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Day in court for ‘Finger Building’

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The final battle in the protracted war over the “Finger Building” on 144 N. 8th Street will take place next Tuesday at the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals.

At the hearing, opponents of the under-construction building – which is currently 10 stories and 116 feet high – will appeal a December decision by the BSA that re-enabled construction after the building’s permits expired last May.

Opponents have long held the building to be an example of the irresponsible, out-of-scale development they feel has bedeviled Williamsburg and Greenpoint in recent years.

Its architect, Robert Scarano, was recently brought up on charges from the Department of Buildings (DOB) for allegedly knowingly making false and misleading statements to the DOB while filing plans for two buildings in Greenpoint.

Under the May 2005 rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, the building as currently constructed would be illegal – current zoning laws cap building heights at five stories, which neighborhood residents think it should be trimmed down to.

But because its foundation was poured before the rezoning went into effect, the DOB granted the developers a two-year window to finish the project under the old zoning, which places no height limit on the building.

But that two-year window expired last May, compelling the project’s developers – a team including Scarano, Mendel Brach, and Moshe Owen – to ask the BSA to renew their permits.

If approved as is, its apartments will all be luxury units, affording exclusive views to building residents but blocking those of other neighborhood residents.

Developers had planned on building six additional stories that will make the building at least 100 feet taller.

But they are currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the site’s previous owner, Scott Spector, over air rights. The lawsuit has prevented work from being done on the building for nearly two years.

Neighborhood opponents have long assailed the “Finger Building” – so nicknamed for its conspicuous presence among neighborhood low-rises, as well as a hand-gesture many feel its presence represents – as being out-of-scale with the surrounding low-rises and with a history of violations and dishonest dealings with the community.

They claim that the building’s vesting under the pre-2005 zoning laws was illegal because of the hasty, unsafe manner in which its foundation was poured in order to be “grandfathe­red” under the old zoning laws.

The numerous DOB violations the building has racked up include: in incident in which a crane damaged an adjacent building; failure to have site safety personnel on site; failure to safeguard public property; failure to properly install safety netting; and multiple instances of work without a permit.

“In the six months between the time when the Brach-Scarano team took control of the site … and the ratification of the city’s rezoning plan, the project chalked up 34 DOB complaints in a rush to beat the clock to get their foundation completed,” said Peter Gillespie, executive director of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, at a December BSA hearing.

But over the objections of neighborhood residents, the BSA granted the developers an extension on their permits in December. It determined the building had undergone substantial construction and expenditures, the BSA’s rather vague criteria for determining whether it grants an extension to permits.

But neighborhood residents are more confident this time around: For this latest battle, they retained high-profile land-use lawyers Antonia Bryson and Kevin Shea.

“If you go to the BSA without representation, they treat you like [dirt]. Now we have representation and we’re pretty confident,” said Phil DePaolo, a neighborhood opponent.

DePaolo believes the BSA’s ruling will have ramifications on future neighborhood projects.

He said the recent expiration of the outer-borough 421-A tax abatement – now, developers must provide 20 percent affordable housing in order to get a property tax abatement – might produce cases in which “projects that just started will want to get vested.”

Also, the inland portions of Community Board 1 will be downzoned within the next few years. The BSA’s ruling in this case might affect the behavior of developers looking to “beat the clock” in a similar manner opponents allege the Finger Building did.

“If the city wants to send a message, have them take it down to five stories,” DePaolo suggested in December, referring to the height that would be allowed under current zoning.

“This is one of the most powerful cases [of wrongdoing by a developer] as far as documentation. If a case like this doesn’t fly, I don’t know what will. If they don’t take it down, it sends a dangerous signal to developers: ‘Don’t worry about anything because you’ll get it through the BSA.’”

For the developers’ part, they aren’t too worried about the appeal.

“We don’t think their appeal is valid and we expect the BSA will rule in our favor,” said Peter Geis, the developers’ attorney. “Our permit was issued by the Buildings Department validly and already upheld by the BSA. We don’t think they’re going to reverse the Buildings Department.”

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