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January 6th, 2005

Soho Liquor Sewers and Slumlords

by D. Clark MacPherson

Each time that we have a substantial amount of rain in lower Manhattan there is back up from the sewers in SoHo at Grand street and West Broadway. Sandbags and cologne are the only current solutions. Unfortunately, these inadequate sewers service many of the residential loft buildings, the restaurants and bars, the SoHo Grand Hotel, and drainage from the streets. The storm drains that discharge into the Hudson River shut down at high tide and what would be considered normal flooding causes the sewers at this spot to back-up at what is arguably the lowest point in Manhattan-Grand street and West Broadway. The inadequate pipes handle sewage and restaurant grease traps, giving us a recurring Public Health nightmare in SoHo.

The SoHo infrastructure is built on a wet and unstable shifting base of sandy soil with a decaying sewer system that is wildly overburdened. New buildings, including commercial towers of 20 stories or more must be built on pilings that are either screwed or pounded into this sandy substrata. And yet, nothing is done to improve the sewers and the drainage system in SoHo. On top of that, the agencies that oversee development-B.S.A., D.E.P., to name a few-ignore the pace of development and its effects upon our quality of life.

There is nowhere for the sewage to go when the pipes decay or become clogged as they periodically do in SoHo – especially when there is no planned improvement in this aging system despite the influx of 10,000 new residents and tourists.

This is truly a health emergency in the making and all of Downtown’s elected officials need to get this repaired. Sandbags on Grand and West Broadway is not the answer. The proliferation of liquor licenses in SoHo as well as Hudson Square is another issue that is heating up. Senator Tom Duane, Councilmembers Christine Quinn and Alan Gerson have recently spoken on the issue at Community Board #2, voicing their concern and support for residents of Greenwich Village and SoHo. The essence of the problem is threefold. First, the Padavan Law is not being observed by the S.L.A. and many more than 3 or 4 bars are being issued licenses within a 500-foot radius without a hearing and without consent and approval of the community. It seems that in its zeal to accommodate former S.L.A. Commissioners or their relatives who now either work in or are associated with law firms that are engaged by clients attempting to get a liquor license-the S.L.A. grants them over strong community opposition. To overturn the S.L.A, residents and community groups must resort to the courts for each and every case, at a cost of nearly $20,000. It is a high price for people to pay just to be able to keep their community intact. Chairman Kelly of the S.L.A., a Pataki appointee, turns out to be another in a long line of indifferent political hacks who is willing to destroy communities with liquor licenses, contrary to the lip-service given on their website.

Second, to make matters worse, even if a license is turned down by the Community Board, the S.L.A. rubber stamps Beer and Wine License applications. The practical effects of this little sham is this: the community (SoHo, in this case) doesn’t want more bars with garbage on its streets every morning, public urination, revving motorcycles, spill-over patrons drinking and smoking on public sidewalks, or loud music until 4 a.m.- in a residential neighborhood. One resident recently told the Community Board that he has not been able to open his windows for ten years as a result of the noise from a bar below. A recent application, to open a street front restaurant/bar at 15 Watts Street (the old Brewery building which housed Chaos nightclub) was recently denied by the Community Board. The owners proposed solving the potential noise problems by offering to install fixed pane windows on surrounding residents’ windows. In other words, SoHo should welcome a new bar while residents are given the opportunity to never be able to open their windows again!

While Beer and Wine licenses may not be as profitable, they are just as devastating for a community that is overburdened by bars-17 in SoHo alone within 500 feet of West Broadway and Grand Street-and it is a cinch to get with a connected lawyer. This lesser license is also the attorneys’ ploy to get around all review by the S.L.A. and the community while leaving the door open to repeated future attempts at garnering a full liquor license. Beer and Wine licenses needs to be subjected to the same scrutiny and community review as a full liquor license. Collusion between the S.L.A., the attorneys, and clients that have decided that they must open in SoHo, have produced businesses that have no interest in the community. We are overburdened by bar owners who only want the money our from an area that is known for the Arts but is slowly being turned into a bad combination of Coney Island and Times Square. Electeds, take notice! Third, liquor licenses as well as Beer and Wine licenses must not be able to be transferred, leased, moved or automatically renewed without greater scrutiny. While there are very many desirable bars and restaurants owned and operated by law abiding and respectful businesspeople, the community should come first. Each location has its own peculiarities and establishments that offend the community should have their licenses revoked. The license holder should be the operator of the business and should be responsible to the residents in his or her area for problems that arise.


