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July 1st, 2003

State Of SoHo

by D. Clark MacPherson

A number of building projects in and around SoHo are at various levels of development. While some are still only in the planning and approval stage, there are several that have been rejected and are being revised, and a few have managed to push through the red tape and are under construction. A few of of the latter managed to start building despite vigorous community opposition.

We spoke with one of the most knowledgeable people in the community regarding development, Jeanne Kazel, former Chair of the Zoning Committee of Community Board #2. She is familiar with most of the proposed projects that are contemplated for our area and she discussed a number of them with us. While she did not comment on their appropriateness or take a position on them, we got some useful information.

Most building projects need a variance allowing the developer to either enlarge or change the parameters of permitted guidelines for a specific location. Lots that may permit hotel or other commercial use may prefer to build for residential use and need a variance to accomplish this change. For that permission, there are several steps in the process beginning with an application and review by the Zoning Committee of Community Board #2.

While rejection by this committee is not final and has been overruled on numerous occasions by the Board of Standards and Appeals, it is usually an indication of what the community has to say to the City about the appropriateness of a project. Projects that do not need any variance at all are “as of right” and can simply be built without any approval from the community. Without the ability to have any community input, the only alternative becomes litigation.

In the case of 848 Washington Street, a proposed 37 story development that was slated for the Gansevoort Meat Market district, the project was blocked by the efforts of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) and other activists and local politicians. Andrew Berman, the Executive Director of GVSHP, worked tirelessly along with the many community activists and accomplished feats that we all should admire. They truly “manned the barricades” and got the job done. While the project is far from dead, it is off the table for now and it does serve as an example of how the residents of a community can rally its forces to oppose inappropriate development.

On the corner of West Houston Street and Broadway, another building (610 Broadway) is proceeding. It is the site where an Amoco gas station and car wash has existed along with numerous legal and illegal billboards, and one of the largest building cover vinyl signs in SoHo ?ɬ courtesy of Calvin Klein. While this project required a variance for the desires of the developer, it wasn’t so much the minor changes requested that mattered to the Zoning Committee as it was the intention to stop the illegal – or inappropriate but legal – sign proliferation. Most of what is there now will be gone, but there was still the intention on the part of the architect to include a huge building attachment for a billboard-type sign ?ɬ of the sort that you now see on top of the Tommy Hilfiger building on West Broadway and Broome Street. 610 Broadway will clearly be more attractive than the jungle of billboards that currently exist, and the developer was listening. But at a final Zoning Committee hearing, the 610 Broadway team of lawyers and architects advised the members that the owner, Harry Maklowe, will include large new billboard signs on the building. Apparently, Macklowe can never make quite enough money off the backs of SoHo’s artists and arts heritage but must continue the trend of visually polluting our community. As a result, the zoning committee of Community Board #2 reversed it’s previous approval of the variance request. Be careful what you say about Macklowe, though. Martha Stewart picked a fight with him over property in the Hamptons – and now she is unexplainably on the wrong side of a federal witchhunt.

The building at 210 Layfayette Street started out as a 15 story hotel which was changed to a residential development. Opposition at Zoning Committee hearings has reduced the height of the building to 11 stories with residential lofts that come closer to the use that would make it acceptable to the community. The unavoidable reality for SoHo residents is that if you live near a vacant lot, your window view may not be able to be saved ?ɬ and little can be done about fewer parking spaces or people crowding your sidewalks. What has not been more forcefully demanded of developers is parking space in hotel and larger residential plans. Somehow, it seems to be an afterthought, that everyone will eventually find a place for their vehicle ?ɬ and that it is not their responsibilty to plan for that.

Duarte Square is proceeding and the buildings that bordered on Canal, Varick, Grand and 6th Avenue, are being replaced by a 21 story structure of glass and steel compliments of Trinity Realty, the real estate arm of Trinity Church. As you may recall, they obtained their property rights from the King of England and as a result have somewhat diminished concerns about zoning issues or taxes. They have succeeded in removing manufacturing (in a manufacturing zone) in their bulidings and are converting Hudson Square into commercial and office space. Their espoused plans (since they own many parcels in lower Manhattan) involve turning 6th Avenue into a row of tall glass and steel buildings similar to those uptown. It is hardly a view that is shared with the residents of SoHo or Hudson Square, but is another example of the pitfalls of “as of right” development.

Finally, the buildings that are in the process of being completed on West Houston Street are among the most notorious examples of projects that simply have no interest in the community where they hope to make their money. While there is nothing surprising about this, it is an example of why we need to organize our efforts against objectionable development. The SoHo Alliance, a community group that fought these two linked projects are understandably angry about the inability to stop it. What is most objectionable, however, is the fact that the developers are stealing the cache from SoHo, its artistic heritage and loft lifestyle, to sell apartments to the “boomers” while thumbing their noses at its residents who find the buildings themselves representative of greed rather than responsible civic improvement.

Ms. Kazel had a few comments that we feel are important for the community to ponder. Rezoning is done by a process that is initiated by City Planning, and we are in the middle of a major rezoning (Hudson Square Rezoning) ?ɬ which will affect the area north of Canal Street up to the Southern tip of Greenwich Village and from Hudson Street to 6th Avenue. Essentially, it redraws and updates the manufacturing zones that permit new building guidelines. Kazel’s opinion isthat some areas like SoHo are being effectively rezoned “by variance.” Special exceptions are being sought by individual developers that help their project ?ɬ which can be cited by future developers, as though the “special exception” should be “as of right” for their project. In other words, rezoning by variance. This is a dangerous process that takes the rezoning of a community out of the hands of the residents and the normal process of public hearings and review and puts it in the hands of developers and the Board of Standards and Appeals, which is a “political” group that is unaccountable to the public.

The purpose of zoning guidelines is to maintain the character of neighborhoods and areas like SoHo, Hudson Square, NoHo, Greenwich Village and other defined communities. No one will watch that for us. What we need to do, as a community, is to join with effective organizations such as GVSHP in doing what politicians are either unable or unwilling to do for us. We need to present a united front in opposing those projects that are clearly against our will and sensibilities by unfriendly developers, and we need to keep track of those architects, consultants, attorneys and developers who consistently present plans and promise accommodations ?ɬ but whom we see repeatedly renege on their word to the community after pushing through their projects.

We must join with effective community groups and activists to block plans for building in our community until we have ironclad guarantees which promise that we will be protected and our needs will be met. We need to have the ability to reverse variances, reverse approved uses, eliminate certificates of occupancy and ban future development by certain developers ?ɬ IF ?ɬ billboards are erected, if artists are not provided with space in each development, if adequate parking is not planned, and if the community is not consulted on the appropriateness of a project.

-D. Clark MacPherson

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