Community Defeats Developer In Battle Over Zoning Changes

The Lake Avenue Community Association won their fight against zoning changes that would have allowed a new super-sized apartment tower in their small neighborhood.

Sky-high plans

The City of Yonkers signed a letter of intent to sell 15 lots of land near Lennon Park to the Lemor Development Group and Empire Development Capital Holdings in 2021. This oddly-shaped property sits on a steep hill between busy avenues and quiet dead-end streets. The agreement required the developers to build at least 75 units of residential affordable housing–a commitment for these developers.

With great ambition, the developers proposed a massive 14-story 177-unit tower consisting of floor plans from studios to large three room apartments meant for families. As agreed, tenants would range from 40% to 80% of the area median income (AMI) for Westchester County.

However, the site was zoned, “M” for medium density housing and could not legally permit a building of this size. Furthermore, the plans only accommodated about half of the required parking as defined by the city’s ordinance. After a zoning change to “A” for high-density housing passed City Council, a list of 11 additional variances were requested to the Zoning Board of Appeals. These variances addressed the lack of parking, building height, and reduction in space to the adjacent streets.

Neighbors Organize

The neighborhood for which this building was planned is overseen by the Lake Avenue Community Association. This decade-old group of over 200 neighbors wasted no time organizing against these proposed changes. Through letter writing and petitioning campaigns, the group was able to flood the Zoning Board of Appeals with a mountain of complaints. While the residents stated their support for new housing in the area, the extreme size of a 153′ building abutting two-story homes was unacceptable.

Firmino Gomez, Toñia Capers, Alfred Lawrence, Steve Simpson
Firmino Gomez, Toñia Capers, Alfred Lawrence, Steve Simpson – credit The Yonkers Ledger

In addition to individual residents, owners of nearby apartment buildings also protested these changes. Attorneys representing nearby Monastery Towers and Finnian Sullivan Towers wrote to the Zoning Board of Appeals in March. While supporting affordable housing, but detailing the need to abide by current codes, they summarized that, “The character of the neighborhood will be changed for the benefit of the applicant but to the detriment of all nearby properties.”

Judgement day

Over 20 members of the Lake Avenue Association attended April’s monthly ZBA meeting to speak against these changes. After this visible pushback, the developer requested an adjournment of the approval process until July.

So, the group then prepared for its final defense to maintain the standards of their community. In a meeting prior to the July 19th ZBA hearing, they managed to win over support from their City Council member, Tasha Diaz. They also arranged for bussing of neighbors to attend the next day’s hearing at City Hall.

At the start of the hearing, ZBA Chairperson, Wilson Kimball, read aloud a letter from the developers. Two days prior they had sought yet another adjournment; now until September. However, this time, the city did not grant that request. So, that night’s meeting ultimately forced the vote now or never. Lemor seems to have chosen the latter and rescinded their entire application for variances.

The audience met this announcement with initial confusion and hesitation–unsure of its full meaning. After a verbal spat with outspoken resident Joey Bera, Chairperson Kimball plainly stated, “They did not get their variances. That’s it.

With that clear message, the relieved residents exited the City Hall chambers and reflected on their recent efforts. Toña Capers, who lives directly adjacent to the site, recalled a quote from Maya Angelou. “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

Thankfully, this time we did make a change. I’m grateful for my family, for the neighbors who joined us in this fight, and the Zoning Board members who gave us our voice back.

It appears that even without the developer rescinding their application, the ZBA was poised to support the residents and vote down the request for variances. An anonymous three-page letter written by a ZBA member iterated five points in a draft denial for the application. The letter appeared a day before the hearing and likely cemented the decision to abandon the project.

It is unclear what is next for this parcel of land near Lennon Park. The developers invested three years and tens of thousands of dollars in their plans to-date. They could amend these designs to align with current city ordinances, or take their designs to another neighborhood. But, whatever may be built in this neighborhood will surely come under the watchful eye of this highly-engaged and well-organized Lake Avenue Community Association.

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