Wall Street has been under the vague control of the Redevelopment Agency since the great flood of 1955. In theory, Redevelopment Agencies should put themselves out of business once they “redevelop” the area. Not Wall Street. After 70 years the Redevelopment Agency has little progress to speak of yet they just approved the largest and most robust plan ever for the area. If you want to use the bathroom on Wall Street you need the Agency’s permission….
Anyone who follows local real estate news know that I am tangled in a web of lawsuits and disagreements with the Redevelopment Agency and the City. Plenty of people do not support my methods but most people appreciate my effort and goals. My focus is on improving the Wall Street Neighborhood. I am also fighting hard to change the regulations for the area because they absolutely do NOT work for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
I am also doing everything I can within the existing rules and regulations. I have completed four renovation projects in the Wall Street since the new CBD zoning regulations were adopted and since the 2019 Wall West Neighborhood Redevelopment Plan was passed*. These projects added 32 new apartments and four brand new retail. They were done by the book and fully approved by the Zoning Department, Building Department, fire marshal, Redevelopment Agency, and one of them required historic commission approval. Don’t get me wrong. I hate the process. It is crying for modernization, but I have suffered through it and gotten some things done. Sadly, all of the projects could have been better if they were not so limited by the rules. For example, I built 11 apartments on one site when legally I could put 17. Another I put four when I could put 10.
Since those projects were built, I have submitted four other projects. Each of which have been met a slow death at the Redevelopment Agency. Each new project submitted was met with significant resistance. New rules and regulations have suddenly popped up. Rules and regulations that were not approved as part of the CBD Zoning Regulations or the 2019 Plan, and were not present for my previous four projects. The resistance is coming almost entirely from the Agency who is supposed to only have a very limited role in the permitting process. RDA has “Façade Design review” only. Interior and structural work is not under their purview.
One of my projects was stalled because I was told my building could have up to four facades. While the front of the building was not changing Agency staff told me there were some minor changes to one side and the rear, and a building can have up to four facades. Another got hung up when the Agency staffer requested ADA compliance information. ADA compliance is obviously an important consideration, but it is a Building Department responsibility to enforce. It has nothing to do with the Redevelopment Agency and it is not Façade design review.
The most egregious Redevelopment Agency abuse involves a new family bakery that is ready to open on the corner of Wall Street and River Street. This story can easily get down into the weeds of government and lawsuits, so I will try to explain it as clearly and simply as possible.
The issue revolves around Façade Design review and what is the role of the Redevelopment Agency. I submitted a plan to build a hotel and eight new retail stores at the former My Three Sons location. Zoning Director Steve Kleppin shot the down the concept based upon a disagreement about a parking agreement dating back to 1962, which is when the city and Redevelopment Agency took private property including my predecessor’s property to contract the Yankee Doodle garage. The concept was to create a parking field for the entire downtown. Inherit in the land taking and garage construction was a grandfathering and immunity from providing parking on site. This parking issue is far from settled but I withdrew that version of the plan for the time being so I could try to at least get some new stores opened. So, I then submitted a scaled down version of the project that removed the hotel and focused on the retail stores below. I was not sure at the time, and I am still not sure today, exactly how many stores I will actually build and how I will finish them all. I wanted to pull the permit so I could begin working and I would be in position to quickly build stores as I was able to secure tenants. Each tenant is different, and they have different ideas on how they will finish the store including the façade. At the time, I just submitted somewhat of a blank canvas.
The revised plan was to do some interior work to help put the building in a condition that was more attractive to potential tenants and that could also provide a sample store or two to help potential tenants envision the space. This is speculative work. The final product comes after tenants are secured, which is when a tenant fit up permit application is submitted which requires façade design review before a certificate of occupancy can be issued.
When I submitted this retail only version of the plan I expected to quickly be approved by the Agency. I had just been approved recently for four retail stores right across the street. Instead of a quick approval I was told that I was required to hire a third-party architect to review my plans. Keep in mind this is shortly after I was told I had four facades on my project around the corner. There had been a big change. New rules were popping up.
After some pushback, the Redevelopment Agency emailed a 3-page pamphlet that outlines the steps to get a project approved. This was the first time I learned of the pamphlet. In the pamphlet there is a footnote that states in fine print that projects that are more than $50,000 automatically trigger third party architect review. This pamphlet not part of the CBD zoning regulations, and it is not included in the 2019 Redevelopment Plan. It was never discussed or approved publicly. There is no legitimate way a member of the public could have been aware of this pamphlet or the footnote, and it was never mentioned as part of the four projects I recently built.
After becoming aware of the pamphlet, I had a strong negative reaction. Soon thereafter, I adapted my plans and told the Agency that I would further limit my project. I decided that I would only pursue improvements in less than $50,000 increments. Maybe even one store at a time if that is what it took. Once tenants were secured then I would go to the Agency for review and approval. I still was not sure, and I am still not sure to this day, how I will fully finish all of the façades. If I went to a third party for review for the “blank canvas” I would have to go for additional review each time I secured a new tenant. Third party review is approximately $3,000 and takes 30-60 days.
A short time later, I was able to attract some tenants, and a lease was entered into with an ice cream shop, only later to have it fall apart. Some permits had been submitted and eventually approved. (This storefront permit was the one that Agency staff took a keen interest in ADA compliance). Work commenced. I decided to build wooden scaffold at the sidewalk to shield the unsightly construction. I then hired two local artists to decorate the scaffold. As work continued in this old building there were many mysteries. It turns out the building is actually three separate buildings that were combined and added onto over the years. We uncovered some cool, old doors and windows hidden behind newer walls. We also uncovered huge holes in the side of the building that likely date back to when the building was a factory.
Flash forward to February 2021. We come to make an agreement with a family bakery to open in one of the stores. After several weeks of planning and discussion we determine that the bakery will take 1 store and the back of second store, which meant that we would tear down the brand new walls we had just built inside. We start plugging away on the bakery and pulling the requisite permits.
A permit for the bakery was submitted. It never gets reviewed.
Since then, other permits have been submitted by me, and also by Byron the Baker. The Agency refused to review the permits insisting that the entire building must undergo a comprehensive review. Why? No permit was submitted that broke the $50,000 façade improvement threshold. There is no permit submitted that is outstanding other than the bakery. It is not clear what the Agency would like to see submitted or what they would have reviewed. In due time other permits will be submitted and reviewed as tenants are secured. Most if not all should fall below the $50,000 threshold.
Let Byron bake! Find a way. It is not that complicated.
The space is built. The façade is done! The space is fully approved by the building department, health department, fire marshal and complies with zoning. We just need the Redevelopment to give their blessing for a space and façade that are already done. The bakery is one block from the Redevelopment office. They can just walk over to do their façade design review. What they see is what they get. No additional façade work is proposed.
The Redevelopment Agency is overstepping its role to make a lengthy, complicated permit process even more difficult. Sadly, the bakery is collateral damage in their petty fight.
*The validity of the 2019 Wall St West Ave Neighborhood Plan is being challenged in court. A trial is scheduled for May 2022.