SoHo Journal: The Magazine of Arts and Politics in SoHo and the Hamptons Soho Politics Blog Hamptons Politics Blog

May 31st, 2007


by Joelle Panisch

How One Proposed Building United Three Neighborhoods Against The King of Bronze Trim, Pink Marble, Smokey Glass And Bad TV.

trump-bldg.jpgIt’s a SoHo battle royale. The controversy over the new Trump Building that “The Donald” and co-developers–The Bayrock Group and Sapir Organization–intend on erecting has ignited an uproar heard acrossWest Broadway. The hubbub in many ways is the same as it has been for years. “There goes the neighborhood, again!” But the trouble this time runs deeper; with more at stake than just ugly architecture, this could rupture the identity of SoHo for good. Add to this excitement a web of conflicting agendas and a legal quarrel that could set a precedent for zoning citywide, and all involved need to be ready for a rumble. This is the real estate equivalent of The Sharks vs. The Jets on the cobblestone streets of SoHo.

First introduced by Trump on the 2006 season finale of The Apprentice, the hopeful Trump Soho development is plotted for 246 Spring Street, between 6th Avenue and Varick Street. As envisioned by architect David Rockwell, the building will rise to approximately 454 feet high and will stand as the tallest tower in the community. It will boast 45 stories and include the usual amount of tacky Trump amenities.

This holds no appeal to SoHo residents who take tremendous pride in their cast-iron wonderland. The tower’s sleek and brazen appearance translates to pompous in a neighborhood so concerned with upholding its historic and architectural integrity. SoHo houses the largest collection of cast-iron structures, most built in the mid-19th century. The facades were delicately constructed to model after classical French and Italian architecture, and have since rooted to become uniquely New York. No building stands taller than 12 stories. Trump appears to be ignorant to the neighborhood’s aesthetic.

Residents feel that the Trump brand has a commercial appeal that contradicts the rudiments of what makes SoHo so unique. Though most inhabitants of his hotel/condo will be wealthy travelers who find the en vogue popularity and commerce of the district appealing, these non-natives are most attracted to its Sex in the City reputation, and do not identify with the history and tribulations essential to the community’s future. Further, Trump SoHo will bring with it a bevy of unwanted business. Ultimately the natives are the ones who will suffer or just leave the neighborhood.

But none of this reaches to the core of the controversy. Though highly vocal, downtown residents have no say in the appearance or projected impact that the tower will have. This is because the Trump SoHo Hotel and Condominiums will not actually be in SoHo proper.

According to city layouts, the site is in fact plotted one block west of SoHo, in Hudson Square. This has several ramifications. One is that it changes the battlefield and nullifies the preservationist argument. The City Planning Commission deemed SoHo a historic district to ensure that all new development would be in line with the established aesthetic and architectural design. This, in effect, gives the city the ability to control and regulate any construction done within SoHo’s borders. Trump’s tower could never rise in Soho. But by building in Hudson Square, it can piggyback SoHo’s name without having to oblige zoning restrictions. Here’s where things get murky; in accordance with the zoning laws of Hudson Square, which is a manufacturing zone, transient hotels are allowed, but residencies are not. The nature of this tower, in which buyers will purchase individual units, is in dispute.

Officially, Trump, Bayrock, and Sapir uphold that Trump SoHo will be a transient hotel that would limit the allowed stay of guests to (about) 4 months. However, opponents to the development contend that this will in fact be residential. There is adequate evidence to demonstrate proof of the real estate’s true intentions. There have been several examples of advertisements that sell the units for residential use. The most damning came off Trump’s very own website. There was a page solely targeted to prospective buyers with a tab that asked, ‘What will the property be used for?’ and then offered the choice of ‘primary residence’, ‘secondary residence’, or ‘investment property.’

Reps for the project deny that the Condo/Hotel will in any way be residential. In an editorial to the Village Voice, Julia Schwarz, a spokesperson for Bayrock/Sapir, responded to the dubious advertisements: “…Certain instances have been brought to our attention in which the use of certain language could have potentially led readers to misconstrue the transient nature of the project. In each instance, we have worked to rectify those situations.”

Opponents believe developers’ promises are empty and only a defensive strategy to ensure that construction continues. Andrew Berman, an activist and chairman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, responded with a statement of his own: “It’s not surprising that Schwarz and Trump are trying to do an end run around the law, as they will profit mightily from it, even at our neighborhood’s expense. What is surprising is that some City officials are willing to twist logic and buy their claim that individuals can own their units in this development, and live in them for at least 3-5 months a year, and it is still not really a residence or a residential hotel.

So, officially, where does the city fall? Well, officially, it’s not so clear.

Thus far not one elected official has aligned himself with the Trump proposal by publicly endorsing it. But few have offered any opposition; hence, the project has fervor.

