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January 10th, 2006

State of SoHo: Conflict of Disinterest…

by D. Clark MacPherson

To some, SoHo is about restaurants and shopping. For others, SoHo is about strolling down West Broadway in search of artists showing original work. But one thing is certain-both the tourists and the residents came here because of SoHo’s rich artistic heritage. The art and the money that followed into this cobblestone bohemian frontier lured the developers here. (Yes, there were cobblestones here in the 40’s and 50’s).

No event is more relevant to this historic struggle between the philosophical and economic importance of art and artists in SoHo than the case now pending in Federal court. “The Wall,” a sculpture that is an integral structural part of what is now a residential condominium at 599 Broadway (at Houston Street), is currently the subject of intense litigation.

This 1970’s Frosty Myers sculpture was removed by the building’s board, headed by David Topping – someone who reportedly owns several apartments in the building and whose family is very wealthy. The board removed the sculpture (over vociferous objections) ostensibly because it needed to make structural repairs. The SoHo Alliance, an activist community organization led by Sean Sweeney, objected to the dismantling of “The Wall” as there were many who did not believe that this was simply a temporary disassembling of the sculpture. It appeared to merely be a ruse and a prelude to its permanent removal. Now, several years later, the building work has been done and Mr. Topping has refused to restore the sculpture. Clearly they never intended to restore the art. It appears that all along the plan was to remove the sculpture in order to provide space for, among other things, another billboard. The renovation work was a means to that particular end and whether the building repair work was necessary or not, Topping and his board conveniently used the argument to remove the art. In fact, while the renovation work was being done, the scaffolding over the Houston Street sidewalks was festooned with advertising signs for years despite complaints made to the Department of Buildings.

The Federal Court case was initiated by Mr. Topping to counter a Landmarks Commission order to restore the sculpture. The litigation hinges upon whether Myers owns the art or Topping’s coop board owns it. If Myers owns it, the building’s board cannot be forced to restore the sculpture. If Topping’s board owns it, the court can require that they restore it.

The board’s own witness, the former owner of the building, testified that he purchased “The Wall” and it would therefore be owned by the building.

We sincerely hope that Judge Batts makes the right decision. Let’s see if this Judge calls it right by reversing an objectionable trend in SoHo – of removing art and replacing it with billboards and commercial signs.

We need guidance and action from our Electeds and support from the courts in helping us to remove the blight of billboards and maintaining and preserving our public art. Contact the SoHo Alliance through Sean Sweeney, its director (212-353-8466) or the SoHo Arts Council (212-966-3004) if you would like further information on how to support this effort.

The races for Mayor and Borough President are the most watched political events this year. Fernando Ferrer, C. Virginia Fields and Gifford Miller are the candidates vying for the Democratic ticket in this race against Republican incumbent Bloomberg, who has been weakened by the stadium issue. The taxpayers are being asked to support a sweetheart deal which gives away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks for little more than the pleasure of breathing higher levels of pollution (yes the stadium would bring even more traffic through the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels). Bloomberg (and Dan Doctoroff, who runs the Mayor’s Office) is not likely to address the pollution issue because this would risk the wrath of Staten Island Republican leader Guy Molinari-who nearly single-handedly has made lower Manhattan the number one cancer hot spot in the nation. by virtue of reversing the Verazzano Bridge tolls. Thanks, Guy!?Ǭ?Ǭ (Who supports the Stadium? See: www.nyscc.newyorkjets.com/fan-supporters.php)

The Borough President race has a field of nine candidates still jockeying for position. Of those nine candidates the most visible are Eva Moskowitz from the upper East Side, Scott Stringer from the West side, Margarita Lopez of the lower East Side and Carlos Manzano of Midtown. The Upper Manhattan politicos seem not to have made a clear decision and there is some question as to which candidate Charley Rangel (Congressman) will support. At this point Perkins is the most formidable and most attractive of the African-American candidates. Moskowitz has the most money and is also a formidable candidate.

Scott Stringer is a very serious contender, with less cash than Moskowitz but an agenda that seems to be well liked by a variety of groups, including downtown people and the community boards. According to many insiders, he is edging out Moskowitz with his message: to turn the Borough President’s office into a dynamic center for positive change.

Margarita Lopez is another candidate whose fire and passion may well overcome the financial advantage of other candidates. Her stance on gay rights, women’s rights, and the rights of those with disabilities places her in a strong position. [For more on Ms. Lopez’s candidacy see the?Ǭ interview with her here]

The dark horse is Carlos Manzano who stands to pick up Latino votes and has the support of the powerful McManus organization. He’s young, smart and well connected. If the field narrows down to two or three candidates, he could upset the balance in this race.

