For the third straight hearing and the third straight month, the Board of Standards and Appeals declined to vote on whether to grant a zoning variance for a medical building on 31st Street in Astoria, instead postponing the decision again until next month.
The project’s developers and the neighbors who live behind the building have been fighting for years over substantial damage to the neighbors’ homes that they say was caused by the facility’s construction. The neighbors are also worried about noise, light and air pollution they say the structure and the 135-car parking garage may cause.
There is currently a stop-work order on the building after the Department of Buildings found last year that the building was built 10 feet too deep into the rear yard, in violation of zoning regulations. Pali Realty, the developer, can’t start work again until it obtains the zoning variance from the BSA, which has given the neighbors the opportunity to voice their concerns.
Pali agreed to move exhaust vents from the back of the building to the front and change the windows from glass block to concrete block to prevent light from shining into neighbors’ backyards, among other concessions.
But settling with the neighbors who had homes damaged has not been as easy. A report from Tauscher Cronacher Engineers said that the home of one neighbor, Robert Draghi of 32nd Street, might be cheaper to replace than repair. And Draghi and others want their homes restored to the condition they were in prior to the medical facility’s construction.
“The cracking is still getting worse,” Draghi said after Tuesday’s meeting. He has said inadequate shoring at the building’s excavation site caused water to rush underground and into their backyards, which compromised the houses’ foundations. “The mold conditions are growing. The mold is going to keep getting worse.”
Neighbors said George Magriples, the attorney representing Pali Realty, told the board that the neighbors are exaggerating the costs of their damage, which has stalled negotiations.
“Those numbers are definitely not inflated,” said Norm Sutaria, one of Draghi’s neighbors, after the meeting. “Those are real, realistic numbers.”
Community Board 1 approved the zoning variance in an advisory vote — thus sending the decision to the BSA — with the stipulation that Pali Realty settle with the neighbors.
The case is a bit unorthodox because if Draghi had not used a little-known maneuver through the city’s bureaucracy, he may never have been in the position to negotiate with Pali Realty at all.
The developers had been ignoring Draghi for years, he said, and last summer, Draghi and his wife decided they’d had enough of empty promises from contractors and inaction from the Department of Buildings and Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria).
So they used what Draghi called their “last resort”: they went to the DOB to demand an audit of the near-completed medical facility in person. Draghi said they had to do “tons and tons of research” before finding that the audit was an option.
Vallone said he was unaware of the audit process but is glad Draghi used it. Though he never got personally involved, his staff had been working with Draghi and the other neighbors. Vallone said he is “extremely upset” about the situation.
“There is no solution to this that makes everyone happy,” Vallone said.
The Draghis suspected that in the audit, the DOB would find enough violations to revoke the certificate of occupancy from owner Yianni Konstantinidis, whose identity was still a mystery to the neighbors at that point.
The department found much more than a few simple violations — it discovered the zoning violation, and the stop-work order was issued.
A DOB spokesperson said it is rare that an audit is performed without the intervention of elected officials or city agencies.
Usually, special exemptions to the zoning code are issued before structures are built, but this case is somewhat unique because the facility is already almost finished.
“The vast majority of applications involve proposed construction, not buildings that are already or have mostly been built,” said BSA Executive Director Jeff Mulligan in an email. But Mulligan added that for the infrequent cases where buildings have already been constructed, the board has both approved and denied special permits.
“The board looks at the appropriateness of the waiver at this location — regardless of whether the building has been constructed or not,” Mulligan said.
The builder’s original application was for an as-of-right project, which means the proposed building was permitted by the city’s zoning code for that site and therefore required no community review. Plans were then filed with the DOB, which issued a building permit on June 29, 2011 but missed the zoning violation and didn’t discover its mistake until the audit.
Seabreeze General Construction, the construction company involved in the project, and Magriples did not immediately return phone calls and emails seeking comment.