Volume 78, Number 52 | June 3 - 9, 2009

West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson

Karan’s 711 Greenwich St. — known as the Stephan Weiss Studio — includes a spacious, two-level event space and a Japanese-style rooftop garden. At right, in an attached building, is Karan’s Urban Zen boutique.

Def Jam party was deafening, Donna Karan nabes complain

By Lincoln Anderson 

A Greenwich Village location where famed fashion designer Donna Karan holds her Urban Zen Foundation events is causing some very un-Zen-like effects among neighbors, basically driving many of them to distraction on a semi-regular basis.

The Urban Zen Foundation has three missions: patient advocacy and well-being — such as using yoga to help cancer patients — empowering children and preserving cultures. 

The Dalai Lama has visited the space, at 711 Greenwich St. at Charles St. Earlier this year, Gwyneth Paltrow, Christy Turlington and Moby headlined a “Bent on Learning” benefit there for yoga in New York City public schools. There was an African rainforest fundraiser.

But the place also hosts major private parties that do not fall under the banner of Urban Zen, and one event two weeks ago — Def Jam’s showcase for its new music releases — did not exactly put residents into a meditative state of mind. In fact, one neighbor, so distraught over the disruptions, allegedly threatened to come over and “start shooting.”

Photo by Getty Images Entertainment/Theo Wargo

Rihanna and Donna Karan at the May 20 Def Jam Spring Collection party at Karan’s 711 Greenwich St.

The neighbor — who denies making the threat — said the booming bass from 711 Greenwich St. shook a painting off his apartment wall. Another neighbor said he was shocked to see that the water in a glass on his table was vibrating to the music beats. A Community Board 2 member said — not water in a glass — but his chest was vibrating when he walked past the place during the Def Jam bash.

Issy Sanchez, who runs a marketing company, and was at the Def Jam event, described it as “a who’s who of the music industry.”

“It was the major label showcase of the year,” he said. 

Among the stars at the May 20 affair were Rihanna, Babyface, Pete Wentz, drummer ?uestLove of the Roots and a raft of rappers. There was a live performance by a U.K. pop band called the Noisettes — a name noise-aggravated neighbors would no doubt find fitting. Kanye West’s and Mariah Carey’s new songs were played.

Basking in the afterglow of the A-list event, Sanchez stood outside on the sidewalk and described the goings-on as the crowd was dispersing around 9:45 p.m.

“There’s Jeremih, the hottest rapper in the country — he did ‘Birthday Sex,’” Sanchez pointed out, as the chart-topper got into a waiting white S.U.V.

Karan herself was at the party, as shown by a photo of the designer posing with Rihanna posted online with other photos from the night.

Sanchez said there wasn’t dancing inside; rather, the crowd would intently watch each music video or live performance, then discuss it animatedly among themselves. 

Although the space’s doors and windows had reportedly been kept closed during the festivities — and the rooftop Japanese garden was not used — neighbors complained they were still subjected to noise and vibrations for two days — from sound checks beforehand to the actual event.

The location was formerly the sculpture studio of Stephan Weiss, Karan’s late husband. Weiss, who is fondly remembered in the neighborhood, died of lung cancer in 2001. 

In 2004, Karan gave a 6,000-pound bronze apple sculpture by Weiss to Hudson River Park; the artwork sits in the park on prominent display near the end of Charles St. Before it was Weiss’s sculpture studio, the building was a private garbage-carting company’s garage, as many buildings in the neighborhood once were.

Ed Pietkiewicz (pronounced pyet-kyeh-vich) lives at 720 Greenwich St. on the third floor, diagonally across the intersection from the Karan space. He said the noise from 711 Greenwich St. has worsened over the past five years. The events occur erratically — sometimes just once a month, but at other times several times a week.

“Stephan Weiss built it as a sculpture studio — she turned it into a disco,” Pietkiewicz said. “You can hear it a block away.”

Pietkiewicz says he has repeatedly called the Sixth Precinct about the building over the years. But he claims the police tell him they “have other priorities,” notably the Meat Market, where they regularly deal with noise from the Hotel Gansevoort’s rooftop bar and street-level, outdoor restaurant.

Tensions boiled over during the Def Jam event. Pietkiewicz said on Tues., May 19, security officers threatened to have him arrested unless he got off the sidewalk in front of Karan’s place, and later bumped him off the pavement when he tried to speak to the head of security — whom Pietkiewicz mistakenly thought was a police officer responding to Pietkiewicz’s noise complaints.

The Village resident said he never threatened to shoot anyone.

“I don’t make threats I can’t come through with,” he stated. “I did say I would come back with Sixth Precinct officers — which I did.”

However, Michelle Jean, who runs the space’s private events, stated, “He said, ‘I’m going to come back and start shooting’ — and that’s a problem.”

From inside Pietkiewicz’s apartment on the evening of May 20, the throbbing bass and drum beats from the Def Jam party were clearly audible. Outside on the street, black cars, S.U.V.’s and catering vans filled both sides of Greenwich St. — including completely blocking the bicycle lane. 

About eight months ago, parking regulations were quietly changed, with “No Standing” signs added on either side of Greenwich St. outside Karan’s building, apparently to ensure that spaces for black cars and S.U.V.’s would be available for the events.

Charles Amann, Pietkiewicz’s partner, said of Karan’s space, “It’s become a bar, a club, in a residential neighborhood. I don’t want to get into her moral and green things that she does... . The point is that she’s a major, major noise maker in an upscale area.”

Amann shot down Jean’s accusation that Pietkiewicz said he’d shoot — though he admitted he wasn’t there at the time.

