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April 29th, 2008

SOHO POLITICS: APRIL/MAY 2008.

by D. Clark MacPherson


350 West Broadway. Shoring up just one more leaning building in SoHo.

“Crime does not pay….as well as politics.”
Alfred E. Newman

Prince Street Pedestrian Mall.
After much gnashing of teeth, Community Board #2 recommended denial of a plan to turn Prince Street into a weekend pedestrian mall. The thought of consecrating the vendor problem by now allowing tourists and additional street paraphernalia to overwhelm the ability of residents trying to enter or leave their apartments was apparently too much. The majority of businesses objected to the plan as well. While supporters contended that the mall concept would actually reduce vendors, residents didn’t buy it. Sean Sweeney and the SoHo Alliance came out in force against while Ian Dutton and the bicyclist’s interests were in favor of the plan. Margaret Forgione, D.O.T. Commissioner, convinced Henry Buhl of the SoHo Partnership that it would be a good move but she neglected to take the pulse of a broad spectrum of residents and businesses that were not consulted. Many felt that this was an idea that was generated and pushed by those who are not from SoHo but who had fantasies about what SoHo should become.

Bruce Schaller, who had been a paid consultant for the D.O.T. and who now works for Forgione, had been a driving force behind the plan. Street Renaissance and Streets Blog (two organizations which support people and bike friendly use of city streets) and Ian Dutton, who is also a member of Community Board #2,have been successful in bringing a bike lane to Prince Street–which was also fought by residents. The street-fair/mall concept was just more than Prince Street could bear. While proponents pointed out that there would be no interruptions from “malling” Prince Street, the residents, who have been overwhelmed by vendors and people telling them what to do with their own neighborhood, finally put their collective feet down. SoHo still is a bohemian enclave with artists and intellectuals who prefer doing things their own way, not outsiders telling them what they should want.

Congestion Pricing.
Assuming that the push for congestion pricing was not really just about the ultimate sweetheart contract for thousands of video cameras to watch everything that we do, there is some validity to the idea that we should reduce traffic in Manhattan. Whether this was the best method for achieving that goal is a totally different matter.

This was another Bloomberg push, like the West Side Stadium, the Pier 40 Related plan and the Trump SoHo development.

Still, the basic premise for instituting congestion pricing is laudable. We need to reduce vehicle pollution–especially Downtown. But let’s review that. Suppose there was a solution that could reduce the carcinogens immediately by a simple handshake and a written agreement between amiable politicos? What if the Staten Island Republicans, Susan and Guy Molinari, who delivered the votes for Giuliani and Bloomberg so that the last two elections were won by Republicans – what if they were to agree to return the two-way tolls on the Verrazano Bridge immediately?

Since the one-way toll was instituted nearly 15 years ago and was crafted in such a carefully calculated way, only an act of Congress can do away with it. Unless, of course, the Molinari’s were to simply agree to eliminate it. The Molinari’s have reduced pollution along the Staten Island Expressway (where residents are hundreds of yards away from the fumes) – and in turn, have fumigated every street leading to the Holland Tunnel.

Why is it that we do not make that change first, now, which would cost us NOTHING, and implement a change that would seriously reduce pollution Downtown? Instead of the free round-trip from Staten Island and New Jersey over the Verrazano Bridge and back via the Holland Tunnel–inundating lower Manhattan with all of the Bus and car exhaust–pollution would dramatically be reduced. Why doesn’t Mayor Bloomberg make that deal with his Staten Island supporters, the people who put him into office, before we entreat Albany to impose more restrictions on City residents? Why does Mr. Bloomberg want us to pay more to use our vehicles, and install cameras to watch everything we do?

Congestion pricing was not primarily about pollution. It’s been about finding a new way to tax us. And it was about ignoring solutions that would call upon political buddies who could simplify and speed up the process of protecting the health of Downtown residents.

We think that any support for a new system of taxation to support the MTA’s bloated budget should be backed up by political proof that there is a will to pay the political price for clearing up our air.

Trump SoHo.
Most of the Downtown politicians were hiding in the closet when the Trump SoHo project was only a glimmer in the eyes of The Donald, or whoever really owns this project. True to form with the “five per center,” as Trump is known to those in the real estate business, his moniker merely hangs on the project for an upfront fee and a management piece. Although, there are rumors that he actually has 15 percent of this deal. Bovis Lend Lease, an international construction firm, executed the Bayrock deal, reportedly cut through financing sources in Abu Dhabi. But who knows.

Although Downtown was less than thrilled with the project that had the Mayor and the Donald trading one-liners at its inception, it’s really just putting lipstick on a pig. This “condo-hotel” was a way to build a condo 45 stories high in an area that would never have permitted more than 10 stories of pure residential dwellings. Since manufacturing zones Downtown still permit hotels to be built with no community review, and since the community always reviews residential variances, the Trump project combined the best of both worlds for a developer and the worst of all possible worlds for the community.

