Getting Lost in the “Open Space” of New York City’s Superblocks

Farrell Fritz, P.C.
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In Peyton v. New York City Bd. of Standards and Appeals, (2018 N.Y. 06870, 166 A.D.3d 120 (1st Dept 2018), Petitioners-community residents (“Petitioners”) commenced a proceeding to challenge the City of New York (“City”) Board of Standards and Appeals’s (“Board”) resolution upholding the City Department of Buildings’s (“DOB”) decision to grant a permit for the construction of a twenty-story nursing home (“Project”) on the Upper West Side.  The main issue is the City’s “open space” mandate (“Open Space Law”) and whether the Project provides enough open space to suffice the requirement.  The Court rulings and the Project’s viability hinged entirely upon how to calculate compliance with the Open Space Law.

At the outset, it is crucial to note the difference between a building-by-building calculation for open space and an open space calculation in the aggregate.  The former calculates the required open space with respect to each individual building within a zoning lot, whereas the latter considers the open space requirement for all buildings existing on an entire zoning lot together.  This distinction is at the heart of the dispute.

Procedurally, as relevant herein, the DOB made its open space calculation for the Project based upon a “building-by-building” methodology and decided to issue the construction permit.  One or more of the Petitioners appealed the DOB’s decision to the Board.  The Board resolved to uphold the issuance of the permit and the calculation methodology, which resolution the Petitioners challenged in this proceeding.  The Supreme Court, New York County, denied the petition and affirmed the Board’s resolution.  Petitioners appealed and the Appellate Division, First Department, reversed.

The Project site is within a “superblock” zoning lot known as “Park West Village” comprising 308,475 square feet, or 7 acres (“Zoning Lot”) (between 97th and 100th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues; the complex extends to Central Park, but that portion is not at issue).  The complex on the Zoning Lot was built in the 1950s and 1960s as part of a federally subsidized middle-income urban renewal project and includes residential buildings, a school, a church, a public library, a health center and commercial buildings.  There are four residential buildings: three original sixteen-story buildings and a more recently constructed twenty-nine-story mixed commercial and residential building (“Fourth Building”).

A forty-year deed restriction had prohibited construction on the Zoning Lot through 2006 and the present owner (“Owner”) acquired the land shortly before the prohibition expired.  Approving and constructing the Fourth Building was the center of controversy between Petitioners, Owner, the City and others, which controversy also revolved around the City’s open space requirements.

Since its inception in 1961, and despite amendments in 1977, the Open Space Law had no particular design or mode to address zoning lots improved with multiple buildings.  With respect to the Fourth Building, there was a disagreement over whether its rooftop open space could count towards the open space requirement for the entire Zoning Lot.  The Fourth Building’s rooftop space included a 42,500 square feet garden, with a mosaic tile saltwater pool, sundeck and lawn.  However, the rooftop garden provided access only to residents of the Fourth Building and did not allow access to occupants of other buildings within the Zoning Lot.  If the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden was included in the open space calculation, then the project met the requirements; if not, then the project would fail.

The DOB performed a building-by-building analysis for the Zoning Lot, included the rooftop garden in its calculation and issued a building permit in 2007.  Residents of Park West Village and others challenged the DOB’s approval based upon the fact that the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden did not provide access to all residents of the Zoning Lot and, thus, could not be included in the open space calculation.

In 2009, the Board resolved to affirm the DOB’s decision (“2009 Resolution”), wherein the Board noted that the Open Space Law’s language requires open space with respect to a “building,” not the zoning lot as a whole; therefore, open space among multiple buildings need not be common, centralized space shared by all occupants of the zoning lot, and the building-by-building methodology for calculating open space suffices.  The 2009 Resolution utilized the building-by-building methodology for the first time and stated: “as each of the buildings is allocated the amount of space that is in excess of that which would be required…if they were located on separate zoning lots, it cannot be seen how those residents would be deprived of an equitable share of open space by the proposed building.”  The Board’s resolution was challenged, but the challenge was settled out of court and the Fourth Building was completed.

Two years later, in February 2011, the City amended the Open Space Law (“2011 Amendments”).  The definition of “open space” has always been: “that part of a zoning lot, including courts or yards, which is open and unobstructed from its lowest level to the sky and is accessible to and usable by all persons occupying a dwelling unit or a rooming unit on the zoning lot.”  The 2011 Amendments modified several other provisions of the Open Space Law (e.g. “open space ratio,” “minimum open space,” etc.) by substituting the words “zoning lot” and “all zoning lots” for the words “building” and “any buildings,” focusing the law and its analysis upon the actual zoning lots – as opposed to individual buildings.

