Volume 74, Number 23 | Octuber 6 - 12 , 2004

Villager photo by Judith Seigel

A truck waited to pass on the morning of Sept. 21 as delivery trucks for a party at 66 Morton St. blocked the street.

Neighbors disagree whether building is a problem

By Nancy Reardon

Tension is on the rise on Morton St. in the Village as a 10-year community dispute has set neighbor against neighbor.

A group called Neighbors of 66, led by Judith Seigel of 61 Morton St., has been staging protests and distributing pamphlets against what they believe is illegal commercial use of property owned by Mary E. Kaplan at 66 Morton St. An investigation by The Villager revealed that Kaplan’s use of the property is legitimate, but Seigel said she is still skeptical and is not throwing in the towel yet.

Kaplan did not return phone calls asking for comment. The three-story house at 66 Morton St. is used for film productions, photo shoots and, most recently, is playing host to a day spa, called the Self Center, to commemorate Self magazine’s 25th anniversary.

Seigel lives across the street from the property she calls “Hollywood on the Hudson” and said that the traffic, trailers, set lights, noise, cranes and parking issues associated with activity at 66 Morton cause a serious disruption to her and surrounding residents. Seigel has been trying to draw attention to these problems for 10 years by documenting the activity at No. 66 with a camera, writing letters, staging protests, appealing to the Morton Street Block Association and, just last Thursday, speaking at a Community Board 2 meeting.

On the opening night for the Self promotional spa, Seigel handed out brochures that detailed complaints about 66 Morton St. and made several allegations against Kaplan. The pamphlet states that “#66 has flouted the law for decades as an illegal business in a residential area, breaking the rules of maintenance and laws of regulation with impunity.”

But 66 Morton St. is actually a split-lot property, with 80 percent of the tax lot zoned as a commercial district and 20 percent zoned as residential, according to Jennifer Givner, a spokesperson for the Department of Buildings. Residents’ confusion over the status of the property is due to the fact that the public records list the lot as “Walk Up Apartment — Three Families.” But Givner confirmed that 20 of every 25 feet on the property can be legally used for commercial purposes.

Seigel also alleges that the activity at 66 Morton St. is illegal because the property has no certificate of occupancy on file. Givner said that properties built before 1938 do not require these certificates and many do not have them.

Not all agree with Neighbors of 66, saying that many of the group’s complaints are irrelevant today because they date back to problems in the early 1990s. In 1993, then-president of the Morton Street Block Association Miriam Lee wrote a letter to the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting — which gives out permits for filming — about the overabundance of activity on Morton St. In that year, six permits had been issued for filming on the street.

Al Bennett, current president of the M.S.B.A., said that there have been few problems since that time. “It was a dreadful situation when we had these back-to-back productions,” he said. “But the Mayor’s Office has been very cooperative with us. The situation has changed considerably.”

The Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting issues permits for use of public space, such as the actual street on Morton St., but does not issue permits for private property, such as 66 Morton St. Only the property owner — Kaplan — can give permission for filming and productions inside the house and her right to do so is also perfectly legal, according to a spokeswoman for O.F.T.B.

Bennett said that the M.S.B.A. has taken every step to make sure that events such as the Self Center do not disrupt the lives of residents, including meeting with the magazine’s publisher and program’s director. He described Seigel as a “one-woman crusade.”
A spokesperson for Self magazine said that they had gotten every permit necessary for the Self Center.

Seigel has questioned the motives of the M.S.B.A., calling the $5,000 the block association received from Self magazine a “payoff.” Bennett said that the allegation is “outrageous” and that it is not uncommon for companies who use the neighborhood for filming and events to make donations as a gesture of appreciation. He said that the money goes toward beautification of the neighborhood, such as maintaining trees and purchasing mulch.

Seigel said she is frustrated that no one seems able to do anything about a situation that directly affects her. A recent flier produced by Seigel states, “All but one of the M.S.B.A. executive board accepting this money (without consulting the 143 members) live safely out of earshot.”

Seigel said that the The Villager’s findings have no immediate effect on her mission. She said that she will continue her research to confirm that the activity at 66 Morton St. is illegal and must be stopped. “I believe there’s two sets of laws — one for us, and one for her,” she said, referring to Kaplan.

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