Some residents are at a breaking-point over new high-rise developments that do not conform to the city’s zoning codes. Long-existing and newly-formed residents’ groups have sprung into action with petitions and protests to stop what they believe is harming their communities. One ardent, well-organized group may even succeed in preventing one such tower from being erected.
An Alliance of Neighbors Forms
The Lake Avenue Community Association started with a similar mission as most organizations of its kind-to improve the quality of life of their residents. Officially formed in 2013, the handful of original neighbors living near Lennon park immediately went to work. One founder of the group, Steve Simpson, quickly discovered that the path to change went through city hall and community organizing.
Chief among the associations’ concerns was public safety and quality of life. Understandably so, because they recently lost their Yonkers Police Department foot patrols due to budget cuts. “As residents we were concerned about the notable and steady decline in our neighborhood,” said Simpson as he referenced the increase of crimes ranging from car break-ins to shootings.
The group began to meet monthly and invited elected officials, the City’s constituent services, and representatives from the YPD’s 4th Precinct. This steady cadence of interactions between the community and their government produced notable improvements. A police foot patrol returned as well as the installation of new security cameras in high crime areas. And beyond public safety, the association also negotiated resources to clean streets and better maintain greenspaces in the neighborhood.
Today, the group stands 200-members strong and continues to meet monthly. Their latest fight is against a proposal for an over-sized apartment tower called, Glenwood Hill Manor. And on the third Tuesday of every month, they meet to strategize.
A Well-Intentioned Agreement
Over two years ago, the City of Yonkers signed a letter of intent to sell 15 lots within the Lake Ave neighborhood. Specifically, these lots create a small trapezoidal shape between Father Finian Sullivan Drive and Somerville Place. The intended buyer is the Lemor Development Group partnered with investor, Empire Development Holdings. From the onset, the agreement stated that the developer must build at least 75 units of affordable housing on the property. During a meeting with the Yonkers Planning Board (lead agency for the project), an attorney for the developer affirmed their support to build affordable housing.
“Lemor has a strong commitment to reducing the critical shortage of affordable housing.”Neil Alexander of Cuddy & Feder representing Lemor Development Group
The developer returned with plans to erect 177 units of affordable housing. The apartment floor-plans range from 10 studios, 70 one-bedrooms, 77 two-bedrooms, 20 three-bedroom units. These 10 floors of residential units sit above four levels of indoor parking accommodating 138 parking spaces. As agreed, tenants will range from 40% to 80% of the area median income (AMI) for Westchester County.
Where More May Not Always Be Better
While a great need exists for more affordable housing in Yonkers, the proposed plan violates numerous city ordinances. In summary, the building is twice the size with half the parking as mandated by this neighborhood. But, the developer set out to bypass these regulations nevertheless.
The first hurdle to clear was the literal zoning classification for that site. The property was originally zoned “M” for medium-density housing. Multi-family homes, townhomes, and small apartment buildings typically represent this type of residential zone. But, an amendment from the Yonkers City Council on February 14th, 2023 supersized this area to zone “A” for high-density housing.
That change only opened the door for the next set of changes. Specifically, a long list of violations that will now need variances granted from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Full list of variances sought by the developer
- Exceeding maximum permitted height, Section 43-27, Table 43-3 (required: 75 ft., proposed: 156 ft.).
- Insufficient side yard, Section 43-27, Table 43-3 (required: 16 ft., proposed: 15 ft.).
- Insufficient side-front yard, Section 43-27, Table 43-3 (required: 20 ft., proposed: 17 ft. Sommerville Pl & 10 ft. Fr. Finial Sullivan Dr.).
- Insufficient rear yard, Section 43-27, Table 43-3 (required: 25 ft., proposed: 10 ft.).
- Insufficient front yard, Section 43-27, Table 43-3 (required: 25 ft., proposed: 4 ft.).
- Insufficient parking, Section 43-128, Table 43-4 (required: 271 spaces, proposed: 138 spaces).
- Parking within the minimum side-front yard on Sommerville Place, not permitted, Section 43-133(A)2.
- Parking within 10 feet of a building on the same lot is not permitted, Reference Yonkers Zoning Ordinance 43-44.A.9.b.
- Exceeding maximum permitted floor area ratio, Section 43-27, Table 43-3 (required 3.0, proposed 4.23).
- Exceeding maximum permitted building coverage, Section 43-27, Table 43-3 (required 40 percent, proposed 42.6 percent).
- Fences and walls, including retaining walls, must not exceed 4 feet in height in a required front yard setback or in any other required setback abutting a street and 6 feet in height within any other required yard setback (Reference Yonkers Zoning Ordinance 43-41.D.3.a).
The Community Organizes to Preserve Standards
Once the Lake Avenue Community Association caught wind of these requested changes, they launched a mission to prevent them.
To prepare for this fight, Simpson and other neighbors dove into research. They reviewed ZBA processes, past cases, and even watched hours of NY State-mandated training videos on the subject.
In an April 1st newsletter, residents learned in meticulous detailed both about the building plans and the requested variances. This email then pleaded with neighbors to join letter-writing and petition campaigns to prevent the approval of the ordinance overrides.
But, the group wanted to have the ZBA put faces to these names. So, 20 members attended April’s monthly meeting. Of them, 12 stood before the board to speak against the changes that they feel would cause harm to their community.
“I’m supportive of Yonkers, I want affordable housing, I want development, but I want it in keeping with the fabric of the community. So, please listen to us and reject these outlandish requests for a variance.”Judith Garan
In addition to individuals, 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.”
Will These Protests Matter?
As of late, the ZBA grants virtually any and all variances put before them by big developers. So, despite the actions of the residents, this plan may proceed like all of the other over-sized towers before it.
But, even some COY officials are wary of this particular project. Comments from the City Engineer, Planning Department, and Westchester County Planning Board all express caution in approving the plans as-is. We reached out to City Council Majority Leader Tasha Diaz of the third district who represents this neighborhood for her opinion on the development. She did not respond.
The next Zoning Board of Appeals meeting to discuss this project is on July 19th at 6pm in Yonkers City Hall. The Lake Avenue Community Association plans to bus dozens of its residents to be in attendance.