It is well known that Mayor Bloomberg believes that urban development is a salve for New York’s economy. And in spite of a recent condemnation of ‘overdevelopment’ in Staten Island, it appears that his silence favors Trump. Other ‘muted’ notables are Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and Department of Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster. Rumors of political agendas and “closed door” politics have been surrounding this controversy from the beginning. It gets particularly juicy though when the gossip begins to play out like a Grisham novel. Local buzz suggests that Deputy Doctoroff’s main motivation is gathering power as if it were trophies that could be lined on a case, seeking Robert Moses-like infamy. Christine Quinn has only offered marginal opposition to the development, but many find it lacking and superficial. Opponents to the deal portray Quinn as an opportunist, focusing primarily on her mayoral ambitions, concerned less with the people’s issues than on fundraising (although Quinn has recently been more responsive to community opposition). And finally, Patricia Lancaster sits comfortably in Bloomberg’s back pocket. At least, this is the word on the street.

There are some public officials willing to voice their objections to the project. Assemblywoman Deborah Glick and Queens Councilmember/ Chairperson of the City Council’s Zoning Committee Tony Avella have been outspoken opponents from the start. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer spoke up as well. In a letter to Amanda Burden, Director of the Department of City Planning, he wrote, “it is hard to see how the City can have a good-faith negotiation with – and, indeed, approve permits for – a party that publicly indicates it will abide by the law, while its actions indicate otherwise.” Assemblywoman Glick, Rep. Jerry Nadler and Senator Tom Duane also signed the letter.

Fortunately for SoHo, it also has a squad of activists and preservationist groups. Along with Mr. Berman and the GVSHP, other forces include Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance and David Reck of Friends of Hudson Square. Through the combined voices of the city officials and advocacy groups, opposition to the project has been heard. Nonetheless, whether it makes a difference or not depends on how political the politicians decide to get.

trump-hole-03.jpgSo far Trump’s applications for zoning permits have been denied 3 times. But, it appears that Lancaster and the Department of Buildings are hoping to mollify opponents with strict regulations that would limit individuals’ stay to a fixed number of days a year. Trump would be required to contract with a group to monitor compliance. But, challengers argue, once the Tower stands there will be no real way to enforce this. It is unlikely that the city would knock down a fortyfive- story building because its occupants are staying too long.

City Planning officials seem bewildered by the result of their zoning faux pas.Whether a proponent of the project or not, the inherent conflict that results from a condo/hotel seems apparent. Their general reaction suggests that such loopholes were never foreseen and the resulting responses have been a dance of appeasement.

The impending ramifications of building such a hotel in a manufacturing zone could seep citywide. These zones are numerous: in lower Manhattan alone they’re present in parts of Hudson Square, SoHo, NoHo, the Meatpacking District, the Flatiron District, Tribeca, The Garment District, andWest Chelsea, not to mention the outer boroughs. Contextually, these zones were designed to allow only for manufacturing and manufacturing related business. Consequently they do not have apposite restrictions for the type of buildings being built. If Trump is green lighted, the precedent could mean unobstructed development. Developer Mark Epstein is conducting borings at 515 Greenwich Street for what is rumored to be a 38 story condo/hotel. Also, unlike typical hotels, these Condo/Hotels will be sold to private investors, which means that they will recoup their investments immediately, vastly increasing the incentive to build. And without resident activists to fight for these zones, the result would be a floodgate of lucrative luxury high-rises that is essentially unbounded.

A prime example has already popped up in Hudson Square. A 17-story “hotel” is presently being constructed at 52 Watts Street, just blocks away from Trump SoHo. This has been untimely for advocates, who remain concerned with the magnitude of Trump’s building, and thus have not been able to devote the effort to protesting this plot. Moreover, what makes this issue really simmer is the buzz that neighbors have been receiving offers for their property that top out at a hefty $12 million. It appears as if the prophecy may come true.

However, adversaries do not intend to let this happen without a brawl. In addition to a zealous letter writing campaign, on March 4th a crowd of about 200 demonstrators showcased their resistance to the Trump project at a protest in front of the site. “The idea is to let Bayrock, Sapir, and Trump know we’re going to fight…that this affects our neighborhood” one participant said. Locals and preservationists alike are preparing for a legal case should the condo/hotel move forward.

So far, not surprisingly, Trump has not responded to these concerns.

Despite the widespread disapproval from locals, supporters argue that New York City is New York City because buildings blossom and streets change. Real Estate Board of New York President, Steven Spinola, argues that challengers are citing a zoning problem for what really is a distaste for tall buildings. “This happens to be New York City.” He says, “I don’t understand why tall buildings are such a negative. No one wants them built, but everyone wants to live on the top floor.” Many supporters also allude to the once polarized view of Robert Moses, who is now considered the godfather of modern urban development in New York. He once was quoted as saying, “If the end doesn’t justify the means then what does?”

This fight is far from over. Trump has fought and won many long battles. But they also know that if the tower does rise, the consequence will be drastic, as the essence of the neighborhood will be dramatically altered forever. Editor’s note: On May 8th, Trump SoHo was issued a building permit by the Department of Buildings.

Editor’s note: On May 8th, Trump SoHo was issued a building permit by the Department of Buildings.

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