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Extending the Finger
As building permits lapse and must be renewed before construction can continue, Burg residents fight back

The excavation and foundation work for the so-called Finger Building at 144 North 8th Street in Williamsburg began in fall 2004, a few months after the passage of the rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint in May. It was a significant ground breaking: if the developers could complete their foundation by the following May, it could be vested under the old zoning. This would allow the building to rise to 16 stories, as opposed to the five stories set out by the new regulations. And once the new zoning took effect, nothing could rise to match it, and the community couldn’t oppose it because it was built as-of-right.

Three years into the embattled project’s top-and-start construction (“Stubbed Finger,” AN 08_05.09.2007), a number of vested buildings in the neighborhood, including the Finger Building, have come before the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) to have their construction permits extended, and Community Board 1 (CB1), which covers Williamsburg and Greenpoint, has been given a chance to speak out. Ward Dennis, chair of the CB1 Universal Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) committee, said “It’s the only time we’ve had our opinions heard.”

The only problem is, the BSA may not be listening very closely. In addition to having only a one-year window in which to lay their foundations, developers only receive two-year building permits under which they can complete the rest of their buildings, after which time the BSA must agree to extend them. To receive an extension, developers must show they have, as per the zoning regulations, completed “significant construction” and made “significant expenditures.” But the regulations are no more specific than that, leaving the board to decide what qualifies as significant.

Dennis and his fellow committee members said at a September 25 meeting that they have a hard time seeing how the two buildings before them could be considered significant construction. Though the Finger Building has reached ten stories, it is currently bound up in litigation to add an additional six, taking it from 125 feet to 210 feet. “It’s years from completion and half done at best,” Dennis said. The other building, 55 Eckford Street, was even further behind, comprising eight stories of superstructure and little else because of financing issues.

When asked what would qualify, Jeff Mulligan, executive director of the BSA, admitted that it doesn’t take much. “Historically, at least some superstructure suits the board,” he told AN. He also acknowledged that the community board was playing more of an advisory role than anything else.

Mulligan said he would not address specific buildings, but given a theoretical one—ten stories with some walls and interiors completed and an expenditure of $13 million out of $22 million, with more stories to be built—he said it stood a very good chance of passing. When Dennis was told this, he was bothered. “As far as I can tell, this only rewards bad behavior, not discourages it,” he said. The only way to know for sure is when the BSA rules on October 16.

Matt Chaban