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January 6th, 2005

Revolting Development

by D. Clark MacPherson

Several issues have had a direct effect upon residents and visitors to our Art Mecca recently. Only a few months ago, if you had tried to drive through SoHo via West Broadway or turn East along Grand street, you’d have been blocked due to construction. Not the type of construction, however, that you might expect from a new building project. It seems that the Omri brothers have been at it again. They have a thing for SoHo and may not have used the best of all possible construction techniques in their quest to be land Barons. From the same drawing boards that brought us the destruction of 30 or 40 full grown trees at the corner of Howard Street and Broadway for a commercial building that was arguably never meant to be built, we now have the development of 72 Grand Street.

The Howard street location was a former European-American bank that other developers wanted to turn into a world class restaurant (Keith McNally and Andre Belasz among them), they would have kept the trees and moved on it quickly. The Omri boys pushed the approval for a commercial building on that site and have dragged their feet (no doubt to turn it into a residential development) and currently are allowing it to be used as an elaborate flea market. They also dragged their feet on the 72 Grand Street location and allowed seepage from years of dereliction to undermine the footings of the adjoining building.

A few years ago the 72 Grand Street site was slated to be a nightclub but was defeated in court. The SLA (State Liquor Authority) had given the Omri boys a liquor license but it was reversed in court-one of the first implementations of the Padavan Law (500 foot rule). Despite the fact that the SLA approval was eventually overturned, the BSA (Board of Standards and Appeals) was also involved in the subsequent effort to push through a nightclub/disco that was planned on this site. When this too failed, the Com-munity Board ap-proved a commercial and artists’ mixed-use building. However, Canal Lumber, the tenant at 72 Grand, was forced out of business while the site sat dormant for many years lying exposed to the elements.

In many of these fights the SoHo Alliance, under the guidance of Sean Sweeney, has emerged as the preeminent SoHo activist organization. Many potential developers and liquor license applicants now review their plans with the Alliance to get a good sense of the community reaction to their plans. While the Community Board may approve an issue, the Alliance may veto a proposal’s detrimental effects. In the case of 72 Grand Street, both the nightclub sponsors and the disingenuous attitudes of the developers were rejected.

The OEM (Office of Emergency Management), a city agency that works on a local level under FEMA, spoke with us on the site of the recent partial collapse at 72/74 Grand Street. The 74 Grand Street building is leaning and is now supported by steel beams. According to the OEM spokesman, there is finger pointing over the fact that the footings for the 74 Grand Street building have started to collapse. Now the question one has to ask is who would the construction site developer be pointing a finger at when the adjoining building is nearly 100 years old and the existing construction site has been left exposed to the elements for so many years?

The issue for developers, city officials, and even the Community Board is this: organizations of local residents have a much better understanding as to where some of the bones are buried. Bones, at the toxic chemical site on Houston Street where new condos are being completed despite the lawsuits against the developer and B.S.A. Bones, such as the history of shoddy construction techniques used repeatedly by a developer at a neglected and unprotected building site. And Bones, such as the disingenuous promises made by liquor license applicants and real estate companies that have absolutely no interest in the wishes or safety of SoHo’s residents.

The pressure to obtain new liquor licenses is directly related to development in SoHo. Nowhere in Manhattan is there more pressure to grant full liquor licenses in so condensed an area as in the few blocks on and around West Broadway, Broome, Spring and Prince Streets. Hudson Square, on Hudson and Greenwich streets have also begun to feel the pressure.

While the Community Board is the first stop for applicants, approval or denial at the Board level only sets the stage for the real debate. In SoHo, it is the SoHo Alliance and in Hudson Square it is David Reck’s Friends of Hudson Square. These organizations deal with the real impact of either building developments or liquor license applications. The effects of a nightclub and its unregulated presence in the community, for example, such as Club NV on Spring Street with its history of shootings and illegal activities has become a lightning rod for community opposition and activism.

The problem for SoHo as well as Hudson Square and Greenwich Village, is that each liquor license fight actually has to go to court. The S.L.A. is a pit of political hacks-commissioners with favors to pay back to lawyers and former commissioners. The community is of no concern to the S.L.A. Its rulings support former members now working for law firms that are “on the clock” for liquor license clients. Meanwhile, each case for each applicant costs community activists between ten and twenty thousand dollars in court.

Currently in SoHo there are least two applications that that may wind up in court. There is Caf? Sol/357 West Broadway (the old Magnum location), now operating as Besito, which has circumvented their liquor license denial at the Community Board with a Beer and Wine license (which the SLA rubber stamps); and, Lola at 15 Watts street, a restaurant/bar with live music. The Padavan Law was implemented by Senator Padavan for the specific purpose of limiting the number of liquor licenses and requires there be a hearing if 3 or 4 bars operate within a 500 foot radius. With 17 such locations on West Broadway, Grand and Broome Street this law obviously has had no effect upon the S.L.A. No problem here-is there, Commissioner Kelly?

If that isn’t enough to make our lives more comfortable, consider this: The Department of Environmental Preservation wants to install new sewer lines along Houston Street because they want the Houston Street Reconstruction project to move forward (you know, all those federal funds just lying there waiting to be picked up and spent) but they will not install new, badly needed sewers along West Broadway and Grand street. You know, the spot where you need a boat to cross the street when there’s heavy rain. Why? Because the City’s concern is that the bars along West Broadway will be inconvenienced if their road frontage is impeded during the construction phase of this project. In other words, it’s better that we watch sewage float down West Broadway and tracked into our apartments than any bars be inconvenienced.

Nice for us residents and tourists as well. We are inundated with alcohol and residents get overflowing sewers-right at our front door? What’s wrong with this picture? We suggest that business will be worse with lawsuits from residents and their sick children.

Contact your elected officials if you want to change this before we wind up with a Cholera outbreak.

D. Clark MacPherson

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