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September 29th, 2003

The State of SoHo

by D. Clark MacPherson

Few projects have developed as much ill-will and antagonism as the two Houston Street buildings that are now underway, 25 and 55 West Houston Street, near Wooster and Greene Streets. They are being built in spite of dedicated opposition and criticism by residents and community leaders alike. Lawsuits by the SoHo Alliance and reviews by several local politicians, including State Senator Connor and Council Member Alan Gerson, failed to stop the Board of Standards and Appeals from granting political favors giving the developer clearance to build on these two controversial and environmentally suspect lots. In fact, while construction is already underway on 25 West Houston, 55 West Houston is still cleaning up the petrochemical pollution. Reportedly, there are leaks affecting the adjoining property caused by seepage from 55 West Houston as a result of the excessive rainfall we had this spring. The fact that both of these lots were the sites of former gasoline stations seems to have had no effect on BSA’s decision-making. And, in what appears to be a slap in the face from their own workers, a giant rat was stationed by the building site as if to underscore the smell coming from this befouling of SoHo and the developers thumbing their noses at the rules. These lots were switched from corporation to corporation and developer to developer in a successful attempt to avoid the wrath of the community and confuse the agencies charged with granting permits and variances. The developers now selling the project, of course, make a pitch for the location and its arts heritage. How disingenuous to be pandering to our arts sensibilities while disregarding the impact on SoHo. No doubt they will be selling cheap apartments to artists who have been forced to sell their work on West Broadway!

A critical development for SoHo and its future has evolved out of the original site for the Broadway Grand, at 465 Broadway (corner of Grand and Broadway). For several years this project has been in play. It was conceived as a hotel, but economic conditions have changed and the developer has come back to the Community Board in hopes of reconfiguring the project as residential units. There is really very little discussion about the appropriateness of their plans. They have an “as of right” ability to build, whether they are forced to stick with the hotel or convert the plan to apartments. What is most significant about the project is that a change in the zoning text that would permit the building to go forward as requested has wide impact on future development of vacant lots in SoHo and NoHo. For this reason, a great deal of attention has been given to the progress of this development.

David Reck, Chair of the Community Board #2 Zoning Committee, has taken the lead in reviewing the specific text change that is proposed for this “special permit,” which is under consideration by the Planning Commission (the agency which reviews all zoning considerations). He and other community leaders have followed the process carefully and in his committee a resolution was passed that places this issue on the front burner in SoHo. The larger issue involves the future development of vacant lots and the disappearing parking spaces that will result. There are approximately 14 parking lots left in our area which would be directly affected by the zoning text amendment change sought at 465 Broadway. The “special permit” route for the variance allows input by the Community Board, the City Council and the Planning Commission. The simple route for a variance only involves review by the Community Board as an advisory body, and would then be reviewed by the BSA. In this case the “special permit” route was taken and as a result our Community Board and the City Council have real influence over the future of this project. And, significantly, with the CB2 resolution that outlines the community’s requirements for approving this project, future special permit applications will have guidance.

Within a matter of a few years, we may see many new, expensive condo units proposed and nowhere left to park our cars. Guidelines for our community’s parking needs should be included in any future special permits and variances. This will set the stage for builders and they will know what we expect from them.

The resolution coming out of CB2 addressed several issues, including the parking crisis, and also requires that there be a minimum of 3-5% of the capital cost of the project to be spent on Arts related uses. To be fair, the developer, Andre Balazs, and his attorney, Steve Lefkowitz, have been responsive and actively helpful in working with the community to accomplish their business needs while understanding the dilemma caused by their request for a zoning change. To their credit, they have created a positive relationship that bodes well for dealing with future development projects.

As an example of a diametrically opposed set of circumstances, we should point out that the development which had been stopped at 848 Washington Street in the Meatpacking District, is back on the table. Or, rather, it seems, under the table. Having failed earlier this year in his bid to get a variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals to build a 450 foot high residential tower, Stephen Touhey’s back with a new ploy: to claim that it is a hotel (which is allowed under the current zoning of M1-5) and which will no doubt morph into what was originally attempted. According to Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), the Department of Buildings was working in collusion with the developer to skirt the law and bypass public review by claiming that it is an as-of-right hotel, when in fact the development would actually be half residential apartments. This is an example of, at best, governmental incompetence-a detrimental state of affairs that can destroy our communities.

Finally, the battle lines have been drawn with a tremendous amount of community opposition over 76 Wooster Street. The bar/restaurant that has been proposed for this location by GMD, Inc. (David Ghatanfard), is suspected to be a nightclub in restaurant regalia. The S.L.A. has thrice denied licenses (liquor twice, beer once) at this quiet residential mid-block location and once again it is being pushed upon us. Barry Mallin (Mallin & Goldstein, 212-285-1200) is representing the community in front of the S.L.A. and his argument against granting this license is cogent and forceful. He is the community’s secret weapon. It is interesting to note that the Community Board rejected the owner’s bid for a license (he argued with the Board Chair in open session),and his ostensible restaurant fare is geared not for residents -yet he persists in trying to force this establishment upon SoHo. Tell the S.L.A. not to condone this and reject this license.

– D. Clark MacPherson

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