There was a very impressive turn out by the community for the Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on Monday, November 23, regarding Sonny Bonacio’s proposal to redevelop Moore Hall. Many of the neighbors arranged to meet prior to the meeting and to enter en mass. It was apparent by their expressions that the ZBA board was rather taken aback by the dramatic entry. The community members filled the seats and some had to stand. Unfortunately, the camera only focuses on the front of the room so those viewing the meeting on line do not get any of this.
The neighbors also submitted a petition with four hundred and fifty-eight signatures.
When you factor in the extraordinary number of signs all over the area, this group has demonstrated that there is extensive opposition and that this opposition runs very deep.
The Applicant’s Presentation
The Zoning Board of Appeals meeting began with a very long presentation by the applicant. The speakers included Sonny Bonacio (he is the construction person and it appears has an option to purchase the property), Michael Toohey (attorney), Richard Higgins (North Star Development and owner of the property), and Michael Ingersol (with the landscape architectural firm LA Group).
Toohey made a long recitation arguing that the property would fulfill the Comprehensive Plan’s goal of re-use of existing properties. He reviewed the history of the property emphasizing that when it was a dormitory it had some four hundred student occupants. He also emphasized the work that the applicant had done in addressing the Planning Board’s concern about parking for the project. Following him, Ingersol noted the changes they were making to the parking lot.
The changes to the lot involve making the lanes one way and angling the parking to allow for larger spaces and wider lanes. The revised plan also calls for making North Lane a one way street. Most interestingly, they plan to put some parking in the front of the building (Union Avenue). This idea of parking cars in the front of the building had been dismissed because of its proximity to Union Avenue. The Planning Board had said they would consider parking in front of the building. At the time, the discussion was prompted by the idea of removing the one story annex that had been the dining hall in order to reduce the need for off-site parking. Ingersol noted that modifying the existing lot would reduce the parking spaces to forty-eight so the additional nine spaces that would go on the Union side building would bring them back up to approximately the number of spaces originally proposed. This is important because otherwise they would need to ask for a greater variance.
It was interesting that Ingersol admitted that the proposal was sketchy and that it was subject to being “picked apart.” I would note that this kind of caveat is consistent with the applicant’s manipulative approach to the project. Of course he did not direct the ZBA to the aspects that might be problematic nor did the ZBA ask him about them.
Here is a sketch provided by the applicant of the proposed solution. Note the cars that back out directly onto North Lane (alley). There is no buffer. These cars will have problems seeing approaching cars because their view will be blocked by the cars on either side of them. Also, since there is no buffer between the streets and the back of the cars, they represent a hazard that normally the city codes would not allow. This is obviously a serious potential problem but the Zoning Board of Appeals had no questions.
The fact is that the lot as originally proposed did not stand up to the most cavalier scrutiny when it came to safety. Only after the chairman of the Planning Board raised it as an issue that needed to be addressed and the neighbors made it a major point did this prompt addressing the issue. Mr. Ingersol was also aware that Russell Pittenger who had been a principle with the LA Group, had written a damaging critique of the lot and was in the audience. How the LA Group could have originally tried to slip in a lot that was clearly dangerously designed says something very damaging both about the applicant and the LA Group.
It still remains to be seen if Design Review will approve a lot on Union Avenue. The developer emphasized that they would landscape the front to minimize the impact of the lot.
When Sonny Bonacio spoke he first addressed the the density issue noting that the earlier North Star proposal for eighteen units included roughly as many bedrooms as the current proposal. This not surprisingly drew a loud reaction from the crowd. The chair of the ZBA chastised the audience. It is important to remember that the North Star proposal had been for only eighteen units priced at $850,000.00 to $1,600,000.00. One would expect that many of the bedrooms in these units would be for guests or family members who were children. The proposal also had adequate underground parking. I think this gives you a flavor of the liberty that the applicant takes when making arguments for his proposal.
Mr. Bonacio also testified that any change in the number of units would result in the project being financially not feasible. He claimed that of the original four banks that had been considering the project, they were down to one.
The Zoning Board’s Discussion
In the ensuing discussion by the Zoning Board of Appeals members they raised a number of issues.
One member tried to help the applicant identify additional spaces. I guess he lacked faith in the LA Group. Each of his suggestions turned out to be untenable for one reason or another according to Mr. Ingersol.
One member explicitly expressed great concern herself over the density. She indicated that she found it difficult to accept.
Another board member noted that in business there is always some give and take and that he found it hard to accept the applicant’s rigidity on the size and scope of the project. Mr. Bonacio reiterated that his project could not be reduced in scope. The member then offered back, “so it is fifty-three [units] or nothing?” Mr. Bonacio responded that while he did not enjoy hearing it characterized that way, that it was, in fact, accurate.
Another board member noted that due to all the outstanding questions about making the parking lot safe, it was unclear what final parking variance the applicant would be requesting. Chairman Moore dismissed this concern saying that they should decide on the issue now and if the site plan review by the Planning Board were to result in a reduction in the allowable parking spaces, the applicant could come back to the ZBA for a different parking variance.
The last board member to speak said that his primary concern had been parking. He said that he had repeatedly driven through the neighborhood on a variety of days and times. He said he found that there were many empty parking spaces and that he no longer considered on street parking an issue. As noted in an earlier post, this member of the board was seen drinking with Mr. Bonacio and Mr. Higgins following the meeting.
