Too Tall in Park Slope
On a Saturday morning in April, neighbors on a quiet Brooklyn block on the southern edge of Park Slope looked into their backyards to see workmen erecting a construction fence on their properties. In brownstone Brooklyn this is the face of war: sneak attack by developers. One irate woman called her lawyer, who told her to call the cops, who promptly tossed the workers off the site. But it was a brief retreat. The developer quickly arrived, offering $3,000 in cash for the right to work on their properties. His goal, he said, was to start digging a big hole where a new building would rise on what had been a 100-by-100-foot parking lot on 15th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues near Prospect Park.
Instead of taking the money, neighbors got busy. Arthur Strimling, a theater producer whose rear yard faces the site, consulted with others to find out what was up. What they found amazed them. For reasons officials are still at a loss to explain, the city's Department of Buildings had wrongly issued a construction permit for a nine-story structure. The permit, which had been evaluated several times before being approved by agency plan examiners, called for a new apartment house dwarfing its low-rise neighbors. The 57,000-square-foot building was to include three below-grade floors for parking and a medical facility, its air vents pointed at backyards on 16th Street.
Even odder, the 47 apartments were designated for use as "faculty housing" for staff of an Orthodox yeshiva located some four miles away in Brooklyn's Midwood section. This claim was immediately suspect since the permit listed the wrong address for the yeshiva. Neighbors also learned that the so-called "faculty housing" exception that let buildings be twice as big as otherwise allowed was declared null and void last year by the City Planning Department.
There is good reason these days for residents of Brooklyn's neighborhoods to feel a bit paranoid. Last week, an internationally acclaimed architect, the Canadian-born Frank Gehry, who lives in Southern California, unveiled his idea of what downtown Brooklyn should becomea maze of skyscrapers surrounding the proposed new Nets arena on Atlantic Avenue. Gehry's concept immediately made people think of the sun-starved canyons of midtown. Brownstone Brooklyn recoiled in horror. We moved here to get away from big high-rises, residents cried.
But Manhattan-style shadows were already looming long before Gehry, and it wasn't a famous imported architect who designed the proposed building on 15th Street. That work was the creation of a local professional named Henry Radusky, one of the borough's most prodigious architects, whose nickname could be "Too Tall." Radusky's big buildings already clot the Brooklyn landscape. The new six-story building on Clermont Avenue towering over its Fort Greene neighborhood that was supposed to be luxury apartments but turned out to be a homeless hotel? That was Radusky's work. The one on Taaffe Place that collapsed a neighbor's warehouse in 2000? Radusky's as well. The monolithic condo tower at Prospect Park Southwest and 16th Street, built with a windowless rear wall that neighbors dubbed the Tombstone? Radusky.
The architect has also been citywide champion at using the "faculty housing" bonus, a canny developer tactic dating to the early '90s. On his clients' behalf, Radusky successfully won more than two dozen approvals for projects twice as big as otherwise allowed, arguing that they fell under the zoning code's "community facility" rules if built for school faculty. In an example of municipal cross-purposes, the city's planning department never recognized faculty housing as legitimate, but the buildings department allowed it. The practice was most widely employed in the housing-hungry Orthodox section of Williamsburg, where, despite the original claim, many units were later sold as condominiums. City officials who challenged the claims did so at their peril. In a notorious episode, former Brooklyn buildings commissioner Joseph Trivisonno tried in 1997 to revoke a faculty housing permit for a Williamsburg property only to find himself out of a job after developers complained to aides to then Mayor Giuliani.
To see Radusky's latest work, the Park Slope neighbors had only to take a short walk to 22nd Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, an area near Green-Wood Cemetery that real estate marketers are now calling "So-Slo," as in South Slope. There, Radusky, in tandem with the same developer as on the 15th Street site, last year designed another nine-story edifice, one that pops out amid the two- and three-story frame homes like an NBA center in a kindergarten class. There, too, Radusky won the faculty housing bonus, saying the units would house staff of the same school listed in the 15th Street project, Yeshiva Gedolah Bais Yisroel, located at Avenue J and Ocean Avenue in Midwood.
The yeshiva never used the apartments, however, and the units were instead rented to Methodist Hospital for use by interns and residents. A Methodist spokeswoman said the hospital began renting the building early last year. The yeshiva's principal, who gave his name as Rabbi Steinfeld, denied any knowledge of the deal. "We made an application in Park Slope? I know nothing about it," he told the Voice.
It is still unclear whether the 22nd Street property was ever entitled to a bonus, given the July 2004 change in the rules. But in the wake of the local outcry over its improper granting of the 15th Street permit, the buildings department slapped a violation on the owner for improper usage. In zoning-speak the citation is for "occupancy contrary to that allowed by the certificate of occupancy." But the underlying problem is very basic: How did Radusky, a buildings department regular, get the approvals?
"It was a mistake," said agency spokeswoman Jennifer Givner regarding the 15th Street site. "It should not have been issued in the first place." She said a stop-work order had been issued for the site. At 22nd Street, fines of $5,000 have been posted against the developer, she said.
It's not the first time Radusky's applications came up short. In 2002, agency investigators confronted him with 55 separate projects where he allegedly failed to follow required codes. His only sanction, however, was a polite agreement in which Radusky agreed for a one-year period to "voluntarily surrender" his right to certify his own plans as in sync with city codes.
Last week, a visitor to Radusky's firm, Bricolage Design, located on the second floor of a brick building under the el on New Utrecht Avenue, found a bustling, modern office. Aides said they didn't know where Henry was but would be glad to give him a message. Radusky didn't respond.
Jack LoCicero, developer of both the 15th Street and 22nd Street projects, said his permits were properly obtained and that the yeshiva simply reneged on a deal to rent the 22nd Street property. "So then the next faculty took it over, Methodist. It's not improper usage," he said. Asked why, if the yeshiva had jilted him on the 22nd Street site, he had months later listed them again as tenants on his 15th Street project, LoCicero sighed. "Well, you know, they're always looking for housing, I took a chance." Had Radusky suggested the faculty housing angle to him? "Let's not go there," he said. "I plead the Fifth." He said his current intention for his 15th Street property is to build "regular housing, whatever the City of New York says I can build."
The 15th Street neighbors remain suspicious. Last month, accompanied by local assemblyman Jim Brennan, they met with buildings department officials to press their concerns. "It's our opinion that the submission of the plans based on dormitory-type housing was some kind of fraud," Brennan said. "We're pleased the buildings department is investigating Mr. Radusky's actions." Is it? Agency officials bucked the question to the city's Department of Investigation. "No comment," said spokeswoman Emily Gest.
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