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April 29th, 2003

The State of SoHo

by SoHo Journal Staff

While there is pressure building for the creation of an Arts District in SoHo, the many development plans in our area are simply private building projects, not concepts for the future. What concerns us all is the size, appropriateness and execution of what is currently planned for SoHo. To be sure, along with the high-end shops and couture establishments that have now migrated to SoHo, there are a number of building projects planned for the immediate area and surrounding neighborhoods that bear watching. In addition, in the case of the projects that are in the planning and execution stages, we need to pay strict attention to the pressure exerted to push through approval. The Community Board Zoning Committee has the responsibility of reviewing and approving minor variances as well as major projects. But developers often manage to override the desires and opinions of the community. And, building projects that are “as of right” in an area that once was primarily commercial and industrial, can legitimately ignore objections voiced by SoHo residents or activists. The developer that has been battling to build a project on Houston Street, where environmental concerns (site of a former gas station) have stalled approval in court, transferred title to one of its architects in an attempt to develop part of the project – even though the entire parcel was linked and barred from development in its current form. Sean Sweeney, of the Soho Alliance, a community organization that fought the project, was angry at the developer’s shady tactics. Unfortunately, agencies like ZBA (Zoning Board of Appeals) are political entities that can ignore community desires and pander to real estate interests. More litigation will surely follow.

Another nasty aspect of frustrated developers is the billboard/sign controversy which has plagued SoHo for the last several years. When a developer is entitled to a building permit, he may also elect to construct a shed, one of those mini-walkways that you often see during a building renovation. On the corner of Broadway and Houston Street, for example, there is a piece of Soho history: a construction called “The Wall.” Litigation prevented the owner from permanently removing this sculpture. As a nose thumbing permitted by the building department, a shed has been erected on this site. We now have what appears to be a permanent walkway (shed) constructed over the sidewalk which has been arguably erected for the purpose of attaching a block long billboard. We lose the light, clear sidewalk access, and we have yet another obnoxious sign to boot. “The Wall” has already been partially dismantled as part of a renovation to stop water leaks. Let’s see if the sculpture is ever restored.

City agencies have become willing participants in the development process, helping to sell out the desire of the residents of SoHo for a private/political agenda. A perfect example of this insidious process has been the outrageous theft of public SoHo art from Bob Bolles Park. A deal was apparently made by Capital Z (an affiliate of Zurich Insurance Company), a multi-billion dollar real estate conglomerate, and the Parks Department. Robert Stern, (former Commissioner of Parks), Adrian Benepe, (then the Manhattan Commissioner and now the new Parks Department Commissioner), and their community PR guy, Robert Redmond, were all part of this little travesty. All of the sculptures located in the former asphalt triangle at West Broadway and Broome Street nearly 40 years ago by Bob Bolles (a local sculptor), were unceremoniously ripped up, dropped in a dumpster, and carted off to Randall’s Island. Several meetings were held before and after the debacle occurred, and the SoHo community was lied to and then robbed of a major part of its artistic heritage.

At a more recent CB2 Arts Committee meeting Robert Redmond, now in charge of Parks Department capital projects, had no memory of promising to return the Bolles sculptures,despite a resolution insisting on it.

This brings us to one of the most recent plans now being floated for a project on Avenue of the Americas, on the border of SoHo and Hudson Square.

Why is it important? Well, here are the problems. First, it is a project floated by Trinity Real Estate, a private company that enjoys many tax benefits, due in part, to having obtained many real estate parcels from the King. Yes, the King. Trinity Church’s holdings predate the city government and enjoy many privileges no longer afforded us earthly creatures. This is important because the Duarte Square project is seeking to build a 21 story building, demap a street (part of Sullivan Street), AND build a park. The Community Board has been consulted on this project, as is required. But, of course, there are important elements of what some are calling a “land grab.” Trinity describes this project as part of their vision to develop the Avenue of the Americas as an avenue of tall “beautiful” buildings. And, for the right to build it just a little bigger (just what we all want, of course), we get a more beautiful park. Park representatives have attended meetings practically gushing at the benefits of giving this street away for Trinity to build upon. We will get plants, trees, bushes, seats, a kiosk where food will be sold. We get greenery where bricks now are located.

They get one of our little streets. They get more land to use for their building envelope and they get a building that is 90,000 square feet bigger. They get to build a much bigger building and a park to use for their tenants.

WE get less air space, more people who don’t live here, more cars and trucks, fewer parking spaces, and a park. Yes, a park! Well, maybe.

So let’s consider one of the problems with Duarte park. One of the major objections the Soho residents had to the Bob Bolles Park plan (its Parks Department name is Sunflower Park) was that it’s design would be a lure to homeless people sleeping in it, that it would not be adequately cleaned and maintained, and that it paid no tribute to its former artistic heritage. Further, it seemed to be a land grab by a private company (Capital Z), who wanted a private viewing garden for its employees and owners (its CEO had a condo on one side of the park) and is now renovating the old Brewery at 40 Thompson Street for it’s new offices.

It is also interesting to note that the owner of 40 Thompson, who is leasing to Capital Z, sought a variance for the ground floor of this old Brewery Building. In a discussion with the attorney for the owner at a Zoning Committee hearing, they were asked if they would agree to remove their huge distasteful signs that have been attached to the exterior of that beautiful building. The attorney for the landlord categorically refused. While they wanted something from the community, they were unwilling to give back anything. That is how our community is routinely treated by business interests. They get away with it now. But there are discussions about reversing variances or denying variances based upon actions which are detrimental to community preservation.

The spirit of cooperation between Public (Parks Department) and Private (Capital Z, Trinity Real Estate) entities was not supposed to mean that our government sells out its residents for a few dollars in order to help business get what it wants. But, that is what has happened.

Trinity Real Estate has been no friend to local business’ and has been notably unconcerned with SoHo and Hudson Square residents. And, therefore, we must make our concerns known. Security and maintenance of Duarte Square Park must be explained before their plan is approved. A permanent committee must be formed to ensure that this park is adequately cleaned, and that the huge influx of workers and traffic caused by this building and its new park are considerate of the residents of this neighborhood. And, as a tribute to the greater SoHo cultural neighborhood while Trinity is moving the statue of Juan Pablo Duarte, space for the Arts in this new building and on the grounds of this new park must be made available. As Councilman Alan Gerson has insisted, the support of the Arts is one step towards creating the SoHo Art District, a responsibility of any new development in Lower Manhattan.

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