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City should not grant variance for religious school in CB 8

By Bob Harris

A community facility desiring to legalize building violations and add another floor was just turned down by Community Board 8. The community facility is the Sephardic Congregation, on 72nd Avenue between Main and 141st streets, at 141-41 72nd Ave.

The city zoning resolution makes special provisions for community facilities which are houses of worship, religious buildings, schools, hospitals, doctor’s offices, group homes and similar buildings designed for public use. These facilities are often given permission to build bigger than the usual zoning permits for housing or commercial use because they are valuable to the public.

This community facility is on a 40-by-100-foot lot, like other lots on the block, in an R4-1 zoning district which was a two-family dwelling dating back to the 1940s. Plans were filed and the building that was built about 20 years ago was a temple/school.

But when the city Department of Buildings examined the building in the 1990s, it was realized there were substantial zoning violations.

The building has six non-compliances with the bulk provisions of the R4-1 zoning. The front, side and rear yards are too small because the building was built too large. The building covers 62 percent of the lot but is supposed to cover 55 percent. The building had 15 open building violations, mostly for not having a certificate of occupancy. Serious violations, which have existed for years, include no fire alarms and a broken elevator.

How could this building be permitted to remain open with hundreds of worshipers, on certain days, and 70 elementary school children in classrooms in the basement and second floor? Several neighbors who oppose the granting of variances said they thought the stairs from the basement and second floor were too narrow and that the fire escape was rusted.

The temple wanted two groups of variances, which are wavers of the zoning rules. The first wanted to legalize the current zoning violations. The applicants said they needed the variance to legalize what was illegal so they could fix the fire alarm and broken elevator problems. This seems like double-talk to me so they could get their variances for the small yards they created illegally.

The second request was to obtain further variances so they could build a third floor with offices and classrooms on the building, which would add 115 more students plus teachers. The neighbors complain there is no play area for the children who are there now.

There are currently complaints about lack of parking, bags of garbage put out for days and traffic congestion during current delivery and pick-up of students. No one mentioned that all the land is cemented over so there is no way for rainwater to be absorbed into the ground.

The building received a DOB violation May 7, 1996, for $350 for not having a valid certificate of occupancy, a $2,500 fine May 30, 2000, for work with an expired permit and another violation May 9, 2001, for $2,476.44 for work with an expired permit. All these fines were paid, but couldn’t this money have been better used to repair the elevator?

The Queens Civic Congress, an umbrella organization of more than 100 civic associations, has a policy that community facilities are fine if they are built on the footprint of any buildings acquired but are against non-conformity buildings.

CB 8 turned down both variances, the latter unanimously. They are currently before the borough president and then will go to the city Board of Standards and Appeals.

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