Volume 73, Number 50 | April 21 - 27, 2004

Soho: From zoning for lots to Bloomie’s, lots is going on

By Sean Sweeney

In the first major change to Soho’s zoning in 30 years, the City Council last December approved legislation that permits new residential and ground-floor retail use on the 16 parking lots within the Soho and Noho Historic Districts. But the administration got something it did not bargain on, namely, an amendment excluding bars and restaurants from this new construction boom.

The owner of the huge parking lot on the corner of Broadway and Grand St. proposed a zoning modification last spring. This new zoning would enable a developer to get a special permit for new construction, instead of the traditional and torturous method of obtaining a so-called “hardship” variance. For years the Soho community has been fighting the granting of these “hardship” variances that result in oversize buildings and a lot of time, expense and aggravation spent by neighborhood activists who oppose them.

The Soho Alliance, a volunteer community group, has filed numerous lawsuits against the city for arbitrarily granting these variances. City agencies were getting tired of defending against this litigation. Something had to be done to end the stalemate. Enter the owner of the parking lot with a request to tweak the zoning.

Initially, the proposed zoning change would have permitted any kind of use on these lots, something unheard of. Residents feared encroachment into the area by major institutions like N.Y.U. in the form of dormitories, student centers or oversized classroom buildings. Also cited were multiplex theaters or destination stores like Home Depot. Incredibly, even power plants were possible. Oddly, in a neighborhood full of artists, there were no mention about creating new space for artists, something many of the Soho artists insisted upon.

The Alliance’s proposal was to limit any new development to the parameters that apply for conversion of existing buildings to residential use, namely low-rise, low-density units of 1,200-sq.-ft. minimum, with only certified artists and their families permitted to live there. Advocates were also worried about the loss of hundreds of parking spaces in a neighborhood without any parking meters or alternate-side parking.

Concomitant with zoning challenges, the community has been fighting over proliferation of late-night bars and bistros on the quiet side streets of Soho. This struggle also took its toll in legal fees, effort and time.

As a tradeoff for not requiring that the new residences be for artists, the community demanded that if there were to be residential construction, then drinking and eating establishments should be excluded from these sites. Soho has a liquor license for every 100 residents, a clear case of oversaturation. A New York Supreme Court judge has already ordered several blocks of Soho off limits to new liquor licenses.

However, the administration did not want this restriction, since it feared other neighborhoods would insist on it for themselves. Local observers countered that Soho already has unique restrictions on restaurants, like size limitation as well as the prohibition of most sidewalk food vendors and sidewalk cafes. Furthermore, the zoning was neighborhood specific, so it would not set a precedent. With the urging of Councilmember Alan Gerson, the City Council approved the prohibition that the community requested.

However, despite the zoning victory, a concern is that new building construction has been undermining the foundations of adjacent landmarked buildings built in the 19th century on the sand and swamp that lies beneath Soho and much of Downtown. Each of the five new buildings that were constructed in Soho over the past few years has caused settling of adjacent structures. This has resulted in multi-million-dollar lawsuits and the possible condemnation of one building.

Several block associations have retained legal and engineering consultants to insure that any further construction will not destroy the landmark buildings they call home.

Although no new liquor licenses will be granted in new buildings, residents are still battling, and blocking requests by applicants to apply for licenses in inappropriate locations on Soho’s side streets.

The landlord of 76 Wooster St. has been hell-bent for years on putting a late-night establishment there. Residents claim this would ruin the quality of life of that quiet, narrow block. Five times in seven years, Soho activists persuaded the State Liquor Authority to deny a license at this location.

However, the landlord changed tack in 2003 and brought in an applicant who actually was a restaurateur and not a Trojan horse for a late-night club. But the restaurant was to be opened past midnight. In the face of strong community opposition to this idea, the Liquor Authority continued its refusal to license this location.

The neighbors have vowed to oppose any application that would ruin the quiet of this quaint block and wreck their sleep. But many of them decry that they must hire an attorney to get any results from the S.L.A. They are supporting other groups that are calling for an overhaul of the S.L.A. and have met with State Senator Martin Connor to see what can be done legislatively to reform this agency.

Soho’s 1971 zoning that permitted artists quarters also limited the size of retail stores on the ground floor in order to protect the manufacturers and wholesalers that abounded at the time. However, consecutive administrations ignored this restriction on retail, and now streets like Broadway, which were chockablock with wholesalers in 1990, are now full of large chain stores. But the retailers who displaced the wholesalers were limited to 20,000 sq. ft. This provided some sense of retail scale and protection of neighborhood character.

No one in 1971 ever thought that a department store would occupy an entire building in Soho, since no provisions were put in the zoning regarding that use. The neighborhood has changed and now the ultimate Uptowner, Bloomingdale’s, has decided to slum Downtown.

However, with that came problems, as tractor-trailers unload in the predawn hours, waking residents. Garbage takes up a third of the block. This week graffiti has appeared on sidewalks advertising opening day. Residents complained to the store’s management and initiated a dialogue. The store is opening Sat., April 24.

Some progress is good, some bad. But Downtown residents saw little good in a plan by the Department of Transportation and the Department of Design and Construction to radically change the appearance of Houston St. The agencies’ plan was to install water and sewer mains and ostensibly to make the street pedestrian friendly. Little was evident in the proposed plan to benefit pedestrians.

D.O.T. engineers proposed putting up a barrier around the center medians, destroying parts of some medians to install left-turn bays to facilitate cars and removing the medians’ end portions where pedestrians currently wait for the lights to change. Most people felt a proposal to widen the sidewalks would only exacerbate traffic problems.

Subsequent meetings with these agencies occurred. I appealed to Mayor Bloomberg over breakfast at Gracie Mansion in March to alter D.O.T.’s plan. The mayor was receptive and D.O.T. has promised to rethink their design.

Local activists and environmentalists have been in court for years trying to get compliance from a vegetable wholesaler on Broome St.

This illegal business has flouted traffic, noise and public safety laws by setting up a wholesale business in Soho that properly belongs in the Bronx Terminal Market. The business commandeered parking spots, operated forklift vehicles on the sidewalks and caused diesel pollution and a dangerous environment. For instance, one truck killed a pedestrian in Chinatown and a forklift fell through a neighbor’s hollow sidewalk.

This business was found to be in contempt of a judge’s order and this year ordered to pay all the legal bills for the Soho Alliance. The final showdown is expected in May when the Alliance will ask the judge for maximum criminal contempt penalties.

Sweeney is director of the Soho Alliance

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