After the City enacted the 2011 Amendments, the Owner sought to utilize a former parking lot within the Zoning Lot, which Park West Village residents previously used.  The Owner entered into an exchange agreement with the Project’s developer (“Developer”) to swap the parking lot for another parcel of land located north of the Zoning Lot and owned by the Developer (“New Parcel”).  The New Parcel was large enough for the Owner to construct another luxury apartment building.  The Owner agreed to pay the Developer $35,000,000 and the Developer promised to complete the project on the former parking lot.  However, this exchange was contingent upon, among other things, the Developer obtaining a permit from the DOB for construction of the Project.

In March 2011, the Developer made its applications to the DOB, which expressly noted that the open space within the Project would be accessible to all persons occupying a dwelling unit on the Zoning Lot.  Developer’s open space calculations for the Project included all of the open space on the zoning lot, including the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden.  Petitioners objected and argued that, based upon the 2011 Amendments to the Open Space Law, the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden no longer counted towards the open space calculation for the Zoning Lot (due to restricted access) and that the building-by-building methodology was invalid.

The DOB disagreed and granted a building permit for the Project.  Petitioners appealed to the Board and the Board resolved to affirm (“2011 Resolution”), relying upon the 2009 Resolution: “in the case of a multi-building zoning lot, the open space definition could be read to allow some open space to be reserved for the residents of a single building as long as the residents of each building on the zoning lot have access to at least the amount of space that would be required…if each building were on separate zoning lots.”  The Board also noted that the 2011 Amendments did not dictate a change in the DOB’s or Board’s building-by-building methodology or open space analysis.

Petitioners challenged the Board’s 2011 Resolution by commencing this proceeding and argued that, even though the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden was arguably within the meaning of open space when it was constructed in 2009, it presently was not open space by virtue of the 2011 Amendments.  These changes to the Open Space Law eliminated any ambiguity as to how to calculate open space and the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden cannot be included because the area is not available to all occupants of the Zoning Lot.

It was undisputed that the Project sufficed the open space requirement with the inclusion of the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden.  It was also undisputed that the Project failed to provide adequate open space without the rooftop garden.  The Board’s main argument was that the City’s Open Space Law is ambiguous and, therefore, the DOB and the Board have discretion to construe it.  In particular, the Board argued that the definition of open space (with accessibility and usability for all residents within a zoning lot) is irreconcilable with the definition of “zoning lot,” which contemplated multiple buildings on a single lot.  Therefore, the Open Space Law was ambiguous and the DOB and the Board were free to interpret and reconcile this ambiguity, i.e. by utilizing the building-by-building methodology.  The Supreme Court denied Petitioner’s petition and dismissed the proceeding. Petitioners appealed and the Appellate Division reversed and annulled the 2011 Resolution.

On appeal, the Appellate Division disagreed with the Board and adopted the Petitioners’ argument that the 2011 Amendments removed the contextual basis upon which the Board relied.  Judicial deference should be given to an agency’s interpretation of a statute it is charged with implementing, unless the interpretation is unreasonable or irrational.  However, where the question is one of pure statutory interpretation, an agency’s interpretation is accorded much less weight and Courts are free to ascertain the proper interpretation from the statutory language and legislative intent.  Here, resolving the dispute concerning the 2011 Amendments does not implicate the expertise of the DOB or the Board as the implementing administrative agencies; instead, the resolution is one of pure statutory analysis and does not require deference to the agencies.

The Appellate Division held that the definition of “open space” is clear and unambiguous, requiring open space to be accessible to all residents of any residential building on the zoning lot – not only the building containing the open space in question.  The Court noted this clarity is further bolstered by the 2011 Amendments, which eliminated all references to “building” and replaced the term with “zoning lot” in the relevant Open Space Law provisions.  Therefore, any space, including a rooftop, that is to be considered “open space” for purpose of satisfying the requirement must be accessible and usable by all residents of the zoning lot.  In addition, the Court expressly invalidated the building-by-building methodology: “Lest there be any doubt, we find that the 2011 [A]mendments now preclude use of [this] methodology, which has been an exception to this clear statutory import.”

The Court also noted that absence of legislative history did not evidence an intent to accept the building-by-building methodology.  Rather, the 2011 Amendments replacement of the word “building” was an unmistakable rejection of the use of this formula.  Notably, one of the four Judges dissented, which may lead the case to the Court of Appeals.

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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