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April 10th, 2006

Viewpoint: Downtown Dilemmas Stirring Up The Hornets’ Nests

by D. Clark MacPherson

The reform movement is picking up steam Downtown. Scott Stringer, the new Manhattan Borough President has made it known that he is earnest about his intention to broaden the Community Boards with fresh talent and remove those who are obstructionist. The memorable phrase of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, “Out with the old, in with the new…” is an apt comical reminder of a serious situation. And many community groups have started to wake up to, or have started to vocalize opinions that Board decisions may not be as fair, ethical or impartial as one would hope. There is a distinct feeling that there have been far too many insider-trading deals afoot–usually behind curtain #2. At the very least, Stringer’s reform message is simple: if you’re not “on Board” to serve the community first, get off. The preliminary indications are that roughly 15 new Board members have been appointed to Board #2, for example, including Toby Bergman and Jo Hamilton – who are activists whose reappointments had been thwarted by former Borough President Virginia Fields as part of the last election fiasco. It seems clear that Stringer primarily intends to first de-politicize the Community Boards through a deliberate process that may take several years. While some Downtown political animals are not thrilled that the nightlife contingent still controls the Board, most community-oriented people are adopting a wait and see approach as to how well the process works.

The issues affecting Downtown have not changed dramatically in the last couple of months. S.L.A. (State Liquor Authority) reform and the impact of multiple liquor licenses in certain locations remain a pregnant issue. Zoning by fiat (liquor license) has become a fact of life in lower Manhattan. When you have 5 to 10 bars in a row lined up on one block, for example, as is reported by members of Board #2 and Board #3, you have communities being re-zoned through saturation. However, two of the S.L.A. Commissioners have recently been reshuffled and it could be a clear indication that the message may have finally reached Albany. In SoHo, where the most egregious saturation exists (35 bars within 500 feet), whole sections of the community have essentially been transformed by this mindless ad hoc zoning.

Traffic problems have also remained unchanged in SoHo as well as in NoHo. Agencies such as the D.O.T. (Department of Transportation) have been unresponsive to some simple problems and helpful on others. Attempts to change traffic flow to accommodate some residential needs have gone unanswered. Brad Hoylman, Chairman of the Traffic and Transportation Committee of Community Board #2, has worked with SoHo and Hudson Square activists in an attempt to alleviate certain problems. But, some of them are pernicious and persistent.

After years of importuning the City, only sporadically is there a traffic agent to eliminate the perennially dangerous bottleneck at West Broadway, Broome Street and Watts where vehicles consistently block the passage of anyone trying to cross the street. There is no excuse for the horrendous rejection of SoHos needs or for the safety of its residents. Old people with canes, pregnant women, parents with baby carriages, and childrenall take their lives in their hands when they scramble to avoid being hit by irate New Jersey-bound drivers. Only the squeegee men, who openly prey on drivers, enjoy the continual gridlock and lack of police.

Further, speeding cars on West Houston Street are currently not ticketed and buses still turn into Watts Street from 6th Avenuebuses which should be re-routed along Canal Street to the Holland Tunnel (to avoid residential buildings). For the near-term future the reconstruction of Houston Street, currently underway, will artificially control the speeding problem but traffic flow needs to be addressed for the long-term.

Fortunately, for SoHo, Melinda Katz has remained Chair of the Land Use Committee at the City Council. She has supported SoHo in the past and reports to us that her door is always open to activists who have an issue that needs to be addressed. Some problems in our area have already been addressed through implementation of the 74-712 Special Text Amendment which came out of her committee. This has helped to reduce the number of eating and drinking establishments (including lounges and nightclubs) in SoHo and NoHo.

The problem of evaporating parking spaces should now be brought to Katzs committee. When a developer seeks to develop a vacant lot currently used for parking located in a Manufacturing zone (most of SoHo), there has been little discussion and NO requirement that parking space allocation be included in the plans for new buildings. This needs to be changed. Even developers have started to introduce such planning for parking garages on their owna sure sign that there is an impending crisis.

