Zoning Board of Appeals Meeting Sees Community Backlash

This month’s Zoning Board of Appeals meeting displayed the deepening divide that exists between the residents of the City of Yonkers and the agency planning its future.

The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) is a volunteer group of seven individuals appointed by the mayor. Per the city charter, they are charged with deciding on exceptions to city ordinances called, “variances.” The board meets each month, and May 2023’s meeting had over a dozen items on its agenda; summing over four dozen variances in total.

A mostly full audience in the ceremonial courtroom of Yonkers City Hall assembled to observe and comment to the board members seated around a long table in the center of the gallery. The comments became so passionate that five police officers were called in to monitor the room.

ZBA meeting
Audience at ZBA meeting. credit: Elizabeth Diaz

Towers of obstruction

Most in the crowd were present to protest the two luxury apartment buildings proposed for Woodworth Avenue. This project dubbed, the “twin towers” could stand as a pair of 32-story buildings housing 674 apartments. The community around that site has been protesting for months with complaints over parking, sunlight, and strain on local infrastructure. They also worry that increased rentals in lieu of home ownership weakens the camaraderie and character of the neighborhood.

Members of this group like Jeannette García-Alonzo and Judith Garan have called on the city to impose a moratorium on new development on the west side of Yonkers.

I am concerned that a volunteer board that is not being transparent can be doing things that are against our own building department. And that developers can come in on a scrap of land and build buildings that are out of character with Yonkers.

Judith Garan

Dissolve this board

Another local resident, Craig Mariette, took issue not just with the developments, but with the board itself. He has been in Yonkers since his mother purchased her property over 50 years ago. Looking across the panel of board members, he noted, “I don’t recognize any of you from my neighborhood.” Board members are not required to reside in Yonkers per the charter. So, Mariette correctly observed that some of them do not live in the city for which they make decisions.

Craig Mariette speaking at ZBA meeting
Craig Mariette speaking at ZBA meeting. credit: Elizabeth Diaz

Mariette then took his criticism of the board even further. He declared that he thinks the mayor should dissolve the entire board. His suggestion was that the City Council select a member from each district. This would be so the city can be properly represented by its citizens. He reminded the board–and the audience–that these appointed positions can be changed via political power. Voting in new candidates can reconstitute the board to a composition more favorable to listening to residents instead of developers.

The personal is political

And two such new candidates were in attendance. Mayoral contender for the Democratic nomination, Margaret Fountain-Coleman, sat on the same bench as Working Families Party candidate for the third council district, Hector Santiago.

Coleman made her public comments imploring the board to do “a quality check, a morality check, a check that will implore you to hear the voices […] and pleas of your community.” Her concerns on overdevelopment range from its impact on schools and infrastructure, to parking. She disabuses the notion put forth by developers that people don’t drive cars anymore. It’s this notion which then permits the ZBA to grant variances for vastly reduced parking than required by the city’s codes.

And a variance on parking was exactly the reason Hector Santiago spoke at this meeting. He lives across the street from the La Mora Senior Apartments project on Mulberry Street. The MHACY-owned and developed property presented new plans before the board due to a massive construction error. Because the concrete foundation was poured 10 feet from the approved plans, it cannot accommodate the original 30 parking spots per the design. Therefore, the developer sought a variance for only 14 parking spots for this 60 unit building. Santiago reminded the board that if a resident or small business makes a mistake, the building department has them pause construction or even tear it all down. However, this developer was allowed to build undeterred, assuming it would get its requested variance. The developer was correct and the ZBA unanimously granted the necessary variances to reduce the parking by half.

ZBA members deliberating
ZBA members deliberating. credit: Elizabeth Diaz

A room with a skew

The issue at the center of these resident complaints appears to be the extreme nature of the variances being requested–and almost always granted. For example, five feet taller on a 75 foot building would likely go unnoticed. But, requesting a variance for over twice the height at 156 feet, questions the very existence of city ordinances. Historically, these variances are for bending the rules, not wholly breaking them. But the more important question is, have the residents of Yonkers reached their own breaking point?

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