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September 29th, 2003

SoHo Politics

by D. Clark MacPherson

Most of the political races in Democratic lower Manhattan are won or lost in the Primary, since few Republicans stand a chance against a liberal electorate. The exceptions are Mayor Bloomberg who won, as did Giuliani, by making deals with the Molinari Republican machine of Staten Island. They got elected by making a deal with the devil. These are the politicians who sold out lower Manhattan by allowing all of the diesel polluting trucks and buses from the entire Eastern seaboard drive through our community. The polluters come in free over the Verrazano and go back out free through the Holland Tunnel. Instead of reduced traffic, lower Manhattan is left with asthma, cancer and emphysema. And, a Republican. There were a number of contentious primary races for judge but there were no surprises. Kathryn Freed will be on the bench of the Civil Court in January. Alan Gerson, surprisingly, had a few last-minute contenders who popped up to run for his City Council seat. But they had no effect. His Arts agenda, although not the most important work of his tenure, has been the hallmark of his campaign promises with respect to SoHo. He takes his commitments to the community and his supporters seriously. Gerson has continuously pursued the goals that he promised to address once he took office. We find that all too rare in a politician. He is also a nice guy who gets a round of applause when he addresses the Community Board.

Jim Smith has become the new Community Board #2 Chair. His tenure is for one year but is typically renewed for another year in a tradition of uncontested consecutive terms.

Smith met with us and gave us some of his views on Community Board #2 and his vision for the future. From his perspective, the civic affairs of CB2 are a balancing act of “preservation vs. expansion, residents vs. the nighttime-only crowd.” His view is that the Board is becoming more practical without losing its higher aims. As he sees it, he is for “pragmatism with a conscience, passion with its feet on the ground.” And, he wants to continue that trend.

In his opinion, when we lose balance in our efforts, we wind up with knee-jerk reactions like the smoking ban to protect people from second-hand smoke that have hurt many businesses in our area. We have created noisy sidewalk crowds of smokers, instead of finding responsible solutions that protect workers and also save our neighborhoods and bar/restaurant businesses. He would like to see this issue moderated in a sensible fashion.

Smith also took the time to praise the work of Marty Tessler, the Chair of CB#2’s Institutions Committee, for his work with NYU, a powerful presence in our community. While there have been many thorny issues in the past relationship with the University, NYU made some accommodations in this year’s graduation ceremony, which were described as “easier to live with.” We all hope that NYU continues to work with CB2 to improve that relationship. Smith’s point of view in this matter was simply that we could sometimes praise instead of only criticize, and help along the process of cooperation.

In our last issue, we reviewed the Pier 40 plan, which both the Waterfront Committee and CB2’s Full Board had selected for the Pier 40 development by the Hudson River Park Trust. It is a major development for lower Manhattan and it has serious implications for our community. The CK/Durst “River Green” plan, supported by the community, addressed the many concerns of those who attended the series of three public hearings that were held. While “River Green” was ultimately rejected by the Trust, the process has left a number of community leaders with a less than happy memory. This disappointment was not simply because we will probably have to wait several more years before we see another series of prospective development plans to review, but because something was missing. Lawrence Goldberg, the new Chair of the Advisory to the HRPT, the Trust’s only legitimately appointed community watchdog, says “there has been a failure of vision.”The most recent proposal for our waterfront has come from HRPT in the form of a modest (not Olympic sized) Skating Rink intended for children, teenagers and young adults in our area. It was tentatively planned for the Hudson River Park just south of Pier 40 near West Houston Street. A 2.3 million dollar grant from LMDC (Lower Manhattan Development Corporation) was earmarked specifically to pay for this and was scheduled for a March 2004 completion date. The Trust agreed that it had mistakenly failed to present the plan to CB2 for approval and as a result a planned Board of the Trust vote to proceed with the rink in October was canceled. CB2 then held an impromptu Public Hearing in order to give SoHo, NoHo, Hudson Square and Greenwich Village residents an opportunity to review and comment upon the plan. The most vociferous opposition to the plan as presented came from the Friends of Hudson River Park and Al Butzel, its leader. Details that the community objected to in the plan were subsequently included in a resolution drafted by the Waterfront Committee of CB2. That Committee approved the rink with modifications and it was presented to the Full Community Board. However, after an impassioned speech by Deborah Glick (Assembly – Dem) urging the defeat of the skating rink plan – the resolution was voted down. In its place, an alternate resolution was immediately introduced by Elizabeth Gilmore of CB2 – which was adopted 18 to 15, with one abstention. The rink is now in serious doubt.

There were legitimate concerns about whether there was enough walkway and biking space on the esplanade around the rink and whether the proposed chain-link fence could not be replaced with something more attractive. Those who represented the interests of families with children at the hearing made positive comments. Tobi Bergman of P3, a parent and also a CB2 member who advocates for the sports interests of children in our community, voted for the original plan. Others, however, did not want it unless it were going to be located on Pier 40 itself and off the actual Park area.

Since the rink was designed for families with children, teenagers and young adults in SoHo, NoHo, Greenwich Village and Hudson Square, the plan was popular. But most now acknowledge, however, that as a result of the substitute resolution that was adopted, the rink may never be built. It may not become a reality until the development of Pier 40 becomes a reality. That may take several years, at the very least. Deborah Glick’s speech at the Community Board, advised the members not to approve the skating rink. Her objections to the rink were that there has been a “lack of process” afforded by HRPT (not giving us more notice and explanation); and, that it should be located on Pier 40 and not in the Park itself. She emphasized that the HRPT has repeatedly shown that it is not to be trusted and that if we approved the plan it may not be implemented as presented.

Larry Goldberg, a Community Board member and also Chair of the Advisory to the Trust countered that he, himself, had advised the Trust of its mistakes (the reason why the October vote had been cancelled) and that although the process was flawed, families and their children downtown should have the benefit of a skating rink now instead of possibly later.

In fact, Goldberg, Connie Fishman (HRPT, Vice President) and Rob Balachandran (HRPT President) have begun working together. A Pier 40 Committee (Judy Duffy, Chair) has been established by Goldberg and a sub-committee to review designs for the Pier 40 interim uses has been appointed. We hope that these new moves will restore vision and cooperation so that the mistakes and failed communication of the recent past are behind us.

-D. Clark MacPherson

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