I couldn't find anything specific about this anywhere else (?).

That home in the photo (apart from the garage) looks a tad out of place in that row.

Yikes! It’s a Garage


161 East 94th Street.

In 2006:

RESIDENTS of East 94th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues, never expected to see a private driveway among the row of tidy brownstones on the north side of their block. But earlier this year, they discovered that the owners of No. 161, Andreas Gruson and Maria Negrete-Gruson, had built a nine-foot-wide driveway leading to their new one-car garage.

What would be commonplace almost anywhere else set off shock waves in Manhattan.

The Grusons’ driveway was legal — they had sued the city for the right to build it, and won. But the decision in their case could have led to copycat driveways throughout Manhattan, if other homeowners got wind of the legal window opened by the judge’s ruling. As a result, said Richard S. Lobel, the Grusons’ lawyer, "the city acted so quickly, it was blinding."

In April, the City Council passed regulations meant to tighten restrictions on curb cuts.

Meanwhile, the Planning Department has undertaken a revision of the city’s zoning resolution to solve interpretation problems — possibly thousands of them — created by the Gruson case. It hopes to present the revision for public review this fall.

That so much havoc was caused by one driveway should not be surprising in a city where, according to Donald Albrecht, a curator of “Cars, Culture and the City,” an exhibition this summer at the Museum of the City of New York, more than 1.5 million cars compete for scarce street parking and a tiny number of private garages.

At 200 11th Avenue, a new building in west Chelsea, apartments with private “sky garages” reached by car elevator are nearly sold out, at prices ranging from $5 million to more than $17 million, said Leonard Steinberg, a broker who represents the building.

Uptown, Madonna paid $32 million for a house with an almost-unheard-of (for Manhattan) two-car garage. And even a one-car garage, like the Grusons’, could add more than $500,000 to the value of a house, said Dexter Guerrieri, the president of Vandenberg, the Townhouse Experts, a Manhattan brokerage.

Which is why fights over driveways can get nasty.

Take 123 West 15th Street, where a town house is being built with a private garage. Robert Boddington, a former securities analyst and member of the block association who lives four doors away, objects to the driveway, which will bisect a row of classic New York brownstones.

In letters to the Department of Buildings, he has complained that the logic used by the previous owners of the property to gain approval for the driveway amounts to “a scam on the zoning resolution.”

Below 60th Street in Manhattan, developments must add at least five units of housing before they can qualify for off-street parking.

The previous owners of 123 West 15th Street planned to merge it, legally and physically, with the condo building next door at No. 121, creating a single development with more than five units, documents on file with the city show.

But that plan has long since been abandoned, and the current owners of 123 have no connection to the condo building. Alex Adjmi, one of the owners of 123, said by telephone that the new building is a two-family house.

To Mr. Boddington, the claim that housing units were added by the construction of the house — which replaces a 12-unit apartment building — is wrong, and could have implications far beyond his block. “If it stands, this approval will open the floodgates” for “the transfer of existing dwelling units as if they were air rights to authorize the construction of private parking garages in Manhattan,” Mr. Boddington wrote in a letter in January to Derek Lee, the Building Department’s Manhattan borough commissioner.

But the Buildings Department has signed off on the project. A spokeswoman for the department, Ryan FitzGibbon said: “They meet the requirements: 121 is one dwelling unit, and there are four dwelling units that are going to be put into 123. That is the five units.” She was unaware that plans for the building at 123 had changed.

Mr. Adjmi seemed unconcerned about opposition to the driveway. He said that there were curb cuts “all over Manhattan” and that “the traffic going in and out of there is not going to be on a daily basis anyway.” When asked about the zoning rules, he said that his business partner, Kenneth Hart, would have to answer. Mr. Hart did not return phone calls or e-mails to his office.

This isn’t Mr. Boddington’s first dispute over construction at 123 West 15th Street. He was involved in efforts to keep the lot’s previous owners, Colin and Pamela Rath, from building a small condo building with a penthouse that appeared to violate the zoning resolution.

After the Raths defaulted on their loans, the property was bought from a lender by SoHo Builders, a partnership of Mr. Adjmi, a real estate investor, and Mr. Hart, a builder, for $3.4 million.

The new owners tore down the existing structure and began constructing a six-story building. A classically inspired town house, it is very different from the futuristic building that the Raths had planned, except that it too has a driveway and a garage.

Mr. Boddington hopes that Mr. Lee of the Buildings Department will issue a letter of final determination — a procedural step that would allow him to appeal the ruling to the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals. (He is fighting against time, because the building appears to be nearing completion.)

On the Upper East Side, there was substantial opposition to the Grusons’ driveway. In January, the community board voted 34 to 1 against it. Jacqueline Ludorf, the president of the board, said that to exit the driveway the Grusons “have to back up into the street. It’s a street where children play. We feel it’s a great safety hazard.”

Mr. Gruson said at the community board meeting that he needed the garage for his father-in-law, who is elderly and needs to be driven directly into the house, which is not in a landmark district. Two calls to Ms. Negrete-Gruson’s office last week were not returned.

Mr. Gruson, who until recently owned a waste disposal company, and his wife, a portfolio manager, bought the house in 2007 for $4.15 million. (They had bought their previous home, on East 72nd Street, for $2 million, and sold it four years later for $4.6 million.) Soon they had replaced a pair of ground-floor windows with an overhead garage door. Then they filed plans to create the curb cut and driveway.

