Skyscraper’s Future up in The Air

skyscrapers

The New York Law Journal quoted me in Upper West Side Skyscraper’s Future Uncertain After NY State Court Ruling. The story opens,

The development at 200 Amsterdam Ave. in Manhattan is slated to be the tallest building on the Upper West Side, with its 51 stories rivaling the skyscrapers located further downtown.

But whether this will ever happen has now become questionable, after a state court ruling that found city officials were wrong to follow an interpretation of city zoning law used by the developer to achieve the project’s awesome height.

Supreme Court Justice Franc Perry of Manhattan sided with local community groups looking to halt the building underway at the site. The plaintiffs—the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development and the Municipal Arts Society of New York—were joined by numerous local state and city elected officials in opposing what they say is not only an out-of-character monster development in the Manhattan neighborhood, but one that relied on a faulty zoning law interpretation to move forward.

“It is finally a declaration that zoning law means something and developers can’t make it up as they go along,” said Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady name attorney Richard Emery, who represented the plaintiffs.

Since 1978, developers and city buildings officials have relied on the so-called Minkin Memo, named after the former head of the city’s Department of Buildings’ Irving Minkin, for guidance on what experts call an ambiguity in the city’s zoning law towards so-called tax lots. These are additional subdivisions of city real estate, which can overlap with or be included inside a zoning lot.

Under the Minkin memo, developers have been able to pull together extra vertical building rights that nearby property owners aren’t using, offering the opportunity to boost the size of a project such as 200 Amsterdam beyond what would normally be allowed.

“The zoning resolution is ambiguous about when a zoning lot can be formed from partial tax lot; it never deals with that problem,” said Stewart Sterk, the Mack Professor of Real Estate Law and director of the Center for Real Estate Law & Policy at the Cardozo School of Law.

Initially, city officials had no problem with the move. DOB issued a permit to the developers for a residential and community facility building at the site of the Lincoln Towers condos on the Upper West Side. The developers relied on the Minkin memo as the basis for the acquisition tax lots that combined partial and whole lots to provide the developers with the vertical building rights needed for their skyscraper.

Shortly after DOB green lighted the project, the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development challenged the DOB’s decision. The challenge snowballed, and soon seemingly every local elected official, from state Assemblyman Richard Gottfried to borough president Gale Brewer, were opposed to the plan. The project’s permit was appealed by both CESD and the Municipal Arts Society to the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals.

In March 208, DOB made an official about-face on the project. In a letter from assistant general counsel to the BSA, the department said the Minkin memo provided an incorrect interpretation and that zoning regulations did not in fact intend for zoning lots to consist of partial tax lots.

The BSA was not persuaded by the arguments and in July 2018 voted 3-1 not to grant the appeal, with one board member abstaining. The plaintiffs soon after pursued a review of the BSA’s decision in state Supreme Court.

In subjecting the developers’ permit to further review, Perry pointedly took issue with BSA view of the process.

“BSA found that the Subject Zoning lot is ‘unsubdivided,’ within the meaning of the [New York City Zoning Resolution], simply because Developer has declared it to be so,” the judge wrote.

Noting that the referenced law states that a zoning lot is defined by being “unsubdivided” within a single block, Perry said BSA’s interpretation would render the term “superfluous,” and run “afoul of elementary rules of statutory construction.”

Since DOB saw the light on the Minkin memo during the appeal process, the court said the department’s statutory basis for the issuance of the permit to begin with was undermined. BSA’s decision was nullified and vacated, and the board was directed to review the project’s permit application “in accordance with the plain language” of the zoning regulation and Perry’s order.

As Cordozo’s Sterk noted, the development at 200 Amsterdam was far from the first to use the Milkin memo to justify partial tax lot usage in a building plan. Perry’s decision has the ability to throw uncertainty around zoning and building issues into a business sector highly adverse to such things, Sterk said.

But just as important for Sterk is the question now of when a government agency becomes estopped from changing its mind after it’s already induced people to rely on its existing interpretation.

“That’s a big problem in this case, because clearly developers have put millions of dollars into this project in reliance on an existing interpretation,” he said.

Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss, who is the research director of the school’s Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, said he saw the case as less of a “good guy vs. bad guy” dynamic as much as one of whether the assurances of government officials can be binding.

“There’s a reliance on government statements and government permissions,” Reiss said, while noting the project has already commenced.

Should the case stand, he predicted it would serve to rattle developers’ confidence in their dealings with the city going forward.

“It’s more uncertainty in a process that’s already pretty uncertain,” he said.

Protecting Small Businesses

Detail from Netherlandish Proverbs, Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Students in my Community Development Clinic and I have a column in the New York Law Journal, Small Business Jobs Survival Act May Have Opposite Effect. It reads,

The New York City Council is considering a bill, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, that it claims will protect small businesses even though the Act contains no protections tailored to them. Instead, the Act would implement a new lease renewal arbitration system that treats all commercial tenancies the same, allowing businesses as large as Amazon to benefit.

The Act would create a bureaucratic process that works contrary to its stated goals. The Act is meant to “create a fair negotiating environment, which would result in more reasonable and fair lease terms to help small businesses survive and encourage job retention and growth.” The Act actually creates a system under which big businesses will benefit the most. Furthermore, the process is overly complex for mom and pop businesses owners who are not familiar with the legal system. To avoid exacerbating the advantages that big businesses currently enjoy in the rental market, the City should consider policy alternatives that are tailored to the needs of small businesses.