By not taking a hard view of the project from its inception, the politicians allowed this Trojan horse to begin the onslaught into Hudson Square, a.k.a. West SoHo. Bloomberg did nothing to stop it, Doctoroff (Bloomberg’s Robert Moses Master Builder wannabee) supported it, Speaker Christine Quinn fretted and moaned about it and the SoHo Alliance sued. The case against Trump SoHo will be heard in May at the Board of Standards and Appeals. Since the B.S.A. is another organization with Bloomberg appointees, like the corrupt Department of Buildings under Commissioner Lancaster, the results will hardly be a cliffhanger. Fortunately, Lancaster has resigned.

While the real estate market continues to deteriorate and financing becomes about as scarce as rent-stabilized apartments in Manhattan, one wonders about the viability of that project. Several “StopWork” orders that have been issued involving worker deaths, falling glass panels and crane safety make one question the future of this massive mistake which was foisted upon our community.

Commissioner Lancaster of the Department of Buildings took the heat for the number of unsafe cranes and building sites in Manhattan as a result of accidents and Bloomberg finally dropped her. From our perspective, since Lancaster also totally ignored the massive illegal billboard issue downtown — and ran an incompetent D.O.B. inspection staff in dealing with landlords, her resignation was the least that one would expect. The Trump SoHo disaster is only the tip of the corrupt D.O.B. iceberg.

The D.S.N.Y. Garage.
The Department of Sanitation has been proposing a 14-story garage with a fuel depot about 3 blocks west of the Trump SoHo site, causing consternation and anger from property owners. As West SoHo and Hudson Square reel from the invasion of hotels seeking to capitalize upon a giant hole in our zoning, compliments of politicians who are unwilling to antagonize developers and their campaign donation machines, a new threat appears in our midst–a fleet of garbage trucks. This three district garbage truck garage is about as welcome as the idea of turning Pier 40 into an open-air incinerator.

A neighborhood group, known as the Steering Committee, is floating an alternative plan, which is welcome, though somewhat complicated. Instead of a 14 story building in an area that has slowly been transformed from manufacturing to residential, a one story building with several underground levels is being proposed. Part of this alternative plan, which would have the effect of saving a neighborhood, involves utilizing “block 675” – a previously approved location that has recently been ignored by D.S.N.Y for reasons that are unclear. It seems that former Planning Board head Joe Rose and his family have development designs on that location, and while it was approved by D.S.N.Y as well as that area’s Community Board, it is no longer being considered. Rather, the salt pile, garage and fuel dump looks better in SoHo. The essence of the alternative plan needs to be considered.

Ed. Note: This is an encapsulation of the proposal, which the community proposes:

We propose a “horizontal” rather than a “vertical” solution to meet DSNY requirements to re-locate CD 1, 2 and 5. The “UPS Site” at Spring Street cannot do everything. The cumulative impact of a threedistrict garage would be devastating to our neighborhood. Rather, our Initiative would allow two of the three districts to be sited here in a less intrusive manner.

UPS Site at Spring Street:
DSNY would build a one-story garage with a basement at Spring Street. UPS would occupy 60,000 s.f. In an enclosed ground floor truck marshalling yard, entering/exiting on Washington Street. DSNY CD’s 1 & 2 would store their (other than employee) vehicles in an underground basement with 30′ ceilings using two truck elevators, entering and exiting on West Street.

CD 1 Existing Garage (Canal/West/Spring):
This garage could be rehabilitated or re-built for activities other than vehicle storage (i.e. vehicle maintenance, truck washing, refueling, offices and locker rooms) as currently exists now.We further urge DSNY to study refueling in NJ after trucks dump their cargo.

Salt Pile:
The existing CD3 salt pile at Pike Slip (under the Manhattan Bridge) would be expanded.We are asking DSNY to adopt more “environmentally friendly” methods to replace salt, which is unusable at colder temperatures, and which would be less cumbersome to store.

CD 5 District Needs:
This District Garage started out at East 73rd Street and was moved to Gansevoort Peninsula in 2007. CD 6 is currently at Block 675 adjoining the proposed “Joe Rose” Hotel. DSNY would purchase additional property (FAR of 2) to provide for the truck parking needs of either CD 5 or CD 6 with the other district returning to East 73rd Street.

UPS:
Instead of being threatened with Eminent Domain by the City, UPS would seek a Special Permit for a one-story garage with a basement on its property. This would allow them to retain all of the available air rights (estimated to be 427,450 s.f.), which would then be made available for sale to a private development group.