Conflict of Disinterest

Our various City and State agencies, the Community Boards, and the City Council are ostensibly dedicated to serving the people and protecting the community. That is their mission and sometimes it is actually their goal. But, often in politics, special interest groups and lobbyists interfere with the processes in our representative democracy and we get distortion and disinterest from our elected and appointed officials. The mission of representing residents and their community is forgotten. Activists become enrag?s, as they were called during the French Revolution  angry constituents whom Louis XVI was finally forced to acknowledge. The pamphleteers were also eventually heard during that period in history. They lost patience with political niceties and started to re-write reality until they finally hit their mark. These facts had a lot to do with Louis Capet’s eventually losing his head. Monsieur Guillotin never made money but his invention, euphemistically known as “the machine,” was a very popular political tool. What follows is a sampling of current issues that are slowly creating a great seething anger among activists in our communities  those people who devote time and energy to improve conditions for themselves and fellow residents. Many of them are the members of the community boards who give a great deal of their time for no pay in order to improve conditions in this great city. They understandably become angry when they find that government officials have ignored their efforts. Here are a few of the most egregious examples of issues that have been ignored and need to be fixed:

Air Quality

It’s no secret that Al D’Amato, the ex-Senator from New York, was a powerful guy. He was respected among those in business who needed to get things done and he had a loyal Republican following that extended to the outer boroughs. But what most of you don’t know is that his pal Guy Molinari, the power behind the Staten Island Republican machine-the political machine that gave Giuliani and Bloomberg the mayoralty-are the two politicians that sold out lower Manhattan via the Verazzano Bridge Toll scheme.

Yes, folks, the next time you balk at taking a breath in lower Manhattan, you can thank D’Amato and Molinari. The plan was this: in order to avoid the messy complications and expense of the State Supreme Court lawsuit initiated by the SoHo Alliance and former Councilmember Kathryn Freed to reverse the one-way toll (which has caused the massive increase in Truck, Bus and vehicular traffic)  D’Amato and Molinari cooked up a plan to add a tiny amendment to a Federal Bill. The result was phenomenal. A couple of sentences were added to this legislation and voil?Ǭ?-lung cancer, emphysema, asthma, birth defects and increased pedestrian injuries and deaths for residents of downtown Manhattan. Why? Well, partly because these two pals could. Perhaps Susan Molinari drove to Manhattan every morning and didn’t want to wait in line to pay a toll. Perhaps Congressman Fossella still is not independent of Molinari.

With a stroke of the pen, lines on the Staten Island side of the approach to the Verazzano Bridge got shorter (until they reached the bottleneck on the Gowanus in Brooklyn) so that only the two other boroughs get gassed. At the same time all of that truck, bus and automobile traffic from New Jersey and Staten Island get a free ride into Manhattan and as an added incentive the return trip through downtown, the bridges and tunnels are free going back to New Jersey. If you don’t think people will take a circuitous route through downtown Manhattan just to save a toll, think again partners.

Especially if they are driving a large diesel-spewing rig that would otherwise pay $50 for a round trip and now pays zero.

So, aside from the fact that Molinari pulled a fast one with his Republican buddy D’Amato at the expense of our health, how is this significant? Well, for one thing elected officials who have had a long time to try to rectify this situation, have not. Chuck Schumer, one of our Senators, actually promised to do something about this when he was looking for support in his bid to defeat D’Amato. But, after winning the election, he promptly starting amassing a small fortune in campaign funds to retain his seat and basically turned his back on lower Manhattan. Hillary may be powerful and popular, but we haven’t seen or heard from her around these parts and we have never heard any comments on this issue. If you don’t breathe down here, you can easily avoid the issue.

Is this an issue that the City Council, State Senate, the Assembly, and several of the Community Boards working together could affect?

Is Staten Island not part of New York City? Are their representatives not in need of our jobs and services? Or, our help in support of their community needs? Perhaps, since the cat is now out of the bag, we can sit down and agree upon the terms for reversing this toll and saving lives. Do we residents of lower Manhattan need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in traffic studies, environmental reports and legal fees to show that this situation is killing us? Anyone who takes that position hasn’t tried to jog along Avenue of the Americas, Broome Street or Canal Street lately.

Even Community Boards that normally work together have been forced to ignore each other’s desperate straights. There has been a recent attempt by local activists to change the route of huge diesel spewing buses (down Watts street into the Holland Tunnel) to reduce intense rush hour pollution and vibrations that damage building structures. Community Boards 1 and 2 have had to grapple with traffic routes that have, at times, strained relations downtown. This is the bequest of Molinari and D’Amato as residents fight among themselves to breath easier. This has to stop.

Community Boards and environmental groups must start to work with the City Council, the State Senate, and the Assembly as well as with community groups to end this travesty. Our elected officials must take the initiative and create a plan starting at the Community Board level. An uprising is necessary!

Billboards

An activist in SoHo was lamenting about the long overdue enforcement in removing illegal billboards following the City Council measures enacted under Speaker Peter Vallone. Yes, folks, it’s been that long since fines were increased and levied for oversized signs, illegal lighting, signs placed within 200 feet of an arterial highway and structures that extend out over sidewalks. But, have you ever seen just one of the huge Van Wagner, Clear Channel, or Viacom billboards-which obscenely defile SoHo or NoHo-come down? Forget about the “legal” billboards that shine horrendously bright lights into apartments 24/7, forcing parents to black out children’s’ windows like Elvis at the Holiday Inn. And, forget about the David Stoltz art still painted but hidden on the walls of 505 Broome Street behind an erector set contraption installed by Van Wagner Communications to create a new billboard. You can even forget about the apartment house at 34 Watts Street, which has both ends of its classic structure overcome by two huge fixtures blaring high-intensity light into its own rent-controlled apartments as well as the building next door. This is an example of the building owner supplementing rent control and rent stabilization at the expense of the community.