Although the Act is supposed to protect small businesses, it does not define what a small business is. By not distinguishing between big and small tenants, the Act gives businesses of all sizes the same rights to negotiate a lease renewal. For large businesses like Amazon with an in-house legal department, the new system is business as usual. Amazon does not need to worry about additional costs to negotiate a lease renewal. For mom and pop business owners, the system starts to feel like a tax simply to stay in business because they will need to increase their costs relative to big businesses.

The Act’s arbitration provision sets forth about a dozen factors that an arbitrator must consider when setting the rent. Those factors can then be supplemented by “all other relevant factors.” Such a complex and vague standard will lead to inconsistent and unpredictable results. Two arbitrators determining rents for similar businesses located near each other are likely to arrive at different rents for these businesses because of the broad set of criteria they can consider. Additionally, an arbitrator’s decision would be final and non-reviewable.

The City’s property tax system offers a cautionary tale. The system is complex, many of its decisions are unreviewable, and its results are arbitrary and unfair. One consequence has been that property owners in wealthier neighborhoods often pay lower property taxes than those in less affluent neighborhoods, a state of affairs leading to a high-profile lawsuit and a Mayoral push to reconsider the entire system.

In addition to a costly process, the proposed lease renewal system is not easily navigable for mom and pop business owners. These mom and pop shops would face a new world of legal processes not familiar to them and that have nothing to do with their businesses. The Act almost requires that small commercial tenants hire lawyers to guide them through a system that might begin to feel like the soul-crushing New York City Housing Court, where tenants and landlords spend countless hours and often obtain results as perplexing as the problems that brought them there in the first place. Unrepresented tenants, in particular, face steep odds against the confusing and impersonal system. They are often unaware of their rights and how the system works, leading to temporary relief that does not do much more than postpone the date of their eviction. If the Act is enacted, small business tenants who either can’t or don’t hire lawyers would face as many, if not more, obstacles than they do in the current system.

Given that the Act in its current form does not serve its intended goals, the City should consider policy alternatives like formula business restrictions, which may be a more effective way of targeting and protecting small businesses. The formula business restriction serves to prevent retail and fast food chains from operating in particular neighborhoods in order to protect their social fabric. These restrictions aim to protect the unique character of city neighborhoods that have yet to feel the full effects of gentrification and mall-ification. These restrictions will incentivize leasing to new small businesses while protecting existing ones that are at risk of losing their space to commercial chains.

Companies like Amazon should not be the principal beneficiaries of a “Small Business Jobs Survival Act.” Rather, the City should focus on targeted approaches like formula business restrictions that assist new and existing small businesses more directly.

David Reiss is a Professor at Brooklyn Law School, the director of the Community Development Clinic and the research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. Areeb Been Khan, Robert Levy and Juliana Malandro are legal interns in the Brooklyn Law School Community Development Clinic. They were recently invited to testify at a New York City Council hearing regarding the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.

 

Show Me The Note, NY Style

Steiner, Goldstein & Sohn published a short article in the New York Law Journal, Clearing The Confusion:  Misplaced Notes and Allonges (Sept. 18, 2012) (behind a paywall). While intended to address commercial real estate finance, it relies on an interesting residential real estate finance case, Bank of N.Y. Mellon v. Deane, 2013 Slip Op. 23244 (Sup. Ct. Kings Country July 11, 2013). The authors write that

Mortgage assignments, when properly drafted, assign both the mortgage and the note. Assuming the chain of mortgage assignments is intact, lenders can gain comfort knowing that under New York case law they have standing to enforce the full amount of the debt evidenced by these assignments. Nevertheless, defendants in foreclosure proceedings often challenge the lenders’ standing to enforce the note, demanding that lenders demonstrate physical possession of the note to initiate a foreclosure despite the fact that physical possession is not required by the law.

They conclude:

New York courts in the cases described herein consistently follow well-established precedent permitting standing in a foreclosure action without the plaintiff having physical possession of the original notes. New York case law makes clear that physical possession of all notes in a chain of loan assignments and refinancings is unnecessary for standing in a foreclosure action and that proper execution of a [Consolidated Extension and Modification Agreement] is sufficient to confer standing when missing notes have been consolidated. Likewise, inclusion of an allonge or other endorsement for every note transfer is not required under New York law for standing in a foreclosure action when the note has been assigned by other means, such as through a properly drafted assignment of mortgage.

The article’s discussion of Deane is most interesting:

the court found physical possession of the note to be determinative regardless of whether a written assignment was executed. The court criticized the approach followed by case law in New York, stating that allowing an assignee to have standing without possession of the note “would be inconsistent with Revised Article 3, and put New York out-of-step with the 49 states that have adopted the revision[.]” Notably, however, New York has opted not to adopt those proposed revisions to Article 3. The court continued, “that misstep, however, if such it is, has apparently already been taken. The case law quoted and cited above clearly speaks, in the disjunctive, of standing obtained by ‘assignment’ or ‘physical delivery’ of the note[.]”

I will return to Deane in a later post.