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Friday, November 4, 2016

Chronicles of Stolen Space - Department of Buildings

This is the second in a series of posts about the failures of city agencies to protect New York City's public spaces, using the example of the Millenium Hilton. This post examines the role of the Department of Buildings (DOB).

DOB is the primary agency responsible for protecting the public's interest in Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS). A POPS is created when a developer dedicates space for permanent public use in exchange for extra development rights. The City Planning Commission issues a Special Permit, which is enforced by DOB. Signs denoting the status of the public space are supposed to be installed, and they inform people that complaints about the space can be directed to the Department of City Planning or DOB.

The Special Permit has specific drawings
with designs by Stonehill & Taylor
for the required public improvements
Unfortunately, after the Millenium Hilton cashed in on its extra development, it did not provide the full public space. An area designated as a sidewalk widening was instead taken back and used for extra parking by their garage operator. In fact, the cars illegally parked in this space encroached on the sidewalk and used it as a drive aisle for decades. Instead of providing more space for pedestrians, there was actually a narrower effective sidewalk width with cars driving around on it. The developer cashed in again. After promising the space to the City, it turned around and got more rent from the parking operator due to the additional revenue it could get by renting the extra parking spaces.

Adding further insult, the Millenium Hilton went back to the City in 2005 to amend the Special Permit. As part of a plan to make even more money, it committed to upgrade this space into a seating area including curved benches with lighting and a bit of planting. After its new application was approved, it just kept using the area as a parking lot anyway.

The paperwork on this was crystal clear, any way you could look at it. The new Special Permit had explicit drawings of the design for the space. Even if that document had somehow gone missing, the Certificate of Occupancy and the Building Code do not permit this sort of parking lot edging a sidewalk.


The Certificate of Occupancy specifies a capacity of 6 parking spaces on the first floor, which are included inside the building.  The Certificate of Occupancy does not include an Open Parking Lot pursuant to section 406.7 of the Building Code, nor does it indicate parking as an allowed use in the Open Space.

406.7 Open parking lots.
406.7.1 General. The provisions of this section shall govern 
the construction of open parking lots and to all such existing 
premises hereafter enlarged or changed in location. 
406.7.2 Definitions, The following words and terms shall, 
for the purposes of this chapter and as used elsewhere in this 
code, have the meanings shown herein. 

OPEN PARKING LOT. An exterior space with surfacing 
at grade used for the storage or sale of more than four motor 
vehicles, including but not limited to parking lots, motor 
vehicles sales lots, and accessory open parking spaces. 
406.7.3 Permit required. Any premise intended to be occu- 
pied for the storage or sale of motor vehicles on an open 
parking lot shall require an application to be filed with the 
department in order to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy. 
Such Certificate of Occupancy shall indicate the maximum 
number of vehicles to be accommodated and the type of 
vehicle, whether private passenger or commercial, to be 
stored. An application for or including an open parking lot 
shall be accompanied by a plan exhibiting the following... 
406.7.4 Locations prohibited. All vehicular activities associated with the operation of open parking lots shall be entirely within the property lines of the premises. Vehicles shall not be permitted to encroach upon the sidewalks. No motor vehicle may be stored or parked in any location where it would obstruct a required window or required exit of any adjacent building. 
The Building Code is clear on the requirements for an Open Parking Lot

The parking use of this space would clearly fall under the requirements for an Open Parking Lot. Every day, without fail, at least six cars could be found parked in the sidewalk extension/plaza space alone, with even more at times parked in the middle of the regular public sidewalk.

Despite complaints with specific details, DOB failed to make any effort to bring the POPS into compliance. Instead, for unknown reasons, it deferred complaints in creative ways and then closed them with inexplicable reports denying there were cars parked in this space.

The first complaint, about illegal change of use of the public space, was submitted on April 23rd. It was closed administratively on June 6th, stating it had been reported under another complaint (the third complaint).

The second complaint and third complaint were submitted on May 10th, about illegally converting the space to a parking lot and closing the space to the public. The second complaint was closed on May 11th, stating it was previously reported under the first complaint. Supposedly an inspection was performed on June 8th, resulting in closure of the third complaint on June 17th. They claimed there were "NO CARS IN THE PUBLIC AREA."

On June 27th, another complaint about illegally converting the space was submitted. It was closed on July 11th, reporting an inspection the prior day that again mysteriously found no cars parked in the POPS.

The fifth complaint was lodged on July 19th. Yet again, an inspection somehow found "NO PRIVATE OR RENTAL CARS PARKED ON PUBLIC PLAZA AT TIME OF INSPECTION" on August 3rd, despite the fact the space was filled with cars every single day.

Something is clearly going wrong at DOB. At first, it sounded as though the complaint was simply misunderstood. Perhaps they thought the complaint was about cars parked on the plaza space that has been constructed fronting onto Church Street? So subsequent complaints were explicitly detailed and included marked up drawings and photographs of the space. For whatever reason, it appears somebody in DOB somebody was choosing to misrepresent the use of this space for parking.

Since DOB was clearly refusing to acknowledge the space was being used illegally for parking, despite the fact it was so painfully visible every single day, the sixth complaint on August 9th took a different tact: the required amenities are not being maintained for public use. The drawing of the amenities from the Special Permit was included in the complaint. Although this complaint should be very quick and easy to confirm (look at the drawing, see it requires benches, walk over and see there are no benches, issue a violation), the complaint still remains open. This very long response time greatly exceeds both the performance targets for DOB and its average response times.

There has been some recent improvement in the space. For the first time, after decades of abuse, there are no longer cars parked in the POPS. I contacted the parking operator's parent company and raised the issue of liabilities of parking illegally and driving on the sidewalk, and it took corrective action. Meanwhile, the DOB has steadfastly refused to perform its job to enforce the Special Permit. The buildings owners continue to benefit from the additional profitable space in the building, as the result of the commitment to provide public space that we have never gotten, and the DOB is choosing to let them keep cheating us.

Until the DOB decides to do its job and require the Millenium Hilton to install the required amenities, we have a barren space just sitting here waiting...

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