A year and a half after East New York was the first recipient of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s much ballyhooed citywide mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) rezoning plan, longtime small businesses are finding themselves on the existential short end of the stick.
That after City Councilmember Rafael L. Espinal, Jr., State Sen. Martin Dilan and Cypress Hill business owners rallied against a Department of Buildings (DOB) ticket blitz that has been happening since the East New York rezoning was approved.
Business owners along the Cypress Hill commercial corridor of East New York that spans from Pennsylvania Ave. to Eldert Lane along Fulton Street have been smacked with violations for commercial signage installed without permits. More than a quarter of the 300 or so businesses in the area received tickets in 2017 with 50 being issued within the past six months –– a stark difference from the amount of fines issued in 2015 and 2016, which totaled a mere 15.
“Many of our business owners who have been here for decades, are now, out of nowhere, receiving fines for signage that they’ve had for years in this community,” said Espinal.
In addition to paying the fine, which can range from $500 to $20,000, business owners are required to hire an architect and pay for the plans and installation of the awning. The process can cost business owners up to $9,000 according to Joebeth Regalado, whose father has owned and operated for more than 20 years, the El Salvadorian restaurant, El Pulgarcito de America. The signage expense comes on top of the permit and filing fees that can amount to close to $3,000 said Regalado.
Espinal criticized the penalty amounts as exuberant for a working class immigrant community. The Council member named three reasons for the sudden burst in ticketing, including egregious complaints from real estate investors who see the area as an up-and-coming neighborhood. Espinal also speculated that DOB could be using the small business in the area as revenue source for the city.
“I asked the mayor of the city of New York, I asked Department of Buildings and all the compliance and the enforcement agencies to help our community to have economic development over this area, not to destroy it” said Milan.
The 2-mile stretch of retailers belongs to the neighborhood that was awarded $267 million in Mayor de Blasio’s East New York (MIH) rezoning project, last year April. The plan promised newly repaved streets, community centers and additional affordable, rent-stabilized housing.
At its core, MIH rezoning allows developers to build with more density in exchange for providing more affordable housing. This includes building higher on commercial strips like Fulton Street in East New York, where developers must make allowances for more affordable housing. However, MIH rezoning never addresses that with more density many of the small business could be forced out as commercial rents are expected to increase.
Today, commercial tenants reiterated those same sentiments and blamed the aggressive ticketing as a way to get rid of current business owners to make room for the new. Many said they were never informed of awning regulations and were not aware that permits were needed upon opening their businesses.
In 2003, the city passed a moratorium temporarily halting enforcement of the building signage violations until May of 2006. After that, the DOB was free to issue violations to any business that did not comply with the city’s sign ordinances. Even as the numbers indicate a recent spike in ticketing, the DOB denies any specific to the business owners along the Cypress Hill corridor.
“We are not targeting this neighborhood or any other neighborhood in the city for sign enforcement,” said DOB Spokesperson John Soldevere. “We are simply responding to complaints from the public which we are legally obligated to do.”
But Espinal said that DOB is acting very tone deaf to the situation by doling out $5000 fines and ignoring the fact that rent and cost-of-living has increased throughout the borough.
The lawmakers and business owners are calling on city to take the following actions: 1) reinstate the moratorium; 2) offer a cure period to those in the process of dealing with the violations; 3) explore opportunities for restitution for those affected by the moratorium’s lapse.
“There’s confusion over awnings in Cypress Hills, and fines are not the way to clear it up,” said Dilan. “The outreach that should have happened over the decade-long permitting and enforcement moratorium never did. Shopkeepers, who didn’t need a permit, are being fined for not having one. They remove the awning to resolve the fine, and get fined again. They are unaware of the requirements, and no one shows up to speak to them and tell them they are in violation; they send a fine in the mail. As it is, the awning code is a money-making scheme that does more to hurt the shopkeepers and character of Cypress Hills, than preserve it.”