Thursday, July 31, 2008

City Forces Rogue Developer to Reduce Building Size

By Conor Greene

Maspeth residents and a local civic group are claming victory against a notorious developer who has been ordered by the city to remove the top floor of a house under construction on Mazeau Street.

The city Department of Building in May partially lifted a stop-work order issued last year to developer Tommy Huang so that the fourth floor of a house he’s building at 57-39 Mazeau Street could be removed. In addition, rear and side extensions have also been removed because the plans filed with the city didn’t conform to what was actually built.

The DOB’s decision comes after the Juniper Park Civic Association and Councilman Tony Avella held several rallies on Mazeau Street since DOB revoked the developer’s permit in December 2006. The group sought to have the building either knocked down, or brought into compliance with zoning laws.

“This is a big victory for Maspeth because it shows unscrupulous developers that the community is watching and they won’t be able to get away with this type of action,” said Robert Holden, president of the JPCA.

Said Avella: “It’s about time that DOB listened to the community and forced notorious developers like Tommy Huang to conform to the building and zoning codes. It still is a shame that the community has to be the ones to force the DOB to enforce its own regulations.”

The stop work order was issued in November after the DOB received a complaint that the project being built was beyond what the permits allowed. An audit by the city on July 6 revealed 14 violations, including that it didn’t comply with R4-1 zoning standards and that Huang misused the Community Facilities Provision of the zoning code, which can allow for educational, health care, religious and other institutions to be built in residential zones.

One of the first people to take notice of the building violations at the property was Manny Caruana, a JPCA and Community Board 5 member who lives nearby. “It took a long time to get results, and we only got this far because neither we nor Tony Avella nor DOT caved in or stopped watching what was going on there,” he said. “The fact that Huang has been forced to comply and not just pay a fine restores a little bit of my faith in DOB.”

The property currently has a partial stop work order, which only allows Huang to bring the house into compliance with zoning regulations. “The partial will remain in effect,” said Charlie Ratzer, a DOB spokesman. “It’s a partial allowing them to remove the fourth floor, but he is not supposed to be working on anything additional.”

Because the plans originally filed with the city were for a four-story structure, Huang must now submit new plans “to bring it into compliance,” said Ratzer. “He is bringing it back to three [floors] and then starts over again with new paperwork.” The DOB was unable to explain how Huang was able to receive a permit for a project that is not allowed in that zone.

The DOB said in a statement that Huang has been fined repeatedly for projects around the city. “More than a dozen stop work orders have been issued to this developer’s projects in the past year, and he has been repeatedly fined for cutting corners,” the department said in a statement. “If the developer wants to move forward with any project, it must be in compliance with all regulations.”

This isn’t the first time that a Huang development has come under fire. The Flushing-based developer was sentenced in 1999 to five years probation and fined $5,000 for environmental crimes at the landmarked RKO Keith Theater. In that case, he allowed hundreds of gallons of oil to spill into the basement of the 1928 theater, and then lied to a city investigator.

Corey Bearak, president of the Queens Civic Congress, credited the JPCA with “fighting for the community and never letting up” and DOB Acting Commissioner Robert LiMandri for taking action on this matter. “This simple message should resonate throughout the industry,” he said. “No excuses. Either comply with the law and the code or any illegal structure you build will need to be cut down to its rightful and legal size.”

Local community leaders and residents are now vowing to keep a close watch on the project as Huang attempts to have the stop work order lifted. “This is like a cancer in the community,” said Tony Nunziato, chairman of the Maspeth-Middle Village Task Force. “I am glad that the Department of Buildings has kept on top of this situation and has forced the developer’s hand.”

Avella, who represents neighborhoods in northeast Queens, has become one of City Council’s most vocal critics of out of character development. He said that the city’s action against Huang is “obviously a good step forward,” but questioned why the permit was issued in the first place, calling the DOB the city’s “most incompetent agency.”

“Through the efforts of the Juniper Park Civic Association and the community, the DOB finally realized their mistake,” he said. “This is a perfect example of Huang creating another problem in another neighborhood. No matter how many sites he has become a problem on, and how many neighboring sites he has damaged, the city will give him another permit.”

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