Long Beach zoning board to vote on iStar permit

Decision to come amid construction activity on Superblock property

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The city’s zoning board of appeals is expected to vote Thursday on whether to extend a building permit and variance granted to the developer of the Superblock property, iStar Financial, to build two luxury oceanfront apartment towers.

But just days before the vote, construction activity could be observed on the property, with heavy machinery driving piles into the ground as part of the work foundation, a spokesman for iStar said in an email.

Work on the property caught many residents off guard, and many reported on social media that the construction caused the heavy vibrations.

“My house was shaking all day,” Katherine DiMonda, who lives near the Superblock, told the Herald on Tuesday. “It started yesterday, with no warning. It’s a repetitive thudding — I’m not even that close and I can still feel it. The neighbors I chatted with said they weren’t notified.”

iStar representatives did not provide further information on the work being performed. A zoning board spokesman declined to comment.

iStar announced last week that it was suing the city for more than $100 million, claiming that the city reneged on an agreement in which it would support tax incentives the developer is seeking from the Nassau County Industrial Development Agency, which twice denied iStar tax breaks up to $129 million.

In its complaint, iStar said that the city had agreed to support both the zoning board application for the variance — and defend any challenges against it — as well as the developer’s request for tax breaks from the IDA.

At a court-ordered hearing in April, zoning board trustees pressed attorneys for iStar over why no major construction had begun, four years after the board approved a variance for the project.

“While we were reluctant to file the lawsuit against the City of Long Beach, we are confident we are confident in the merit of our claims,” iStar Executive Vice President Karl Frey said in a statement. “Given that likelihood, it would be irresponsible to allow the building permit to lapse.”

In 2014, the zoning board voted 5-1 to grant iStar a height and density variance to develop a mixed residential and commercial development on the six-acre parcel between Riverside and Long Beach boulevards, saying that it would revitalize property that has remained vacant for 30 years.

The $400 million project includes two 15-story buildings with 522 one- and two-bedroom luxury rental apartments and retail space along the boardwalk.

Under the conditions of the variance, the developer was required to obtain the necessary permits within nine months of the zoning board’s approval and commence construction within a year, or the variance would be revoked. In November 2014, the zoning board granted iStar an extension until the following May.

The developer filed an application that spring for a permit to begin work on the foundation, city officials said, and on May 28, 2015, it received approval from Building Commissioner Scott Kemins.

A group of Long Beach residents, represented by former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, filed a lawsuit against the zoning board last year in an attempt to overturn the variance and permit it issued the developer. The suit sought to revoke the building permit for work on the foundation in May 2015, which the suit claimed was invalid because the variance had expired. The suit also claimed that iStar would have to go before the zoning board to obtain a new variance.

According to the complaint, the Building Department granted iStar at least two extensions for the foundation permit, though the lawsuit claims that no construction plans were submitted for the towers.

The Building Department issued its most recent year-long extension last year, to run through May 2018. Attorney Christian Browne argued that iStar was not entitled to the latest extension because the variance was void. He also said that the developer failed to secure additional permits for construction.

At last month’s zoning board meeting, trustees questioned the developer’s efforts to move the project forward, saying that little progress had been made.

An attorney for iStar, Al D’Agostino, said the developer remains committed to the project and has already invested more than $80 million.

D’Agostino added that there were a number of reasons for the construction delay, including financing, litigation, and the loss of iStar’s initial development partner, AvalonBay.

Residents have criticized iStar representatives for telling the zoning board in 2014 that it could begin construction shortly after the variance was approved, and then claiming the developer needed more than $100 million in tax breaks to move forward with the project.

DiMonda and other residents questioned the timing of this week’s construction activity.

“I think they want to make a last ditch effort before the zoning board decision to show that they’re doing work at the site,” she said. “It seems like a desperate flailing about.”