The illegal billboard sign problems have seen little resolution. The City in general and Commissioner Lancaster in particular, has done absolutely nothing to remove the illegal VanWagner and Clear Channel monstrosities from our neighborhoods. In addition, we now have video screens attached to our subway entrances and a giant video screen at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel at Canal and Hudson Streets. That site used to be a parking lot but now is host only to a screen that runs commercial ads while drivers wait to enter the tunnel. No actions have been taken by any politician and no one has ever even heard of an enforcement unit that removes illegal signs. Except, that is, for Alan Gerson.

Recently, a billboard was removed on Broome Street by the sign company itself (Ace), as a result of the insistence of Carl Rosenstein of the Puffin Room Gallery with the help of our Councilmember Alan Gerson. Now, if other politicians would dedicate some time to this effort, we could clean up SoHo. As it is currently, check out the VanWagner website to see how brazenly they promote their huge billboards, which destroys the artistic heritage of our community in the process. The buildings at 366 West Broadway/505 Broome Street and 15 Watts Street (the former brewery), each have two of these VanWagner monsterswhile 34 Watts Street has another two, compliments of Clear Channel. At 519 Broome Street, VanWagner seems to have set aside a special location for Banana Republic signsfurther annoying native artists in SoHo who remember this spot as a place where artistic/political statements were made. These eyesores are anathema to the residents of SoHo, but not one politician has done a thing to get them removed. Welcome to Times Square South!

New York Universitys insatiable need for additional classroom and dormitory space has finally become a hot issue Downtown. After years of discussions (or attempts at discussion) between residents, neighborhood groups and brave politicians, the lid has started to blow. While NYU has been located on Washington Square since the 1800s, the rapidity with which the University has purchased new buildings, renovated or completely replaced old ones has appeared to accelerate. The neighbors, mostly in Greenwich Village and NoHo, have begun to question where, or if, this will end. Most of the real estate around Washington Square Park is now owned by NYUincluding numerous new and existing buildings that extend to the north and east. While some residents feel that the University acts as if the Park is part of its campus, others just want to know whether there will be any of the Village left that is not owned by the school.

The GVSHP (Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation) recently became more involved in the issue and has had numerous meetings with residents, neighborhood organizations, and elected officials in an attempt to arrive at some kind of understanding. NYU states that it is assembling a planning group to discuss options with the community. The residents claim that there has been nothing but stonewalling on the part of the school. The elected officials walk the fencehoping that NYU will do the right thing, but knowing full well that neither the City nor the University really HAS to pay attention to what the residents are saying.

GVSHP is saying this: New York University had a satellite campus in the Bronx (which closed in the 1960s). Therefore, it is not inconceivable that additional off-campus sites could be locatedalleviating the pressure to gobble up more of Greenwich Village and NoHo. Locations elsewhere in the city could be found for less money and, hopefully, create less animosity among its neighbors. The GVSHP initiative is purely advisory. Andrew Berman, Executive Director of GVSHP, and the numerous residents whose voices have been heard have no illusion about trying to force NYU to change their plans. Rather, the intent has been to forge an alliance between the City, NYU and residents in an attempt to create a cooperative planning group. If no other sites are found that make economic sense and reduce the growing pressure on the Downtown campus, there will to be no consequences other than a bigger university and a smaller Greenwich Village community.

David McWater, Chair of Community Board #3 has contacted to let us know that a number of facts need to be addressed from our last issue [Winter 2005, Vol.7 No.3] with reference to bar proliferation.

According to McWater, he is not divesting himself of the seven bars he owns because he is exiting the business. He simply sold one for a large profit, leaving him with 7 bars, not the 9 we mentioned. He also commented that any sweep by police or rumored investigation by Sptizers office had nothing to do with his business interests. He let us know that the bars he owns existed prior to his purchase (were not created by him) and have been improved since he bought them. While LESA members (Lower East Side residents) object to the sheer numbers of bars in their neighborhood, McWater feels that he has made the area better for residents.

With the contentious issue of proliferation of bars, where more supermarkets and community-oriented service establishments are needed, this is an issue that will continue to attract controversy. Some community activists, like Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance, feel that McWater is a responsible bar owner. There are others, however, among the nightlife industry who would like to see Manhattan become all bars, all the time and silence activists who object to this. Well keep you posted on this evolving issue.

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