The agency charged with enforcement of this law is the Department of Buildings (D.O.B.). It’s Commissioner Lancaster, is a Bloomberg appointee. Her boss owns a media company. The Department of Buildings has been stonewalling the community since the new commissioner took office. Residents were once able to call in complaints and request a printed report as to which billboards were illegal and which landlords were cited for violations. Before Lancaster, enforcement was mediocre and the courts were slow to hand out fines. Most fines were insignificant so there was little enforcement. Now we have no enforcement whatsoever. No policing unit has ever removed a single sign in SoHo. As a result of laws passed in the City Council that increased fines to as high as $25,000 per day, there was hope that this blight would end. Now thanks to Bloomberg and Lancaster, we have nothing. Zero!

Van Wagner Communications has bought its way into our area and effectively turned SoHo into another Times Square. It blatantly advertises its accomplishments on its website.

Meanwhile, the Department of Buildings has been telling activists that the City Council passed laws imposing a moratorium on any enforcement of the sign/billboard laws on the books. They have resorted to disinformation  or it is simply stupidity from an agency that is accountable to no one but Dan Doctoroff, Bloomberg’s “Haldeman and Erlichman” combined.

What’s going on here, rangers? Couldn’t be that Bloomberg owns a media company and his appointee is feeling less than enforcement-minded, could it? Could it be that there is a general queasiness about enforcing any unfriendly laws against companies that contribute heavily to election campaigns?

Well, the enrag?s are starting to understand that our communities, especially SoHo and NoHo are being sold out. Big time.

We want the laws enforced and we want the billboards to come down. We don’t want another Times Square downtown at the expense of our art and quality of life. A Town Hall meeting or a serious hearing at City Council is in order. And we want it now!

Bars, Nightclubs & Lounges

Two recent liquor license applications were denied at the Community Board level in SoHo. The process is supposed to work simply. If the Community Board approves a liquor license, it is rubber-stamped by the State Liquor Authority (S.L.A.). Beer and Wine licenses are routinely approved without any review by the S.L.A. Apparently, no one in Albany has ever spent time with someone who’s just finished off a liter of Thunderbird or a case of beer before they murdered their neighbors. But, then again, they’ve never seen West Broadway revelers urinating in doorways near their favorite SoHo bar.

Chairman Kelly, Pataki’s S.L.A. appointee, espouses an official view that the issuance of a license is dependent upon the impact it has on the community. That’s the short explanation of what they tell us. The fact is, however, that they are concerned only with the impact on business and not at all concerned with the community (not to mention political favors for connected applicants and former commissioners representing current client-applicants).

At a recent hearing the SoHo community came out in force, several times, to object to a license being reviewed on Watts Street, just east of West Broadway (Lola). After innumerable hearings at the Community Board, which eventually denied the liquor license based upon its adverse impact on the community, Kelly and crew approved the license.

With nearly 50 members of the community at the final hearing in March, Kelly flipped through the legal papers in seconds and turned to his buddies to say, “This is near the Tunnel, right? Approved!” In an offhand remark-no doubt the result of some heavyweight lobbying by friends of the applicant-six months of hard work by activists and lawyers to simply assert the will of the community was nullified.

Each fight to stop a liquor license-in this case the bar/lounge/restaurant called Lola-has cost the community in excess of $20,000. Community activists managed to obtain a restraining order, however, so that issuance of the liquor license was halted.

The comprehensive problem facing SoHo has not been addressed. With 17 bars in a 500-foot radius at Broome and Grand Streets, summer days are like a cross between High Noon and Showdown at the OK Corral. People mill about drinking and smoking on the sidewalks, drunks urinate in doorways, gaming tables and benches are dragged out onto the sidewalks and doors open to allow loud music to spill onto the streets below apartments. Often this is accompanied by lines of motorcycles revving their engines, parked ever so neatly in a row to establish their “turf.”

We need City Council action on a New York City law with teeth-to shut down bars, lounges or even restaurants that negatively impact our quality of life. Right now, once a license is issued, there is no recourse. Licenses are routinely transferred and new establishments are routinely approved if a bar in a specific location has done business within a two-year period. That should be changed.

Over-saturation of bars and its impact on the community is an issue that the S.L.A. cares nothing about. We have to regulate bad behavior. The enforcement unit of the S.L.A. is like the Ghost Riders-unseen and unheard of in these here parts.

We need a New York City law that imposes heavy fines for violations affecting the community with strict enforcement and we need cooperation among our elected officials to support these community efforts against over-saturation. We will never get this from the State Liquor Authority, which supports businesses, not residents. As Gordon Gekko said, “Go to work!”

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