The Public Speaks
The first speaker was John Hayko, the attorney hired by the neighborhood. As an interesting note, board chairman William Moore asserted his authority by setting a two minute limit on the speakers. Given the large number in attendance, this was not an unreasonable limit. It was, however, very troubling that he also attempted to limit the attorney to two minutes. The applicant was given unlimited time to do their presentation. In contrast, Mr. Moore attempted to cut the community’s attorney off at the two minute mark in spite of the fact that he had clearly not completed his statement. Only after a very noisy outburst from the crowd and the offer of several people to give the attorney their allotted time, did Mr. Moore allow the attorney to continue.
This attempt to cut the attorney off raises serious questions about Mr. Moore’s attitude. To begin with, one would have assumed that he would be interested in hearing a well argued legal rejoinder to the applicant’s proposal. There is also the simple issue of fairness. Clearly the community had invested considerable money to be represented at this hearing and Mr. Moore’s apparent indifference speaks volumes about his approach to this issue. As if this were not bad enough, he interrupted the attorney when he was reviewing with the ZBA the statements made by the earlier ZBA in 2006 when they agreed to change the zoning to UR4. Mr. Moore challenged the attorney as to the relevance of his remarks to the variances. This, after the applicant’s attorney, Michael Toohey had rambled on at great length about the history of the project beginning in the 1950’s. You cannot make this stuff up.
William Moore is a licensed real estate appraiser. This is a classic example of a person who is an integral player in the real estate industry. The problem of having this man chair this important land use board is manifestly clear and he truly demonstrated it in the manner with which he ran this meeting.
Mr. Hayko reviewed the history of the project. He noted particularly the basis on which the Zoning Board of Appeals granted the variance to Northstar. He quoted from that board’s decision that the size of the project in terms of its eighteen units would minimize the impact on the neighborhood. The decision emphasized the fact that putting one large building on the space was the worst outcome and would put stress on the adjacent neighborhoods. He also pointed out to the board that if something should happen to this property in the future such as a fire, etc. any subsequent owner will be able to put fifty-three units on the parcel. He reminded the board that while the Comprehensive Plan does encourage the repurposing of buildings as noted by Michael Toohey, it also emphasizes that the land use decisions should be consistent with the character of the neighborhoods in which they are located. The attorney then went over a recent legal precedent in which a developer in Newburg attempted to expand a building which would have resulted in the building exceeding the density limit of the zoned area .Citing the neighbors expressed concerns about the impact, the local board denied the variance and according to the attorney, the court upheld the denial.
Steve McIntyre is a realtor and next testified about the current real estate market. He noted information that contradicted the applicant’s assertions that the market would not support converting the property into condos as originally proposed in 2006. He compared the number of condos sold for $800,000.00 to $2,000,000.00 at the time of the original proposal and now. During the three years around the original proposal there were 12 units sold in that range whereas in the last three years there were 29 sold. He argued that it is not at all clear that the market for such high end properties does not exist. He also discussed the apparent success of the tear down of the Elsworth factory. He then referenced the fact that SUNY had, in 2011, entertained purchasing the Moore Hall property for over $2,000,000.00. He also ran the numbers for the existing building. Northstar bought the property for $1,100,000.00. The applicant claims that demolition would cost $750,000.00. Dividing that by 18 units you get $102,000.00. He noted that given the economics of high value condos in the city that made doing the project as originally designed in 2006 practical. He noted that the current proposal would appear to be much more profitable, though which might explain Mr. Bonacio’s inflexibility.
I think it is important to note that Mr. Bonacio claimed in the strongest terms that his proposal for 53 units is the only viable option for the existing building. This raises an important question about the future. If this project is denied then the logic is that the existing building has no apparent future viability. In that case, Mr. Higgins finds himself in an interesting position. He paid $1.1 million dollars speculating originally that the cost for taking the building down and erecting eighteen high end condos would be a successfully profitable endeavor. If this is not the case then, using the logic of the market, which the advocates for this project made very clear, he has two choices. He can either hold on to the property with the hope that some future improvements in technology will make it affordable to modify this building less densely or he needs to sell the property perhaps at a loss. In selling it, the property could now be developed consistent with the limits of the UR4 designation. One would presume that someone who would purchase the lot would have a plan to build within the restraints of UR4. This is potentially a very valuable piece of property given its location on Union Avenue. The idea that this building will sit forever in a decaying state is a fiction if you believe in the market place. At some point, paying the taxes and maintenance of this building will become a sufficient burden that Mr. Higgins will be forced to reconsider its future and sell it for a price that would make a less dense project viable.
Following Mr. McIntyre’s remarks, many neighbors spoke to the board going over their concerns over the changes they believed this project would make to their community. They noted the many issues that have been documented in previous posts so I will not repeat them. The neighbors were extremely courteous in addressing the board. They emphasized the fact that this neighborhood has many children and that the radical increase in traffic would very much change the feeling of reasonable safety that people believe they now enjoy. They focused on all the problems that would come to North Lane which is, in effect, an ally.
As a member of this neighborhood and as a personal note, I was very much touched by the dignity and thoughtfulness of the many speakers. It only reaffirmed for me how fortunate I am to live in this community.