Board backs bizarre building

Judge rules city agencies must review permits for monstrosity
Surreal structures: The immediate neighbors of this towering structure, which has been built over a neglected bungalow, won a court victory when State Supreme Court Judge Yvonne Lewis decided that the Board of Standards and Appeals has to review the permits allowing its construction.
Photo by Arthur De Gaeta

Call it a towering shame.

Homecrest residents and local leaders are crying foul over a decision by an obscure city board allowing construction to move forward on an absurd tower on E. 12th Street — a ruling many see as proof that the agency is more concerned with politics than justice.

“This is one of the biggest injustices I’ve ever seen,” said Community Board 15 chairwoman Theresa Scavo. “I mean, have you seen this thing?”

The bizarre building — which observers have described as “grotesque,” “hideous,” a “blemish,” and a “monstrosity” — looms 43 feet over nearby homes that average merely 21–30 feet tall. The structure is supported on steel beams over the crumbling ruins of the one-family bungalow it’s supposedly altering, and worse, the mammoth addition overhangs halfway across a shared driveway.

Neighbors sued the owner of the unfinished building, Joseph Druzie, claiming that the building permits were fraudulent and the towering structure violates local zoning laws. But the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals ruled last week that the permits were valid and Druzie could go ahead with the project — despite acknowledging that if not for an “administrative error,” the permits would probably never have been issued in the first place.

The controvery began in December 2005, when architect Shlomo Wygoda filed an application to alter Druzie’s building on E. 12th Street between avenues R and S.

Under normal circumstances, Wygoda’s applications would have been examined by an engineer or an architect working for the Department of Buildings, a routine review that would have raised several red flags. Unfortunately for the residents of E. 12th Street, that review never took place, because Druzie’s architect, Shlomo Wygoda, enjoyed “professional certification” priviledges — sometimes called “self- certification” at the time he filed those alteration permits — Wygoda’s professional certification rights have since been revoked, because of similar, but unrelated abuses.

The professional certification system was instituted in the mid ‘90s with the intent of stream-lining and reducing the costs of reviewing building plans by allowing prolific architects to sign off on their own plans, declaring them up to code without review.

As a result, Wygoda’s application wasn’t reviewed by an architect or an engineer, but simply a clerk with a rubber stamp, according to attorney Stuart Klein.

“When you self certify, the DOB never looks at it, a clerk does,” said Klein. “Not an engineer, not an architect, but a clerk.”

The fact that Druzie’s plans called for the demolition of more than half the building he intended to “alter,” Wygoda should have filed an application for a whole new building, according to architect Walter Maffei.

“Very simply, when the architect Sholomo Wygoda filed his application under professional certification, his plans called for the complete demolition of the building, except for a few foundation walls,” said Maffei. “When you file for a demolition or are removing more than fifty-percent… essentially it’s a new building.”

Opponents of the E. 12th Street tower allege that Wygoda knowingly filed inappropriate permits, because alteration permits can be ramrodded through the system more quickly than new building permits — and Wygoda’s client had a deadline.

In February 2006, the zoning on E. 12th Street was reduced from an R6 to an R4-1 — which would prevent Druzie from building so high — so he needed to get enough construction done before that time in order to receive “vested rights,” which means the owner had invested enough work into the structure that the building falls under the previous zoning, according to Maffei.

“Time was of the essence,” he said. “He knew his plans were not going to be reviewed, and so he took extreme advantage of this program to satisfy his client and meet the vesting deadline set by the city planning commission.”

After neighbors Betty Travitsky and Bella Center filed suit against Druzie, Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Yvonne Lewis reprimanded the Board of Standards and Appeals — which is supposed to provide independent oversight of the Department of Buildings— and ordered the agency to reconsider whether Druzie’s building permits were validly issued.

“The [Board of Standards and Appeals] abandoned its obligation to review and, if necessary, correct the mistakes of the DOB,” Lewis wrote in her decision. She also said this time the city agency ought to look at the permits before rubber stamping them.

However, in a resolution published on July 26, the Board of Standards and Appeals declared that Druzie does have vested rights and, while admitting that Wygoda should have filed for a new building permit, the agency called the error “administrative” and ruled the permits valid.

Tony Avella, a state senator from Queens who crusades against unscrupulous developers, visited the tower on E. 12th Street earlier this year and cited the agency’s decision as further evidence of why the mayor should get rid of it.

“This is one more example of why the Board of Standards and Appeals should be abolished,” said Avella. “It’s just incomprehensible that this developer got away with this huge building. It’s a monstrosity, and not only that, but its a dangerous accident waiting to happen.”

In fact, the board appears to have performed no additional investigation or review beyond the consulting the buildings department, and based its decision largely on the testimony of the department it is supposed to police.

“The DOB testified during the most recent public hearings and submitted evidence on the validity of the permit, and the BSA reaffirmed its decision to grant vested rights,” said Jeff Mulligan, executive director of the Board of Standards and Appeals.

Klein called the decision proof that the Board of Standards and Appeals exists only to overrule common sense in favor of the Department of Building’s whims.

“This decision says that the BSA is going to rubber stamp anything the DOB does,” he said.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4514.

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