Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Responsive City Zoning Hotline. Believe It.

What's up with the air rights above that gas station? This, dear readers, was the question nagging me on January 2.

My real estate client and I had seen an intriguing condo with lovely, south-facing windows. Windows overlooking a gas station that had been in operation since 1922. My buyer is a cautious fellow who worried about a developer clearing out the petrol peeps and building some nasty high rise that would block his vista. 

Time to investigate. 

We poked around ACRIS, the city's database of building registry documents. It is a vast depository. I'm all for Sunshine Laws and erring toward making all public documents available on the web. 

But here's the thing:  If you're not a real estate attorney, or an old-hand in such matters, how the heck are you supposed to interpret these voluminous records? 

We wanted to know who owned the air rights over the gas station. But "air rights" is a colloquialism. Contracts might call the issue "unused development rights" or other term of art. We didn't know what document we needed. 

Shoe leather is a good strategy for many such quandaries. So, when the Zoning Department reopened on January 2, we were downstairs asking the guard which office to make our inquiry. 

He pointed to a poster listing the Zoning Information Desk hotline number. Ugh sigh. No one ever returns voicemail messages in this city. This will never work!

We moved into the vestibule, called the hotline and left our question on the VM – expecting nothing. As we headed for the door, I saw Amanda Burden, Chair of the NYC Department of City Planning, get out of a SUV and walk in. I smiled at her, wishing I had the right line to cheerfully note our disappointment in not getting to see an actual Zoning person. I said nothing. 

Ninety minutes later, my phone rang but I couldn't pick up. 

Ten minutes after that, it rang again. Same number. Hello?

It was the Zoning Information Desk returning my call. WHAT?! Amazing. Now, the young man did not have exactly the answer I wanted, but he did point me toward the type of documents that typically contain air rights agreements. 

I eventually found some corroboration for our theories. I also sent Ms. Burden a thank you note for her team leadership. 

Imagine the awesomeness if every City agency were so responsive to the citizenry. A girl can dream...