February 6th, 2007
The State of SoHo and its (Laissez Faire) Politicsby D. Clark MacPherson
Despite its notoriety, SoHo is still a poor step-child, compared to better-known Manhattan neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, Chelsea or Murray Hill. The shops are certainly reaching a level once never thought possible. There is Chanel, Bloomingdales, Donna Karan and Polo, among others, who have settled on Broadway or West Broadway. And there is no question that the developers have arrived. There are several condominium projects under construction, and the prices range from $1500 per square foot, climbing to nearly $3000 per sq. ft. While there are conflicting reports as to how well they are selling, there is activity. Brokers keep watching for signs of buyer fatigue but keep holding Open Houses, and people keep coming.
The sense of SoHo Community, however, has suffered from this “success,” and it has solidified some of the grassroots organizations. In addition, there has been something of a blurring of neighborhood lines. Hudson Square, for example, is just to the west of SoHo.
The traditional boundaries of SoHo have generally been considered to be Canal to Houston, and Sixth Avenue to Lafayette. There is some overlapping with the South Village and northern sections of Tribeca. Trump’s new hotel or condo, or hotel/condo—depending upon whether you’re trying to buy, or trying to prevent it from being built —is really located in Hudson Square.
For all intents and purposes, SoHo and Hudson Square share similar problems in zoning and politics. They are both zoned manufacturing, both are part of Community Board #2, which is controlled by a strong Greenwich Village influence, and both are experiencing a surge in development pressure and activity. There are even more projects in progress and planned for Hudson Square in the near future than in SoHo. The reason for this development pace is simply due to the fact that the west side of SoHo (West of West Broadway) is not landmarked, and west of Sixth Avenue is a zoning no-man’s land. There is little that you can’t build with the right application and lawyer. If you’re willing to build a hotel, you can practically start digging immediately.
Look at it this way; both areas are still zoned for manufacturing as far as City Planning classifications are concerned. In other words, with respect to density or bulk, the current zoning treats these two areas as if its highest and best use—the kind of building that some developer is still theoretically rushing to build—is a widget factory. Or, if that doesn’t work, a hotel? If another hotel is built Downtown, residents will have to move out to make room for the tourists.
The truth is, no real manufacturing uses are contemplated or planned for these areas. The trend and money are going in one direction and in one direction only—residential development. But, the process under current zoning allows only two “residential” options, a condo or a hotel (hotel is permitted “manufacturing” use as long as it is transient). Many variations on a theme are possible. Voila! — Trump SoHo — in Hudson Square. It’s neither a hotel, nor is it simply a condo. It’s a Condo/Hotel. Why? Because the zoning professionals have been asleep at the switch. And, because it’s not in Greenwich Village. If it were, the proverbial shit would have hit the fan. Politicians would be put out of office, fundraisers would dry up, family connections and favors would be called in. In SoHo or Hudson Square, the politicians still don’t quite believe anybody really lives there. There’s no real political danger—at least, not yet.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation under the guidance of Andrew Berman, and the Friends of Hudson Square, under the direction of David Reck—have been warning elected officials and City Planning for 10 years that parts of SoHo and Hudson Square must be re-zoned. As it stands now, we have Trump SoHo weighing in at 45 stories, and a hotel on Watts Street about to reach 17 stories. The adjoining buildings are from 3 to 6 stories high. Trump will manage to build something almost as offensive as his hair and his name—but there is little that can be done about it. Those that point out the absurdity of building a mega-hotel within one block of the Holland Tunnel don’t understand real estate. First, it’s a large parcel of land; second, it’s vacant and available; third, getting permits to build in an area where the zoning is lax simplifies it; and fourth, the money can be located to fund a Trump building. The first rules of real estate: find the money and then, build. He’s doing just that, at our expense.
The politics of this is simple; the Downtown Electeds had their hands tied by outdated zoning and the foundation was going in on Trump SoHo compliments of the Buildings Department before the problem had been fully analyzed. Even a stop work order that had been issued because of the discovery of human remains located at the site was withdrawn over the strenuous objection by community groups.
To further complicate the situation, Trump’s boys mistakenly put on the sales website for “Trump SoHo.” It was presented to the City as a Hotel with units being sold to investors while Trump’s initial website gave buyers three purchase options: Primary, secondary or investment “residence.” The original City website also listed it as a year-round residential location. Greenwich Villagers would have been “manning the barricades” had this happened further uptown. And in the landmarked area of SoHo there would have been fist fights. On the border of western SoHo and Hudson Square, residents are unprotected by zoning or politics. It’s been sold out. The best that can now be hoped for in this in area is that if “Trump Godzilla” is built, the zoning will be changed because of its horrific, outrageous offensiveness.