A local named John asked me to publish this letter, which he plans on sending to the ZBA regarding the iStar Superblock proposal. Enjoy! -Anthony
Re: I-Star Superblock Variance Application (Case #2367)
To the Members of the Zoning Board of Appeals:
I write with respect to the ZBA’s consideration of the I-Star variance application. I support development of the Superblock, but I am strongly opposed to the variance request. I’ve taken the time the last few weeks to consider the I-Star development proposal, in order to review the renderings, visit the parcel, and speak to friends and neighbors, before coming to my final position.
The extreme height of the two towers is being justified by the “narrow” profile of the towers, allowing through light and breezes. In and of itself, narrow is good because it creates view, light and air corridors. However, the proposed two 16-story towers would also be utterly out of scale with the character of the surrounding community and Long Beach generally. The “price” of narrow is the height, which is too great a price to pay.
The ZBA should reject the variance request and the City should remain prepared to assist I-Star in developing a plan acceptable under the existing zoning regulations (which were specifically implemented to allow development of the Superblock). If I-Star is not interested, it can sell the property, as it has suggested it would do. In view of the City’s settlement with Philips/Pilevsky and I-Star, the Superblock litigation overhang that had encumbered the property will not be a concern to any new developer.
I commend the City government’s push to end the stalemate of the Superblock litigation and move towards development of this site. But there can be suitable development, which the I-Star proposal on its face is not. That is not solely a matter of opinion, but a matter of our zoning regulations, including the existing special zoning of the Superblock parcel that was intended to satisfy developer needs.
Specific issues, concerns and observations are set out below.
The Superblock Already Has Special Zoning for a Large Development
Our City government (including the ZBA) over many decades has established through our zoning regulations and variance process the building/development standards for our community. The zoning ordinance has limited the height of boardwalk parcels to 70 feet (from Washington to Neptune), with the exception that on June 18, 2002, section 9-105.14 was added/amended to allow for 110 feet for the limited area of National Blvd. to Long Beach Rd. in order to spur development of the Superblock and Foundation block parcels.1 In other words, the City Council amended the Code to allow for height of up to 110 feet – specifically taking into account the needs of potential developers of the Superblock. This was done only after considerable diligence, hearings and expert advice.
Thus, with the exception of the “special zoning” created for the Superblock/Foundation block area in 2002, any development above the 70 foot limitation has always required a variance. The Seapointe Tower, Allegria and Aqua faced opposition to height variances and none exceed 9 stories from boardwalk level (the Avalon is 10 from boardwalk level). In contrast, the I-Star website renderings show 16 floors from boardwalk level.
In sum, 70 feet has been our community norm. I-Star wants 160 feet or 2.3 times our 70 foot norm. This is the fair way to look at this. To get a feel for what such height looks like in reality, as opposed to an artist’s sympathetic rendering, I attach photos of the “Towers at the Water’s Edge” in Bayside and the Creedmoor Psychiatric Facility at the junction of the Grand Central and Cross Island Parkways.2
The Comprehensive Plan Calls for Careful Planning,
Attention to Scale and Neighborhood Character
The I-Star proposal is broadly out of scale with other buildings adjacent to the boardwalk and their layout east to west from the Superblock (i.e., elevation view – heights, including as impacted by distances between buildings created by parking lots, pools, etc.) and will be a visual affront, the proverbial “sore thumb”. Residents of the north side of Broadway and for a few blocks east and west of the Superblock on Penn and Beech etc. streets, will look south (or SE or SW) and now have two giant towers in view, and long shadows.
Please look at the attached photo from the City’s website, which shows boardwalk buildings – the first two from the right are 7 floors from boardwalk level and the Hoffman Manor is 4 floors from boardwalk level. Consider what two 16 foot towers – more than double the height of those buildings (and 4 times in the case of the Hoffman) – will look like at the boardwalk, and how morning and afternoon sun will be blocked.
As the City’s planning experts, Saccardi & Schiff, said in their May 2005 report City of Long Beach Comprehensive Plan, Technical Memorandum, Existing Conditions/Issues and Opportunities, May 2005 (“2005 Report”) and reiterated in their April 2007 City of Long Beach Comprehensive Plan (the “Comprehensive Plan”) (both available at longbeachny.gov):
The neighborhood character of a community is comprised of a series of building blocks that add up to an attractive physical environment that provides a high quality of life for its residents. Those building blocks include a community’s built and natural environment, its land use plan and zoning regulations, its visual image and historic character….…
Some amendments have been made [to the Code] . . . in an attempt to reduce the heights and bulk of home renovations and new construction and maintain existing neighborhood character.
2005 Rpt, III-1; Comp Pln, I-2 (emphasis added). They go on to state:
The major inconsistency with zoning regulations throughout the city relates to the bulk regulations [(i.e., size, height)] of the zoning ordinance . . .It is these variances to bulk regulations that potentially impact community character….
Id. at III-2; I-3 (emphasis added).
Throughout the 2005 Report and the Comprehensive Plan (and the related Environmental Assessment, April 2007), Saccardi & Schiff repeatedly speak to “low scale uses”, “issues of scale”, the current absence of “cohesive design”, “unsightly mix of structures”, “opportunity for coordinated streetscape design”, the lack of, and the need to provide for, “a clear vision for the city’s neighborhoods and their future”.
The thrust of Long Beach’s expert reports is that design, scale and cohesion are critically important to the community as whole. And much focus was given to variances to bulk regulations (i.e., height and footprint). Two 16-story towers are not remotely within scale of the surrounding area and would be an absurd breach of our bulk regulations.
