Volume 75, Number 28 | Nov. 30 - Dec. 06, 2005

A special Villager supplement

In 1970, Soho streets were jammed with trucks. The trucks have since disappeared, but commercial parking regulations haven’t changed, while parking spaces are vanishing.

Oh boy, what a time it’s been; if only we could park

By Sean Sweeney

Johnny Boy was freezing. The longtime Soho artist had just walked through a nor’easter from the far West Side looking for a parking spot for almost an hour. Parking, he groused, is now impossible for Soho residents, with only truck parking permitted on weekdays and with tourists grabbing most spaces on weekends.

For 30 years he could find a parking spot near his home, like most New Yorkers could. However, the influx of tourists and shoppers in the past dozen years into the once-quiet neighborhood curtailed that practice, as did a 1990s zoning regulation that severely restricted the construction of new garages. However, the coup de grace for easy parking in Soho was twofold: a zoning change last year that would eliminate most of the parking lots, to be replaced by buildings for hundreds of new residents (many with cars), as well as plans by developers to convert existing garages into luxury residential units.

Johnny Boy was upset over losing his favorite parking spot, but at least he knew that he would still get a decent sleep that night. When the tourists descended onto Soho by day a dozen years ago, they were replaced at night by bridge-and-tunnel revelers and trust-fund brats, who, escaping the confines of suburbia or the Upper East Side, acted out their fantasies of Mardi Gras in Manhattan, unaware that families lived on the upper floors above all those ground-floor retail stores: families that had to get to school and work in the morning.

Johnny Boy had volunteered with his neighborhood civic association, the Soho Alliance, to get the State Liquor Authority to successfully enforce the 500-foot rule. This law seeks to prevent oversaturation of licensed premises in residential neighborhoods. Johnny Boy was proud that the group had more successful challenges under the 500-foot rule than any other group in the entire state. (Can you blame them, with one licensed premise for every 80 Soho residents?) After awhile the bar owners got the message and decided to try easier ground, to the misfortune of the Lower East Side and the East Village.

But Johnny Boy was especially proud of the deal that the Alliance had worked out over a zoning change. Seven percent of Soho’s area was parking lots, 16 lots to be precise. Originally, the Bloomberg administration wanted to allow any use on these lots. You name it: dormitories, megastores, multiplex theaters, even, potentially, a power substation. The folks who pioneered Soho, who made it the attraction it is today, were appalled at this audacious and inconsiderate proposal. Meetings were held, letters written and forces turned out en masse when the City Planning Commission held hearings on the proposal.

After months of negotiations, the original outrageous proposal was significantly modified. The final agreement stipulated that the only structures permitted on these parking lots would be residential buildings — no dorms or Wal-Marts, thank you. These new buildings had to conform with the existing bulk, height and setback requirements. Furthermore, to maintain the low density of the neighborhood, the new residential units had to be at least 1,200 square feet, ensuring that developers would not flood the community with tiny studios or pied-a-terres, overburdening an already strained infrastructure. Soho is a neighborhood of loft living and the new construction would reflect that history.

However, although this development benefited landlords and developers, it provided nothing in return for the community. Loft pioneers would lose precious parking, not to mention light and air needed by the hundreds of artists who still reside in the area. And forget about the construction noise, disruptions and other problems that would go on for years.

“How is the community benefiting from this windfall for developers?” the community asked. One city planner had the audacity to suggest seriously that we would be getting over a dozen new buildings, as if that helped anyone living in Soho.

In a tit for tat, the Soho Alliance put forth a modest proposal. The Alliance had spent more than $100,000 over the years in legal fees at the State Liquor Authority in balancing Soho as an entertainment destination and yet a family neighborhood. Why not save the community from the prospect of facing more battles over bars and clubs when the retail establishments on the ground floor of these new buildings would be built? After all, retail use is not as of right in most of Soho, a mixed-use neighborhood still zoned for manufacturing and wholesale use. In fact, much of the current retail use in Soho is suspect at best and illegal at worst. (Attribute that dichotomy to law-and-order bully Rudy Giuliani for ignoring the zoning laws to benefit his cronies.)

So, the community demanded and won a modification to the city’s Zoning Resolution that eliminated eating-and-drinking establishments in these new buildings from the definition of retail use. This was the first time such a restriction — establishing eating and drinking establishments as a separate form of retail — was applied anywhere in the city, and it provides a precedent for other beleaguered communities when facing zoning changes.

As Johnny Boy approached his loft, numbed by the freezing temperatures, his heart warmed to see that David Topping, the greedy owner of 599 Broadway, at the southwest corner of Houston St., was still prevented from removing the world-famous Minimalist wall sculpture “The Wall” that has graced the building since 1973 and replacing it with a huge billboard. Topping, whose family owned the Yankees prior to Steinbrenner and who runs a horse show in wealthy Southampton each summer, promised to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to replace the sculpture, which he had removed “temporarily” to repair the brickwork. In reality, Topping wanted to replace it with another billboard, probably one of Kate Moss’s butt, Johnny Boy thought.

The Soho Alliance joined with the Landmarks Commission in federal court to force the return of “The Wall” sculpture. Five years later, the case is still in court. “Topping got more than he bargained for,” Johnny Boy chuckled, reflecting on another year in Soho.

Sweeney is director of the Soho Alliance

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