Volume 76, Number 38 | February 14 -20, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Zoe Ilic, 7, whose bedroom window is across the street from the Hotel Gansevoort and faces the new billboard, at right, rode atop her father’s shoulders carrying a sign at Sunday’s rally.

Neighbors hope hotel signs won’t be staying long

By Jefferson Siegel

Airfare to New York: Hundreds of dollars. A room at the Hotel Gansevoort: Hundreds of dollars. View out of hotel window: Worthless.

Last Sunday morning, as guests of the glitzy Meatpacking District hotel were savoring room service, more than 100 local residents stood below the hotel’s windows in the shadow of a recently erected billboard framework. The protesters braved below-freezing temperatures to decry the eight-story billboard frame that many view as appropriate for a superhighway off-ramp, not the narrow streets of the West Village.

The structure is one pole supporting frames for two billboards — one 1,200 square feet, the other 760 square feet. Neither displays any advertisements yet.

“They’re cutting off their own nose to spite their face,” declared Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which organized the rally. “People come to this neighborhood because of the historic character, because the Village doesn’t look like Route 66, it doesn’t look like Vegas, it doesn’t look like Times Square,” he proclaimed as people huddled together against the chill and passing cars honked their horns in support.

Keith McNally, owner of a mini-empire of popular and stylish restaurants, including Pastis, which is across the street from the hotel, joined in criticizing the structures.

“I saw the hotel going up,” McNally said, “and I thought when it was finished they couldn’t have made the hotel any uglier. But they’ve achieved it by putting this up,” he said, gesturing toward the billboard frame as laughter rippled through the crowd. “I think it’s disproportionate. I think it has no place in the Village,” he added.

“This community is not a machine for making money,” Zack Weinstein of the Greenwich Village Community Task Force said while holding a sign reading, “Stop Trashing Our Community.” “It is a slap in the face to the people of this community,” he said.

After several speeches the crowd walked across the street to the hotel’s entrance, where they stood holding signs and passing out leaflets to hotel guests.

“Where were you last night?” one guest asked as he exited the lobby, complaining about the limousines that clogged the block the night before.

Hotel staffers stood inside the doors, denying entrance to several demonstrators who approached. Other locals fanned out through the neighborhood to leaflet patrons of Meat Market-area restaurants out for Sunday brunch.

In the last week, a flurry of letters have crossed between concerned parties, hotel management and city agencies. On Feb. 8, G.V.S.H.P. wrote Elon Kenchington, C.E.O. of Gansevoort Hotel LLC, to say that the billboards “serve no function that is in any way germane” to the hotel’s operation, and urged him to reconsider their installation. Berman concluded the billboard would “irreparably damage the neighborhood itself with this totally inappropriate visual intrusion.”

The letters followed G.V.S.H.P.’s missives to city agencies. In letters to the Department of Buildings and the Department of City Planning, Berman questioned whether permits should have been issued based on the billboard’s size and proximity to Corporal Seravalli Park and adjacent residential neighborhoods.

Last week D.O.B. issued a point-by-point response to Berman’s concerns. D.O.B. admitted ad signage is prohibited within view of public parks 1/2 acre or larger in size, but, “as the sign copy does not face the park, the sign is not “within view,” D.O.B concluded.

D.O.B also noted the sign, at a height of 52 feet, is below the 58-foot limit and “appears” to face at an angle more than 90 degrees from the residential and commercial boundary, also within limits. D.O.B. was not definitive on the sign’s direction, noting the sign “appears” to face away from the park at an angle of more than the requisite 165 degrees. D.O.B. added that their audit of applications for the signs is not complete.

On Monday Berman received a response from Michael Achenbaum, president of the Gansevoort Hotel Group. Achenbaum declined G.V.S.H.P.’s request to remove the billboard, claiming a binding contract with the sign’s builders and an investment of “tremendous sums and energies into its construction.”

Hoping to mitigate neighborhood concerns, Achenbaum’s letter said the billboard is “primarily intended for fashion signage, and all advertisements require the hotel’s approval.”

Across from the hotel, an Abercrombie & Fitch fashion billboard portraying a half-naked male had several parents at the rally voicing concern over “fashion” ads.

Achenbaum’s letter recognized an excess of other illegal signage in the neighborhood and suggested Berman pursue the matter with the appropriate city agencies.

Later on Monday, Berman said, “The response is unacceptable. The justification of siting the sign on the Hudson St. side of the property, because it is less sensitive, is dumbfounding.”

Ad signage continues to infiltrate the city. A year ago former Governor George Pataki’s administration even proposed ads covering the facade of the General Post Office on Eighth Ave. between 31st and 33rd Sts., a plan new Governor Eliot Spitzer’s economic development agency overturned last week.

In recent years, advertising proliferation — especially the practice of “advertecture” — ads that cover sidewalk construction sheds, has come under fire.

“The Gansevoort Hotel has used every conceivable manipulation in regard to size and placement of these billboards,” said Vanessa Gruen, the Municipal Art Society’s director of special projects. “I really think the hotel should be a better neighbor and not take maximum advantage of zoning regulations that were written for strictly manufacturing districts.”

The hotel did not respond to a request for comment by press time. G.V.S.H.P. called a Wednesday night strategy meeting with business and community leaders to plan their next move.

“We are not giving up the fight,” Berman declared.

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