The Comprehensive Plan was an act of much needed foresight. It was intended to “provide tools for orderly growth, appropriate land use and development”. Envtl Assmt, 4. Notably, the Comprehensive Plan begins by stating:
The City of Long Beach Comprehensive Plan evolved from a 15-month planning process. The planning consultants, Saccardi & Schiff, Inc. worked closely with the Long Beach City Manager, City Council, Planning Advisory Board and various City departments to develop the plan. An extensive public participation was undertaken, including six community charrettes that focused on the goals and objectives of individual topics.
Comp Pln, Preface.
In contrast to the fully engaged and engaging process implemented to develop the Comprehensive Plan, the City’s residents have had little notice of or time to react and consider the I-Star variance request. The I-Star variance request is way beyond the run-of-the-mill variance for a dormer, deck height or an extra story. It will shape the character of the City for decades.
If not rejected out of hand, the variance request should be vetted by planning boards, community groups and independent expert advisors to the City, with an information campaign directed to residents so they have the real opportunity for voice on a variance that will shape their community for decades.
Based on statements at the January 23, 2014 ZBA meeting and media, the I-Star proposal seeks a variance to allow 522 residential rental units, approximately 100 more than permitted under existing zoning (or as approved under the prior development plan). In contrast, from available information the approved 2006 Philips International Superblock plan called for 325 condominium units and a 100 unit hotel. In short, the I-Star plan calls for approximately 200 more full time living residences, or, looked at in people numbers, somewhere between 200-400 more full time residents (and cars) at the same location.
This degree of density calls for a very careful and thorough analysis of traffic congestion and parking issues, impact on and capabilities of our water and sewer infrastructure, as well as our emergency services. Will the tax revenues for the project more than offset any additional demand and costs now and over time? If you assume development of the Foundation block, can the combined demands be met? Have reports been prepared on these considerations?
Is a SEQRA review/environmental impact statement required? If so, has it been done/ performed? Is I-Star or the City relying on such a review done in connection with the 2006 Philips’ plan? If so, is that possible given the differing plans?
Any resident who lives near or drives by this location can ably attest to the fact that 500 – 1000 more cars, even if all parked on premises, will add tremendously to traffic congestion and parking challenges of the area (whether by residents, guests or shopper/visitors). Will tower residents be required to pay for parking in the development’s parking spaces? If so, you can rest assured many will seek to park on the streets of the surrounding neighborhood, which is already glutted with Broadway, LIRR and beach overflow parking.
As noted in the Comprehensive Plan, “[a]lthough there is a significant amount of on-street parking along Broadway in the beach areas, it is insufficient during the popular summer season, resulting in spillover of parking into the adjoining residential areas.” Comp Pln, I-24 (emphasis added). Do the benefits of this development as proposed outweigh these issues? Have the residents of the immediately surrounding (and affected) neighborhood been polled on this?
The Comprehensive Plan (as well the 2005 Report) emphasizes the importance of the Superblock and Foundation blocks and careful consideration to complementary design and use.
Saccardi & Schiff note that “[a]ny development [of the Foundation Block] should complement the surrounding community and the adjacent Superblock [(for which a 10-story plan had already been approved)].” 2005 Rpt, VI-1; Comp Pln, I-27 (emphasis added). Surely, 160 foot towers do not “complement the surrounding community”, instead dwarfing everything in Long Beach, including the 10 story Avalon. In fact, the I-Star towers would dwarf everything on the South Shore of Nassau County.
The Foundation block and Superblock benefitted from the action in 2002 on section 9-105.14. Any consideration of development of the Superblock and any requested variances must consider the effect on development of the Foundation block and the impact on density and demands in the immediate area with both parcels developed.
This Plan or No Plan
The impression given by I-Star representatives at the January 23 ZBA meeting and otherwise rumored in the community is that “it’s all or nothing”, “this plan or no plan”. I would not expect I-Star to suggest differently and undercut its variance request. But, surely, an applicant’s intentions to not build anything if it doesn’t get its variance cannot be the cornerstone of the ZBA’s decision.
I-Star acquired the defaulted loan from the original lender with full knowledge that the loan was on a property that (i) had an approved 10-story plan, and (ii) was subject to a zoning limit of 110 feet. In other words, I-Star came to this parcel with full information. It is not for this ZBA to make sure the project is profitable to I-Star.3
In any event, whether or not it is a binary decision for I-Star, it is not a binary decision for the City. If the ZBA denies the variance outright or requires a substantial scaling back for approval, I-Star can determine whether to proceed. If it does not wish to proceed, it has already indicated it will sell the property. In view of the Superblock settlement, a new buyer would take the property free of the litigation overhang that had encumbered the property. In sum, I-Star or someone will build on the Superblock.
I applaud the City for bringing the Superblock litigation to an end and to press for the development of the Superblock. I want to see the Superblock developed, too.
The current proposal and variance request is not suitable to Long Beach. This City for decades through the latter half of the 1900s allowed Senator Reynolds’ beautifully planned community to begin to become a bit of a jumble, disregarding overall community design, and tarnishing this jewel on the Atlantic so close to NYC. The City had been on an upswing, and is trying to regain its trajectory after the Great Recession and Sandy. Development of the Superblock (and Foundation block) should be a cornerstone of our revitalization, but high density 160 foot towers should not be. I urge denial of the variance or delay for further consideration. A variance approval will alter Long Beach’s landscape for decades to come.
1 Information is to the best of my understanding from review of the Code of Ordinances, media reports and discussion with LB residents.
2 The Towers are 16 stories; Creedmoor’s right and left wings are about 16 (with the center portion stepped several stories higher).
3 That the I-Star plan does not include a hotel must improve its profitability/likelihood of success.