Volume 17, Number 33 | May 06 - 12, 2005

Tribeca law school makes deal for E. Village dorm

By Sarah Ferguson

It’s official. After months of controversy, the so-called “half-dorm” at 81 E. Third St. has finally found an educational institution eager to sign a lease, and it’s none other than New York Law School.

Associate Dean Fred DeJohn confirmed that the law school, whose campus is based on Worth St. in Tribeca, is in the process of finalizing a long-term net lease to rent the whole 13-story building in order to house 90 or more students.

Initially, the developer, 81 East 3rd Street Realty Group LLC, a partnership led by Alex Lokshin, had intended to lease just the top six floors to students and keep the rest as residential apartments. But DeJohn said the law school was only interested in occupying the whole building.

“We wanted a building dedicated to New York Law School. I wouldn’t have taken the deal if it wasn’t the whole building,” DeJohn said. While the price is still being negotiated, DeJohn said he expected the lease to be finalized “within days” and was “looking forward to an August occupancy.”

“We’re really excited,” he enthused. “This will be our first dorm. Obviously it will be great for attracting students from out of town.” Until now, he noted, the school has made do renting rooms in Brooklyn and leasing surplus space from other colleges.

Altagracia Levat, a school spokesperson, said N.Y.L.S. is still looking for more classroom space. A deal to move the campus near Wall St. fell through last year and currently the school is looking to utilize its existing space better, she said. The school owns the adjacent lot and has considered either selling or developing it for years.

DeJohn said it was the law school that reached out to the E. Village developer when they heard the space was available and said he was unaware of the level of ire that this building has generated.

But the late-breaking deal is unlikely to cool tempers in the East Village, where residents are simmering over what they see as a growing effort by developers to take advantage of the so-called community-facility-use bonus to add extra stories and bulk up their buildings.

Just last week on April 26, a crowd of about 80 angry residents rallied outside 81 E. Third to demand that the Department of Buildings revoke the permit, chanting, “Take the floors down!”

Block residents and local politicians are angry that the Buildings Department allowed the developer to add six stories for dorm space on what was initially slated to be a seven-story residential building, without obtaining a lease from a school or university, as required by zoning rules.

“Our neighborhood is being consumed by developers seeking to get away with as much as they can,” charged Steve Herrick of the Cooper Sq. Committee, who helped organize the rally that drew neighborhood residents concerned about several other controversial projects on the block.

Also raising hell at the rally was Richard Kusack, a longtime resident on E. Third, who accused the developer of pulling a “bait and switch” by having two open permits for two different buildings on the same site. Last week Kusack and his newly formed group, the Committee for Zoning Inaction, filed a lawsuit against the Buildings Department to force it to make a final determination about the outstanding complaints against 81 East Third Street Realty LLC.

In December, the Buildings Department threatened to revoke the permits after an audit found 17 zoning and building code objections, including the failure to have an educational lease. D.O.B. also faulted the developer for inadequate open space, light and air, and for trying to squeeze in extra dwelling units in the cellar and a rear building in the backyard, which was initially supposed to be a medical facility.

But since then D.O.B. has continued to extend the time the developer has to answer the objections.

“There are building code and zoning violations up the gazoo. It’s an out-and-out fraud against the city, and the D.O.B. is allowing it to happen,” Kusack charged.

A spokesperson for the developer declined to comment for this story. But in an October letter to Community Board 3, a lawyer representing 81 East Third Street Realty LLC said that the Buildings department had repeatedly failed to notify them of the educational lease requirement. The lawyer also claimed that the development group had originally wanted to build a 13-story building, but was unsure of financing, so it began with a 7-story building then switched back to the 13-story plan when more funds became available

Building officials have acknowledged they made a mistake in granting a building permit without an educational lease in place. But they say the scale of the building is “legal” with the community-facility-use bonus in place.

“According to the zoning rules, this is acceptable,” said Buildings spokesperson Jennifer Givner.

Givner said she was unaware of the lawsuit against D.O.B. but denied allegations that the department had been lax to enforce its own rules: “We have responded,” she said. “We’ve audited and have issued objections, and most of them have been addressed, except for one technical thing involving open-space calculations that won’t change the overall physical character of the building or the number of floors.” Once that objection is cleared and a lease signed with the law school, a certificate of occupancy can be issued and no “final determination” is required, she said.

But the community may not be ready to give up the fight yet. Block residents and members of Community Board 3 are demanding that New York Law School hear their objections before they sign off on a lease.

“We are not happy with buildings of this size, particularly on a side street,” says Susan Stetzer, district manager of C.B. 3, which last October sent letters to area universities asking them not to lease space there.

For his part, the law school’s DeJohn said he hoped tensions would cool off.

“We’re going to be bringing in students that are responsible. I think we’ll prove to the community that we’re good neighbors,” he said.

“We didn’t commission this buildng,” he added. “But as far as I’m concerned, what we’re doing is exactly what people would want, which is that the building actually gets used as an educational facility.”

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