Last Sunday’s New York Times brought what those who like lots of regulations would have to consider “good” news. The Dance Studio of Park Slope, which has operated in open and notorious violation of the New York City zoning resolution since 1981, has lost its lease and will close in October. Yet somehow, the Times does not report the locals celebrating. “In February, after months of finding only spaces that were too small or too expensive or needed extensive renovations, she wrote a letter to the parents of her students appealing for help. Many of the parents, some of whom have sent a series of children to the studio, and some of whom were students there once themselves, responded by canvassing the neighborhood and telling Ms. Kliegel’s story to merchants, in the hope that someone who owns a suitable space would come forward.” What, you mean they don’t see that businesses like hers shouldn’t be allowed? Or perhaps it is only new businesses like hers that shouldn’t be allowed.
Like many small workshops, places of assembly such as health clubs, small movie theatres and catering halls, and “Studios, art, music, dancing or theatrical,” this small business was not in use group six, and was thus not permitted in C1-3 zones like the one on Seventh Avenue between 9th Street and Flatbush. Rather, to “protect the quality of life” and ensure higher foot traffic uses in ground floors on prime blocks, such businesses were banished to C2 zones – which often alternative block by block but in this case are some distance away. Health clubs, in fact, are not allowed anywhere in the city without an environmental review and special permit, under which they are expected to prove they are not a house of prostitution. Also on the heavy restriction list – radio, television and motion picture studios. I wonder if that “illegal” Haitian radio station is still operating on Nostrand Avenue. And Adam Green had better check the zoning resolution to determine if his Lunchbox videos are being produced at a legal location.
Some businesses on the wrong block can in some cases also try to get variances or special permits, provided the “community” is placated. I saw one such special permit that allowed a dance studio with the stipulation that there be no Irish step dancing. Also not allowed: non-musical entertainment in eating and drinking places on local commercial streets outside Manhattan. In Brooklyn, no jokes or poetry are allowed. Who says Manhattan doesn’t get the last laugh?
Mostly, people just open illegally, which is a big risk for someone a small entrepreneur who doesn’t have corporate backing and could be forced to close their business while remaining personally liable for a lease. Large corporations can hire Sandy Lidenbaum or someone like him, and get approval after the fact. Others could be forced to close. Rarely, an enforcement action is taken against someone – generally instigated by a complaint from someone who doesn’t like the race of the owner or customers, a legally located competitor, or a landlord who wants to get out of a favorable lease for the tenant. Or at least that was the case back when I was in a position to know about it.
The building The Dance Studio of Park Slope is located in is also illegal, or would be if it had not been built in 1921, 40 years before the current rules took effect. In an R6A zone such as the one on 7th Avenue, commercial space is limited to 2.0 times the area of the lot – in this case the building has 3 times the lot area of non-residential space. In most of the outer boroughs, commercial activity is limited to the ground floor, even though the second floor is generally the only possible location for those activities, such as the ones listed above, that cannot afford to pay as much rent as a restaurant, bank, or super-drug store. Everywhere outside Manhattan, commercial space on the second floor is not allowed if there are also residences in the building, though on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, and many other locations, it is not unheard of. I once came upon a building with illegal second floor office occupancy occupied by a lawyer, an architect, an engineer, and a landscape architect. They should have known the rules, but also knew how to get around them.
It is likely that Ms. Kliegel never realized that she was a zoning "criminal," which is probably a good thing since she might have found out by having someone threaten to report her and demand a bribe. So she was able to have “thousands of students over the years” who obviously valued her services.
The obvious question is why she, and so many others, have been branded zoning criminals, and why those at the Department of City Planning believe they dare not try to do anything about it. Perhaps they are afraid of all those public hearings with "community groups" demanding that their neighborhood be "protected," and anger from the politicians who are their bosses. Although the illegal off-leash dogs have been legalized, thanks to a lawsuit. Perhaps the thing to do is go identify the thousands of harmless businesses in technical non-compliance with the rules, and file a lawsuit to force the city to enforce them. It worked for the dogs.