Zoning agreement offers clues to height, density

The Tishman Speyer discovery has unearthed a furor with CB8 members over Visitation site


(This story has been updated from the print version)

Tishman Speyer and the School Construction Authority have taken advantage of a New York City zoning provision that allows the owners of neighboring properties to pool their development rights and then redistribute them between tax lots as they see fit.

The agreement, signed last September, helps explain the density and lack of open space Bronx Community Board 8 land use committee members have observed in renderings of the eight-story affordable housing project Tishman Speyer is proposing to build on the site of the former Church of the Visitation at 160 Van Cortlandt Park South.

Sparks flew in Monday night’s executive committee meeting as the details came to light.

The project’s designs, which CB8 first glimpsed last fall, reflect the 267,825 square feet of residential floor area permitted on the entire 1.8-acre Archdiocese property, though Tishman Speyer owns only about 72 percent of it. They are detailed in documents available in the city’s property records database.

It’s a boon for the project’s financials and the firm’s stated mission of adding to the city’s affordable housing stock.

TS Communities, the Rockefeller firm’s new affordable housing platform, acquired the 1.3-acre parcel from the Catholic Archdiocese of New York for $20.6 million last August.

The sales price comes to $77 per buildable square foot after the Zoning Lot Development and Easement Agreement with the SCA.

What the School Construction Authority got out of it is less obvious.

The proposed new public school will benefit from several permanent easements allowing for a playground about the size of a basketball court to be located in the interior of the block, abutting the residential building’s parking lot.

CB8 finally began ferreting out the zoning information this week after land use committee member Rosemary Ginty brought the documents to the committee’s attention April 3.

She referred to the agreement as a “zoning lot merger” in her comments.

But Tishman Speyer takes issue with the term, and they were eager to explain.

A frenzy of communications ensued between CB8 and Tishman Speyer’s team, culminating Monday night in senior director Paimaan Lodhi’s appearance before the executive committee to answer the board’s questions publicly.

“There was no zoning lot merger,” Lodhi stated. “We did not purchase development rights from the SCA. In fact, we granted them development rights.”

He warned the documents are full of technical details, and said he hoped to assuage any concerns about the project’s zoning calculations.

The document in question, a Zoning Lot Development Agreement, known informally as a “ZLDA,” is common enough in New York City, where many unique types of real estate transactions are possible.

The 1.8-acre archdiocese property was previously a single zoning lot, and remains one now, Lodhi explained.

Executive committee member Bob Bender praised the firm for their speedy reply to the new line of questions.

“Tishman has been responsive to us every time we have raised an issue,” Bender said.

He’s been chairing discussions of the Tishman project since land use chair Charles Moerdler recused himself in February out of concern for a possible conflict of interest with his position on the board of the New York City Housing Development Corp.

“We spent an hour today going over some pretty gnarly details about zoning, which were way above my paygrade,” Bender added. “But, you know, I followed the conversation. We were tutored in some basics of zoning regulations.”

But Ginty was not at all satisfied by Lodhi’s explanation.

The meeting amounted to “a total advertisement for Tishman Speyer,” she said.

She added that she was troubled by CB8’s private meetings with Tishman Speyer’s team.

“You have not included any other voice in this questioning, whether it be the community, me, the land use committee members, or community board members. They have been excluded from your private conversations, but from your private conversations you have concluded that Tishman Speyer is right. They’re right and everybody else is wrong.”

It’s a disgrace, Ginty said.

But “there was no zoning lot merger,” Bender replied. “And you know, I’m very sorry that you’re upset about it, but facts are facts.”

CB8 and Tishman Speyer have seen more of each other the past two weeks than any other time since the archdiocese sold the property last summer.

In fact, Tishman Speyer did previously entertain a similar line of questioning in a meeting with CB8 traffic committee members Dan Padernacht and Kelli Buford.

The meeting, which took place last September, was not recorded, but according to the meeting notes, Padernacht stated his belief that development rights were transferred from SCA to Tishman Speyer, according to the zoning documents.

Lodhi denied the claim, according to the meeting notes. No development rights were transferred, he said.

It’s the same line the firm repeated in its response to CB8’s questions this week.

Tishman Speyer also sent a detailed written response to the board’s questions Tuesday morning, elaborating on the semantic questions raised the previous evening and a number of technical details underpinning their zoning calculations.

The firm has offered to answer any questions from members of the public, who can contact the project team 160vcps@tishmanspever.com or (212) 715-0124.

Abigail Nehring is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Tishman Speyer, CB8, Community Board 8, Church of the Visitation, TS Communities, Paimaan Lodhi, Rosemary Ginty,