Feb. 5, 2016 By Christian Murray
Community Board 2 voted last night against granting the developers of the Paragon Paint building the variance they need to construct a 28-story tower and two other large buildings on Vernon Boulevard.
The developers need a zoning variance in order to build 344 rental apartments over the Paragon Paint factory, located at 45-40 Vernon Blvd., and two adjoining sites that are currently zoned for manufacturing.
CB 2’s rejection of the plan, by a vote of 24 to 4 (with two abstentions), is merely advisory and the decision will be ultimately left in the hands of the Board of Standards and Appeals. Unlike a standard zoning change, BSA applications do not need the approval of the City Council—and therefore, in essence, the support of the local councilmember.
The developers’ 28-story tower would be attached to the Paragon Paint building and set back 50 feet from Vernon Boulevard.
The development would also consist of two other buildings that would be 13 stories and eight stories, respectively. The Paragon Paint building would be revamped and would be converted into apartments.
The project is a joint venture of Simon Baron Development and CRE Development.
One aspect of the development that impressed the Board was a planned half-acre public park that would open on Anable Basin. The park would be accessible by Vernon Boulevard via a large public space between the tower and the 13-story building.
Pat O’Brien, chairman of CB 2 and a member of the Board’s Land use Committee, commended the developers for putting forward plans that included a “visionary” park, as well as undertaking the cleanup of the polluted land under the old paint factory.
Nevertheless, O’Brien said the Board was concerned with the size and scale of the 28-story building. He argued that the developers were selective in the way they compared their project to the high rises on the East River to present their case, as opposed to the low rise nature of Vernon Boulevard.
O’Brien said that there have been efforts through a number of rezonings in the 1990s and early 2000s to keep the buildings low rise on Vernon Boulevard. Furthermore, he added, the Board had to be mindful of the industrial zoning to the north.
O’Brien said that the Board was being asked to approve a one-off zoning change in an area “that begs for a more comprehensive plan.”
He said that the Board has asked the Department of City Planning to undertake a formal study of the area so future development can be done according to a set of parameters that have been vetted and gone through a public process and hearings.
With no such process, CB 2 was concerned that its one-off approval would set a precedent as to what future developers along Vernon Boulevard (going north) might seek. While this variance application pertains to this property alone from a legal standpoint, it does become a point of reference, O’Brien said.
To meet BSA standards, developers must prove that the property has a unique physical condition that also poses a financial hardship – in this case, toxic contamination. As home to the Paragon Paint factory, where millions of gallons of paint and varnish were processed every year, industrial materials leaked all over the site and into the river.
A variance cannot be granted if a hardship was caused by the owner of the property, according to BSA rules.
Matt Baron of Simon Baron Development presented his case.
“We have taken an environmentally dirty site that has been uninhabitable and vacant for 20 years, taken a lot of risk and spent a lot of money,” Baron said.
He said that the developers need the variance to make the project financially feasible.
Baron asserted that the developers have also given something back to the community by creating the half-acre of park space as well as building affordable housing into their development. However, the affordable housing component remains up in the air now that the 421a tax emption, which used to provide property tax benefits to developers of affordable housing, has expired.
Board member Benjamin Guttmann said that he was in favor of the development, adding that it would add green space to the neighborhood. He said that the increased supply of apartments would also help combat the red-hot demand for housing and that additional retail space would be welcomed.
However, several members of the public were adamantly opposed to project.
Vincent Pitaro, a Long Island City resident, said a 28-story building would loom large over the neighborhood and it doesn’t matter that it is set back 50 feet from the street. Others expressed concerns about the towers’ shadows.
Pitaro said the project might look good by itself but when others are built alongside it, the street might look like a “collective disaster.”