/nightlife establishments. But Mendez said there’s no question the community wanted street-level spaces along this part of East Houston Street to be reserved for community facilities. “There is by no means,” said Mendez, “a shortage of places to eat and drink in my neighborhood. Yet facilities meant to provide services for people living in the area have become harder and harder to find.”

mahfar and team
Mahfar is seated (foreground) with his attorney and architect.

Mahfar’s attorney, Nick Hockens, told committee members that his client respects the intent of the community board’s 2008 rezoning. But he disagreed that restricting commercial uses on the south side of East Houston Street was intentional. A zoning change, Hockens asserted, would allow property owners to earn more revenue from ground floor spaces and make both market rate and affordable housing development more feasible. [This project would create 88 residential units, including 18 affordable apartments].

He also repeated claims made before the Planning Commission, saying that repeated efforts to find a tenant for the community facility failed. “There is no demand for a community facility on East Houston Street,” Hockens said. The developer has no interest in leasing the new 5,000 square foot space to a rowdy bar, he added. One potential tenant is a Sherwin Williams paint store. Other options, he said, are a diner or a “simple restaurant.”  Mendez asked Hockens whether Mahfar would give preference to a not-for-profit tenant. “We would like a market-rate tenant,” he responded.

Samy Mahfar also answered questions this morning. The property, he said, was listed with two brokers (Sinvin and Wexler Healthcare Properties). At different times, it looked like leases might be signed with the Blue Man Group and the Cooke Center. Those deals both fell through. Mendez was skeptical about Mahfar’s efforts. She asked to see documentation and inquired whether advertisements were taken out to market the space. When she asked whether there would be a willingness to talk with a not-for-profit organization interested in the space, Mahfar said he’d be happy to entertain the possibility.

At today’s hearing, Community Board 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer noted that the Lower East Side has lost three nursing homes in the past few years. She also said the board, “was never made aware that there was a problem in securing a community facility and never received a request for help.” CB3 submitted letters from the executive directors of Henry Street Settlement, University Settlement and Educational Alliance. They all expressed an interest in finding additional space on the Lower East Side and said no one contacted them about the availability on East Houston Street.

Enrique Cruz, a CB3 member testifying as head of ALBOR, said it’s clear to him what Mahfar is attempting to accomplish. He believes the developer is simply not satisfied accepting a lower rent that a community facility might bring. “What this gentleman is trying to do,” said Cruz, “is get $150/square foot. That’s the bottom line. He wants the community to pay for it by foregoing a community facility.”

There’s disagreement as to whether Mahfar is to blame for the permanent displacement of the daycare center. In its May resolution, Community Board 3 wrote, “the daycare (center) was forced to be vacated due to the open violations and the applicant’s failure to address them.” Cruz has said he knows what transpired because he was a former partner in the neighboring project at 265 East Houston St. Mahfar declined to make repairs, said Cruz, after the work next door caused the foundation to shift. [Mahfar did not address the issue this morning. But he told the planning commission that the neighboring developers were at fault for delaying repairs. He said the city, which controlled the daycare center space, chose to terminate the lease and consolidate daycare programs.]

Council members also heard testimony from Harry Bubbins of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “There is absolutely no benefit to the public in this rezoning,” he argued. “It is inconceivable that an applicant with such a checkered history would be so readily accommodated by the City Planning Commission.” [Tenant advocates and local residents have been at odds with Mahfar for many years, accusing the property owner of subjecting tenants to unsafe living conditions and harassment.]  Bubbins highlighted Mahfar’s retention of Capalino+Company, the high-powered lobbyist. “Here a single developer… has hired a well-connected lobbying firm that is a strong fundraiser for and supporter of the mayor…,” said Bubbins.

The most colorful remarks of the day came from Paul Young, who co-owns a building just to the west of Mahfar’s development site. He told Council members that approval of the zoning change, “would only be seen as an emblem of sleazy New York politics.” Young added that he didn’t have the money to “pay off politicians,” not very subtly intimating that the vote was already decided. “If you’re stupid enough or naive enough to believe that what’s going into this space is not going to be a giant bar with screaming people all night long,” said Young, “you’re even dumber than I think you are.”

His comments prompted a strong response from Donovan Richards, the subcommittee chairman. “I just want to correct you,” he said. “It’s not a done deal. This is why we’re holding a public hearing. No one has been paid off in this room… We make the final decision and that decision has not been reached.”