The issue that has been swept under the rug in SoHo is Enforcement. There is virtually none, like the Emperor’s proverbial new clothes. There are no Traffic Agents to protect our children, mothers with baby carriages, pregnant women, or the elderly crossing the streets-even in the crosswalks. Crossings like Broome and West Broadway, Thompson and Watts, Avenue of the Americas and Grand, or Varick and Watts are a nightmare. Even when there are police, the focus is on getting the buses into the Holland Tunnel, not on people getting across the street safely. Calls made to the police have lately become, “don’t call us, call 311.” As if calling 311 would get you anywhere. The other explanation is, “we don’t have the manpower, we can’t send anyone now.” At 3:00 a.m. a man ran down a SoHo street after shots were fired. In SoHo, no less! In the South Bronx during the 70’s, this would have at least brought out patrol cars.

In reality, SoHo and its environs are relatively crime free. And, to be fair, local police are routinely “borrowed” by City Hall on security details. The high profile visits, the frequent terror alerts (Homeland Security get-ready exercises to keep us freaked out while we lose our civil rights), all contribute to everyone dipping into our quality of life protection. Illegal, illuminated signs remain on our buildings, crosswalks are not safe, bars and clubs rob us of our right to clean sidewalks and quiet evenings, and the police do not respond. What’s wrong with this picture? But, in downtown Manhattan this is the real picture.

Slumlords of SoHo

Finally, there is some comfort for us in the age-old institution of the slumlord. Difficult as it is to believe, there are still rent-stabilized apartment buildings left in SoHo, NoHo and Hudson Square. Rest assured, they do exist.

One of the more exotic situations exists in a building that would long ago have been a co-op if it weren’t for its rumored money laundering value to the landlords. Although some think that the abusive owners merely have a psychiatric condition traced to their childhood. It is a typical problem for those whom have been abused themselves. While there is evidence of this theory from the active attempts to pit one tenant against the other in a grotesque game of “Three dimensional chess meets Jeopardy” it is all a loss at the tenants’ expense. At $3,000 per-month-plus, it is truly a slum SoHo style. Tenants are paying the legal bills for this vicious game while the money for building maintenance goes elsewhere.

This environmental nightmare on Grand Street, which has curiously remained a rental building for 25 years boasts a number of problems that defy explanation in this age of environmental consciousness. There are several babies and pregnant women in the building yet lead paint abounds; the elevator service is dysfunctional if not downright dangerous, and many residents have either been trapped in an elevator or forced to walk up 10 to 20 flights of stairs to get home on a routine basis. The Buildings Department has had open violations for years and essentially do nothing.

Several apartments are infiltrated with toxic mold and there are repeated instances of buckled floors from the leaking roof or corroded heating pipes. Noxious chemicals are used to do maintenance and water is routinely turned off without notice. Some tenants have gone through the winter in their apartments with temperatures in the 50’s. Yet, no city agency has put the owners, two former (highly religious) dentists where they belong.

To boot, two of the most recent superintendents have died at the ripe old age of 40, in part from working themselves to death in pursuit of an elusive green card that they were promised-without any health insurance (That’s really popular in hospitals these days). The families were evicted from the building as soon as the supers were dearly departed. A nice religious touch.

Yet, the owners seem to need all the apartments they can get for the gaggles of teenage fashion models who speak little English and are stuffed into illegal rentals, 8 to 10 at a time, to accommodate a side deal with one tenant and a modeling agency. These reports have been so interesting that we are beginning an investigation for your edification, amusement, and horror. It can only get better.

Filed Under: Articles | New York | Politics





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