Old Post Office site owners reduce height request

Rendering of 432-438 East 14th Street

By Sabina Mollot

The owners of the former Peter Stuyvesant Post Office, who’d proposed a 12-story residential building for the site, have since changed their request, by proposing a smaller, nine-story building instead. In January the owners, Benenson Capital Partners, partnering with Mack Real Estate Group, had gone to the Board of Standards and Appeals to request a zoning variance they’d need to build 12 stories since current zoning only allows for an eight-story structure. Their plan however was fought by community residents as well as the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

The owners’ most recent proposal, which would boost height 14.5 feet higher than what is currently allowable, has also already been blasted by the preservation group. The GVSHP has argued that a building that high is out of context for the East Village and has also claimed that the owners’ main reason for wanting the variance — higher than expected construction costs due to underground water and soil conditions — doesn’t constitute a unique hardship.

The GVSHP has said that allowing a variance for a not-uncommon problem like high water levels would create a dangerous precedent for any owner looking to build bigger and higher.

“There are more holes in this developer’s ‘hardship’ argument than a slice of Swiss cheese, which is why they are dramatically scaling back their overblown zoning variance request,” fumed GVSHP Executive Director Andrew Berman in a written statement. “But there is still no case for a hardship here, and therefore no basis for a zoning variance, even the reduced one now requested.”

Berman added that an adjacent construction site to the west, there’d been no variance requested and no hardship reported.

Commissioners at the BSA had said in January that they wanted proof of hardship created by the soil condition and told the developers to come back with that evidence at another hearing set for March 28.

But the owners, in their revised notice to the BSA, insisted there is a unique condition at 432-438 East 14th Street, even suggesting that an adjacent property’s foundation could be acting as a dam, making the former Post Office site’s water condition even worse.

According to the notice, “Unusually elevated groundwater levels and exceedingly soft and unstable soil (owing to the presence of an underground stream) result in extraordinary construction costs, which make a complying development unfeasible. The Proposed Development on the other hand, would generate sufficient income, to offset the cost of development and provide a reasonable return on investment.”

Citing an economic analysis done on the property, the owners said that without the variance, the cost of construction would end up being $6 million more than the building ends up being worth upon completion.

The owners further argued that their building would “enliven a historically underutilized stretch of East 14th Street,” between First Avenue and Avenue A, along with providing 26 units of affordable housing.

Mack and Benenson had also previously argued that the need to add more height was to make the project more economically viable because of the affordable housing required by the 421a tax break program. At the January hearing, a rep for Mack had said that the owners had to complete the building foundation in order to meet a deadline to be eligible for the lucrative tax break.

But the GVSHP this week blasted that rationale as well, with East Village & Special Projects Director Harry Bubbins saying the owners haven’t provided evidence they’re in that program. “They’re in another program,” he said.

Bubbins, who plans to be at the March 28 hearing, also said the developers shouldn’t have begun construction on a property when they knew about an existing water condition.

“Not only did they own the property for decades, but they have an engineer report verifying it,” said Bubbins. “It’s not like a shock or a surprise.”

This view was shared by BSA Commissioner Margery Permutter in January who said the developers got ahead of themselves by making the investment before the variance was granted.

The March 28 BSA hearing is set to begin at 10 a.m. Prior to that, at 9:30 a.m. there will be a rally outside the BSA at 22 Reade Street.

Town & Village reached out to a spokesperson for Mack Real Estate Group, but did not hear back by deadline.

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