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April 1st, 2004

State Of Soho

by SoHo Journal Staff

The Health and Future of SoHo A Look at Outdoor Cafes, Nightclubs and the Rental Market

This year several issues are concurrently affecting the development of SoHo, NoHo and Hudson Square. City Planning, for example, has designated new legal locations for sidewalk cafes on Avenue of the Americas, Centre Street, Lafayette Street and a two-block section of 5th Avenue near 14th Street-but not on West Broadway. The enormous problem of crowding on SoHo sidewalks due to illegal and legal vendors, (which makes walking along West Broadway on weekends a dubious pleasure), was adamantly voiced by the community. City Planning, therefore, made the decision not to allow restaurant owners to extend their operations onto West Broadway sidewalks despite the desire to “Europeanize” our community. Although this will have the effect of legalizing the operation of some restaurants which have had unlicensed outdoor sidewalk service, it will now limit the pedestrian interference on sidewalks that cannot accommodate any more obstructions. The whole issue of “legal Artists” and “illegal vendors” on West Broadway, for example, is irrelevant with regard to this issue. These crowded weekend sidewalks cannot accommodate any more activity caused by onlookers, street performers, massage booths, Art displays, jewelry displays and various and sundry other merchants plying their trade.

A notable success has been attained through the office of Councilmember Alan Gerson with respect to the special text amendment involving the development of 465 Broadway. As discussed in the last issue of the SoHo Journal, the application of Andre Belazs for permission to build a residential structure instead of a hotel as allowed under the existing zoning, had serious implications for SoHo and NoHo. The current location for that project is a parking lot and as such has important implications for the more than 14 other lots in our area. Not only do we lose the parking spaces but the uses permitted for each residential building that follows the precedent set by the Belasz project, become de facto, almost automatically approved. Litigation aside, what was necessary here, was the setting of some limits on what could be done by the developer without extensive roadblocks in the permit process. So, to Gerson’s credit (and his Chief of Staff Dirk McCall), he reached out to community leaders like Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance, David Reck of the Zoning Committee of Community Board #2 and Zella Jones of the NoHo Neighborhood Association – and a consensus was formed before the issue was brought to hearings held before the City Council Land Use Committee. The support of Councilmember Melanie Katz of the City Council, who is also a member of the Land Use committee, helped SoHo and its representatives. She was invaluable to the SoHo efforts led by Alan Gerson, which aimed at establishing guidelines for this and all future precedent-setting special permit applications.

The process accomplished a number of important things. Future applications that seek a special permit to build residential developments on these 14 or more vacant lots now used for parking operations, for example, have certain limitations on size and use. The most important of these limitations on use involve the prohibiting of eating and drinking establishments-which are often a disguise for nightclub and lounge operators. In addition, the minimum size of the residential units permissible is 1200 square feet per apartment. The F.A.R., which is an established density requirement in all projects in SoHo, remains at 5.0. All of this goes a long way towards maintaining the characteristics of loft spaces in the SoHo tradition. And, while there was no codified agreement on a budget earmarked for Arts uses by the developer, the subject was part of the initiative. In this first test case Mr. Belazs has agreed to allocate space and/or money for such a use in his new building. Vivian Awner, of City Planning, deserves a word of appreciation as well. She is a representative that attends most, if not all, of the Community Board meetings involving land use and zoning issues and has been helpful in advising community leaders. She is extremely knowledgeable and professional and has been helpful in her analysis of problems that affect our community.

Work may soon begin on the Houston Street Reconstruction project which has been on the drawing boards for more than seven years. From Bowery to Avenue of the Americas, the center islands are slated for reconstruction and turning lanes are scheduled to be installed that would ostensibly benefit traffic flow. Essentially, the plan involves creating turning bays at several locations (West Broadway, Mercer, Broadway, Mott) and installing a three-foot high wall that would encircle the center islands on Houston Street. A further major change would be the elimination of one lane of Houston Street in order to enlarge the south side sidewalk by nearly nine feet from Avenue of the Americas to West Broadway. According to a number of SoHo activists, this project will primarily benefit contractors and motorists driving through our community. It will not make crossing the street safer for our residents and especially parents pushing a stroller. In fact, the noise, congestion, dirt and debris, and additional traffic delays caused by this project will make life a lot less inviting in SoHo. For further information and how you can help, contact info@sohoalliance.org.

It is no surprise to residents of SoHo that the combined effects of 9/11 and the economy have had a devastating effect upon local business. The most obvious visible results of this are the number of vacant stores along West Broadway. Where a rental of $35,000 per month was once seen as the new norm, local landlords have been having trouble getting even modest increases. The small neighborhood shops have long ago moved from West Broadway to the lesser expensive Thompson Street, Grand Street, Spring Street and Prince Street, and are still having a hard time of it. Lucky’s Juice Bar on Houston Street has gone the way of many other small businesses because landlords stick to a formula that has no place for the quality of a neighborhood-even if the subject property goes empty for six months or more. When it becomes obvious that the market is NOT coming back to their former expectations, they perhaps rent on a short-term interim basis to a discount clothing outlet that has no national presence or even a community orientation. A local lounge named Sliver was also the victim of many of these forces when a $6500 month rental became a $14,000 monthly rental – despite the destructive forces of 9/11 and the subsequent downturn. In this case West Broadway Glass and Manhattan Skyline, two Zucker family management companies destroyed the business and livelihood of a hard-working Russian ?╔└▄migr?╔└▄ named Danny Pustovit. He put 5 years of hard work and a quarter of a million dollars into a 500 square foot box (even excluding the roof leaks) and they refused to give him a new lease. Not only did he leave rather than be evicted, but the landlord then promised to chase him for the arrears after he lost everything.

SoHo landlords need to reassess their commitment to the community that helped them make their fortune-and they need to look around at what the current market is telling them. On West Broadway alone, from Houston Street to Canal Street, there are nearly 20 empty stores with “For Rent” prominently displayed. The writing is clearly on SoHo’s wall. Read it!

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