“We’ve never owned a gun, we’ve never seen a gun. Never, ever. We’re all for gun control,” Amann said, calling the charge a “heinous accusation.”

The Saturday after the Def Jam party, among the dog walkers and others out and about in the neighborhood, it wasn’t hard to find people unhappy about the building’s impact on the quiet neighborhood.

Robert Bentley’s personal peeve is the dumpster that is emptied thunderously at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. after the parties.

“Last year, there would be a major event like once a month,” he said. “Now it looks like she rents it out to club promoters. It’s really changed the character of the neighborhood. ... I live in an 1826 building, and I’ve got this f---ing nightclub next door — in this cobblestoned, landmarked neighborhood.”

Bruce Kingsley, board president of 720 Greenwich St., said he was awakened at 8:45 a.m. on May 20 by noise from 711 Greenwich St. The racket continued through the day and into the evening.

“I was trying to work,” he said. “The water in my glass was vibrating — it was just hideous.

“I went to the police station twice. I called 311 and...they didn’t do a thing about it.”

Another sore spot is how large trucks load into Karan’s building before the events — parking perpendicularly to Greenwich St., dangerously blocking traffic. According to Kingsley, one time a man driving a stolen car veered around a truck loading into the building, then smashed into three cars on Greenwich St. and struck a poodle, which survived. 

“This is like a Spielberg movie,” Kingsley lamented.

Phil Mouquinho, a Community Board 2 member who lives nearby on Hudson St., said his “chest vibrated” when he walked by the Def Jam party on his way home.

“In effect, they’re running a commercial venture without any license or necessary paperwork, to my knowledge,” Mouquinho said. “What’s going on there is noncontextual. This organization is operating above the law.”

But not everyone was upset. Suri Beiler, who lives in a historic, single-family home across Charles St. that was moved there on a flatbed truck from the Upper East Side in 1978, said she didn’t hear any Def Jam din. Beiler liked Stephan Weiss and recalled how the former garage was rat infested before he converted it into his studio.

“I think they do a very reasonable job,” she said. “They have security. They’ve done only very positive things to this neighborhood.”

Bob Morris, a former New York Times style columnist who lives on Perry St., said neighbors are being prima donnas. 

“F--k these people for not understanding something as high-end and good as this,” he said of Karan’s events as he walked his mini-Dachshund, Zoloft, past the Christopher St. Pier last Saturday evening. “Those parties are over by 11:30. This neighborhood has a very entitled, foolish idea of what they’re owed and not owed. She’s a good woman.

She’s a New Yorker. There’s a lot of crackpots — I live in the West Village Houses.”

The Villager asked Linda Gaunt, an Urban Zen public-relations spokesperson, for a statement from Karan on the noise complaints and the alleged shooting threat. But Gaunt said Karan would not be issuing one.

“Of course we’re concerned about these complaints and we’ll look into them,” Gaunt said. “But we’d prefer to speak to the people directly, instead of communicating through the newspaper. They can start with me and I’d put them in touch with the appropriate people in the organization.”

The Villager gave Gaunt’s phone number to Pietkiewicz. He said he’d give it a try and would call her.

 Andy Stimus, a Sixth Precinct community affairs officer, said, “We haven’t had any complaints about noise over there. Nothing through our office here. No complaints that we know of. If people have complaints, they could call the Sixth Precinct with specific complaints and also call 311, so we can have a police car there and deal with the complaint.”

Pietkiewicz, however, seems to make most of his calls to Lieutenant Keith Maresca, who heads the Sixth Precinct’s cabaret unit.

Maresca said, “on numerous occasions” when he’s gotten calls from Pietkiewicz about 711 Greenwich St., he’s walked down to the premises, only to find it quiet. However, he said, he was on vacation the day of the Def Jam party, and took his wife out for dinner and shopping in the Village that night, and happened to walk past the building, which, he said, was actually the first time he’s ever heard it noisy. 

Asked if the cabaret unit has its sound gun and is using it, Maresca said it might have been in the shop for calibrating recently, plus officers need to be trained on how to use it.

“We do use it — on the street to see how loud it is on the street,” he said.

Detective Jimmy Alberici, another Sixth Precinct community affairs officer, said if Karan’s place was a commercial nightclub, police would be able to go in and check for any number of alcohol law-related violations. However, he added, “If we get there and it’s completely unreasonable, we can do something.” He said Karan recently told him she would be doing additional soundproofing of her building. Alberici also suggested neighbors and Karan try mediation.

Bob Gormley, Community Board 2 district manager, said he’s going to check into what happened with the parking regulations on Greenwich St.

“It would appear to be an anomaly if it didn’t come through the board,” he said. “Either we did not review it and it came through the board, or it never came through the board — and the question is why did it not come before us?”

As for the noise, Gormley said Sixth Precinct officers once knew how to use their sound gun, using it on the former Manor nightclub at Eighth Ave. and 13th St.

“Back then, they used to use the gun regularly — and they got hits,” Gormley said. As for 711 Greenwich St., he said, “The precinct’s only a block and a half away. You need a working decibel meter, someone who can use it, and then walk a block and a half and use it. That doesn’t sound burdensome to me.”

 In an article in USA Today this April, Karan said her husband wanted her to live in his studio after he died.

“I told him the space belonged to the community,” Karan told the newspaper.

David Gruber, head of the Carmine St. Block Association and a board member of Open House New York, said Open House wanted to use Karan’s space, but was put off by the fee.

“It was astronomical,” he said. 

But the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation recently held a benefit there and wasn’t charged to use the space.

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