DSNY:
Since UPS would sell their air rights privately, they would make the acquisition of the land for the basement at Spring Street available at no cost, saving the City more than $100 MM. The private developer group would build the UPS and DSNY garages at this site “at-cost” realizing significant construction savings for the City.

Pier 40.
After a very long battle waged by the community, it appears that the Bloomberg administration has gotten the message regarding Pier 40. The Hudson River Park Trust, under Diana Taylor, has agreed to allow the Pier 40 Partnership time to organize its plan to renovate and develop the pier with the community’s vision in mind. A conservancy has been proposed which would build upon the community base and solve several thorny problems–not the least of which is the crumbling infrastructure of the pier itself.

Among those community leaders who dedicated a great deal of time, effort and support to this accomplishment are Toby Bergman, Arthur Schwartz and Mark Ameruso. Borough President Scott Stringer of Manhattan, Assembly member Deborah Glick and Congressman Jerry Nadler were also very helpful.

Tenant’s Rights Task Force.
After years of abuse, activists have started to identify an undeniable trend in Manhattan. Using the power of the purse, real estate interests have accelerated the attacks upon tenants in regulated apartments. Starting with a gradual chipping away of rights during the Pataki administration, several methods have been utilized by landlords in attempting to eliminate rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments, primarily in Manhattan.

Two important things happened during the Pataki era. First, was the passage of the Urstadt law – moving the legislative oversight of regulated apartments from Manhattan to Albany (under the control of Bruno and the Senate, who pander to the real estate industry).

Second was the weakening and politicizing of the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, the State agency that administers these apartments. Its budget was reduced and its influence was pushed to the right of center.

In addition to weakening the D.H.C.R., Pataki and subsequent political cronies have perpetuated budget cuts, which eviscerated low cost legal services for tenants. Few lawyers are available to counsel a tenant who is being hounded out of his apartment.

As a result of real estate industry pressure and political cooperation, abuses have grown and landlords became more audacious. “Phony demolition,” an issue that Deborah Glick has recently dealt with in the legislature, has been used as the basis for repeated illegal evictions. This term refers to attempts by landlords to force stabilized tenants out of their homes by falsely claiming that a building was about to be demolished. Often, only minor interior changes are done–and the “demolished” apartment is re-rented at a huge increase in price as the apartment is removed from either rent control or stabilization. Glick has made sure that the entire building must be demolished before any landlord can avail himself to that eviction ploy.

Even Speaker Christine Quinn has authored a bill with Councilmember Kanarick that addresses the issue of repeated harassment of tenants and carries a $5,000 fine. Unfortunately, few elected officials understand the fact that the courts have been turned into arenas where expensive lawyers and cooperative Housing Court judges make such fines irrelevant and inconsequential.

Only criminalizing the acts of repeated harassment and abuse of tenants will get everyone’s attention. Then, and only then, will the abuses stop. Especially if the District Attorney and Department of Investigations begin to seriously inquire into the cozy relationships that exist between attorneys, landlords, the Department of Buildings, the D.H.C.R.– and certain judges.

Various other abuses have also surfaced. The use of repeatedly instigated holdover actions, which exhausts the finances and “quiet enjoyment” of tenants in their homes, is now a popular method of evicting tenants.

Landlords have also recently been withholding routine maintenance of apartments, sporadically withholding heat, hot water or elevator service – or incessantly litigating trivial matters like not recycling or making minor changes within an apartment. Meanwhile, lawyers charging $400 per hour appear in Housing Court where judges refer to them on a first name basis.

In Chinatown, where activists like Margaret Chin have been fighting for the rights of immigrants who are forced to live in dilapidated and overcrowded apartments, the problems are particularly bad. Immigrants, not unlike the rest of us, are for the most part law-abiding citizens who respect authority and are wary of unnecessary confrontation. Unlike many racists in the Hamptons who wish to push Latinos out of town, the community in Manhattan appreciates law-abiding immigrants whether they are here legally or not.

In many of the Chinatown apartment houses, however, landlords and developers have taken advantage of the immigrants’ passivity and have trampled on the rights of tenants who have been occupants of rent-controlled and stabilized apartments for decades.

Recently, Community Board #2 (CB2), under the leadership of its Chair, Brad Holyman, established a Tenant’s Rights Task Force and has begun the work of investigating abuses experienced by tenants.

In March, the first hearing of its kind was held and was attended by nearly 300 people. Three committees joined with several tenants’ organizations, housing activists and elected officials to signal that coordinated efforts will now address housing issues.

The Community Board will emphasize public support in helping tenants organize, provide leads for education about their rights, and recommend legislation to protect their interests.

Whether Housing Court judges reflect upon their role in protecting tenants (a.k.a. the voters) or find themselves on the wrong end of public scrutiny, it is clear that landlords and their attorneys are about to learn a few new lessons.

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