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September 29th, 2003

Community Focus

by D. Clark MacPherson

Cell Relay SitesEver stare up at some of the buildings on West Broadway? Not only do we still have an amazing number of illegal billboards still visible and attached to some of our gothic architecture, there are also quite a number of funny-looking pods-for the lack of a better word-on some roofs. Yes, of course! They are there for the convenience of all of those who walk up and down West Broadway, Spring Street, Prince Street and Grand, barking into their microphones and yelling orders at waiters who interrupt their conversational flow. But, what about those pods?

Yes, what about them!

Well, they are relays for cell phone transmissions. There are some similarities between them and the machines that pop your corn. There are the “pods” themselves and then there are the generators as well. They sit on roofs generally-and the roofs sit on the tenants a few feet below. Don’t they pose a possible health hazard? Bet the cell phone users don’t particularly care about that, do they? As long as they get in their 3000 minutes without having to visit a brain surgeon.

So, suppose we start thinking about this particular safety issue? We don’t have to contact the building owners because, as with the landlords who allow illegal billboards to be erected and collect $15,000 per month per sign, we know why the pods are there. But what about the safety of the tenants in these apartment buildings in SoHo? What effect do you think it would have on your own “quiet enjoyment” thinking that you’re slowly being cooked? Next time you complain about your cell phone reception, look up. You might be able to save a brain today by turning off your phone. If there are pods on your own building, start asking some serious questions, fast-then call 311.

Bob Bolles Sculptures

We have been reporting the slow progress in the fight to restore the Bob Bolles sculptures that were removed from what is now known as “SunFlower Park”-the triangle bordered by Watts, Broome, Thompson and West Broadway. With numerous calls made to Adrian Benepe, the Commissioner of the Parks Depart-ment, and Bill Castro, the Manhattan Commissioner, we appear to be in the final stages of a deal to get the sculptures back on a rotating basis. Under the tutelage of Tony Dapolito, former Chair of the Parks Committee for Community Board #2, an agreement had been made whereby the Bolles sculptures would be returned to the site after the park was created. For nearly 10 years the Board had been trying to get that site improved for SoHo and nearly two years ago the sculptures were removed and the the park was created. However, the sculptures which are currently stored on Randalls Island were never returned. The Parks Department has done little since then.. A meeting was held nearly two years ago with Robert Redmond (Parks Department Capital Projects) at the site, to discuss the design and placement of the sculptures to be returned. He and Gail Witwer met with representatives of the community to gain the approval of the Community Board. In return for the approval, the construction was able to go forward. Since the park was finished, we have patiently waited for the sculptures to return.

For the last several months, discussions have been moving slowly forward with the Parks Department. By the beginning of next year, we expect to have some of the sculptures back in Bob Bolles park.


No progress has been made with respect to the proliferating billboards and signs in SoHo. Part of the reason is that a series of meetings and illusory legislative gestures have essentially deluded the residents and political leaders of our community.

Here is the bottom line: The last legislative intiative was Kathryn Freed’s City Council-driven law that called for fines of up to $25,000 per day for certain illegal billboards and signs. That law is currently in effect. A new initiative was begun last year, and there were hearings held at the Commissioner of Buildings’ offices. At that meeting, the “suits” and sign-erector workers showed up in force. So little notice was given either to residents or community leaders that only four or five of nearly 100 people in attendance were there to express their views against the illegal signs and billboards-and for a law that would codify and register every existing sign currently in place. (Rule 49).

The CEO of VanWagner, one of the most offensive companies polluting the visual environment in SoHo, Tribeca and Greenwich Village, arrived to speak in opposition to systematic codification of existing signage. Why? Because many of the signs bearing the VanWagner logo are illegal. As a result of this show of force (and whatever political juice they have with the City), absolutely nothing has happened.

This same scenario has played out now for years. It goes like this: We get a Republican Mayor who is pro-business who appoints a Commissioner of Buildings who does what he, or she, is told. New initiatives are discussed, residents get excited, laws are discussed and six months to a year is used up with total nonsense.

Commissioner Lancaster, the current head of the Buildings Depar-tment, put the community in contact with Carol Post-the new, tough-sounding, Director of Enforcement. A number of individuals not only made new complaints about the individual signs, but also provided stacks of photos indicating where the signs are and what they look like-so that inspectors would have an easier job. Of course, even with a Republican Mayor, the department does not have enough inspectors. This is what we are told. So, we helped them. But whether they actually have enough inspectors, or whether this is just another of the many excuses, it is clearly an indication of the lack of will to get the job done. Of course, that excuse helps them kill another six months in the service of the sign companies.

We are now in the late stage of the usual shell game. Even Councilman Gerson’s office, in the person of Rita Lee who has worked very hard on this issue, now concedes that the Building Department Commissioner’s Office is citing some type of legal issue which prevents a meeting with local activists.

The fact is, companies that make their money from placing the ugly billboards in SoHo pay heavily for the lobbying and political contributions to Republican coffers, claiming that jobs would be lost if they had to remove their signage. They work hand in hand with willing building owners. Landlords in SoHo have thus far been able to remain anonymous while collecting upwards of $15,000 per sign for the privilege of visually destroying our Arts heritage and thumbing their noses at the values of the community. That may change if the Department of Buildings begins enforcing the laws on the books-including citing landlords for building violations, illegal fixtures, code violations and all other aspects of a particular structure on a building that is not 100% legal.

The recent initiatives by the Mayor make it very clear that he is looking out for Mr. Bloomberg. Bloomberg is a media company and it should be no surprise that Clear-Channel, perhaps one of the best connected of the media giants in this country (which lobbied Bush and the Republicans heavily), will be in charge of the ads located on the “street furniture” recently approved for New York City. How successful will public toilets be in New York? It doesn’t matter. Why? Because the advertising space on the sides of these units will be there long after they stop working or stop being used. However you cut it, Bloomberg, either the Mayor or the company, is not going to help us take down billboards or interfere with business as usual in the advertising game. The stakes are too high for him.

The answer, my friends, is litigation. Lawsuits against the media companies, advertising companies, sign installers, landlords and the City. That is the next logical step in this game of loaded dice. Billboards are replacing our art, defacing our architecture and endangering our lives with huge unsafe structures attached to buildings that shine bright lights into our homes all night long. Our children look at bottles of beer instead of murals. We look at babes in lingerie on Houston St-reet instead of Art. We are never going to get enforcement from the City unless we force the City to do its job. Or until we elect a Mayor who gives a damn about SoHo.

-D. Clark MacPherson

Filed Under: Articles | New York | Politics





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