Their request at first appeared quixotic. In row house neighborhoods like the Grusons’, the zoning resolution, which governs what can be built, prohibits curb cuts for developments on zoning lots less than 40 feet wide. Their house has just 18 feet of frontage.
The city was so sure the Grusons couldn’t have a driveway, according to their lawyer, Mr. Lobel, that it declined to review their application and offered to refund their filing fees. But Mr. Lobel believed the Grusons’ house, built in 1899, could not be considered a development — and, therefore, the rules about developments did not apply.

After the city resisted, he said, “we realized the only way we were going to receive this authorization was if we mounted a serious legal battle.” In early 2008, the Grusons sued the city for the right to build the driveway. Late that year, State Supreme Court Judge Paul G. Feinman handed them a stunning victory, accepting their argument that a 100-year-old house could not be considered a development for zoning purposes.

The city appealed, starting a process that lasted about a year, before dropping the appeal in the middle of last year. On March 1 of this year, the Grusons were granted the right to build a driveway, and within a few weeks, part of the curb outside their house was gone. Then they positioned a pair of iridescent orange stanchions to keep people from parking in front of their driveway. The stanchions could be considered bastions in the fight for private parking in Manhattan.

Eldad Gothelf, a senior planning and development specialist at Herrick, Feinstein, a law firm, and an author of the firm’s land-use blog, ZONE, said that when the Gruson decision came down, “The city realized there were thousands and thousands of existing buildings just like this one, whose owners would say, ‘I can go ahead and put in my curb cut in now.’ ”

Within weeks of the construction of the Grusons’ driveway, the city passed a series of changes to the zoning resolution. Amanda Burden, the city planning commissioner, said the changes ensured that sections of the city, from “streets lined with row houses in Bay Ridge to brownstones on the Upper East Side, will remain intact and unmarred by the intrusion of curb cuts that have recently raised red flags."

Under the amendment, the planning commission can deny permission for a curb cut that it finds to be “inconsistent with the character of the existing streetscape."

According to Mr. Lobel, “Now city planning can look at the application and say, ‘There’s a line of lovely old homes; the curb cut isn’t consistent with the surrounding character’ — and there goes your authorization.” Under the new rules, he said, “it would have been nearly impossible, or at least extremely difficult” for the Grusons to have built their driveway.

But there is more at stake than parking. The zoning resolution, a 1,523-page document continuously revised over nearly 50 years, contains at least 2,500 uses of the word “development,” according to the Planning Department. Judge Feinman’s ruling — that “development” did not mean what the city said it meant — compelled the city to examine, and in some cases rewrite, thousands of passages.

Given the size of the challenge, the Planning Department, through its zoning division, sought comments from members of the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association, the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (a nonpartisan research organization), the Real Estate Board of New York, and the City Bar Association. It also briefed community boards.

“The city deserves a lot of credit for asking for help,” said Mr. Gothelf, who, along with other members of the other groups, meets with planning officials every two weeks as part of a monumental effort to get a revised zoning resolution ready for public review this fall.

If the city succeeds, the cutting of the curb at 161 East 94th Street will be something like the 1963 demolition of old Pennsylvania Station, which gave rise to a preservation movement that has saved countless other buildings. The Grusons’ driveway, like the station demolition, will have sounded the alarm.

Alarms have also been heard outside Manhattan. In recent years, curb cut disputes have arisen in neighborhoods including Dyker Heights, Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill in Brooklyn, and Throgs Neck in the Bronx. There, some owners have paved over their front yards for off-street parking. But so-called “parking pads” enrage neighbors and, according to city planners like Ms. Burden, threaten the residential character of city blocks.

In one recent case, Gus Englezos said he spent $60,000 on the (successful) fight for a curb cut in front of his house on 70th Street near Eighth Avenue in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn.

“That was the most expensive curb cut in history, I think,” Mr. Englezos told The Times in 2008.

The Grusons might disagree. Their lawyer, Mr. Lobel, would not say how much his clients spent on their three-year fight against the city. But given the value of a driveway in Manhattan, Mr. Lobel said, “It was probably a bargain.”

Before You Dig

ON April 14, the City Council passed a series of provisions meant to control the spread of curb cuts in the city. Among other things, the rules:

  • Prohibit parking in front yards in single-family- and two-family-home zoning districts;
  • Reinforce the prohibition on curb cuts on lots less than 40 feet wide in row house districts;
  • Eliminate loopholes that had allowed some homeowners to claim narrow strips of grass as planted areas sufficiently large to permit a curb cut;
  • Give the city authorization to disapprove a curb cut that will be “inconsistent with the character of the existing streetscape.”

The precise text of the amendment is at http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pdf/rsp/...nt_adopted.pdf. The entire zoning resolution — divided into manageable chapters — can be found at http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/zone/zonetext.shtml

Zoning rules vary widely among districts. To find out what zoning district you live in, go to www.nyc.gov/dcp. Under “find the data” (in the lower left corner of the screen) click on “by address” and enter your address. Then click on “nyc.gov CityMap.” When the map comes up, click on “Show Additional Information” and then click on “Building & Property Information.” On the right side of the screen, under zoning, you will see your zoning district (for example, R8B for 123 West 15th Street, and C6-4 for 4 Penn Plaza).