Saturday, January 28, 2006

Let the SunShine In

City government and especially Community Boards need as many sunny dispositions as possible, given the nature of politics. More to the point, the law requires that "sunlight" rules apply to the many details that are reviewed in these elemental bodies of Democracy.

While numerous matters seem to escape general scrutiny, it is hoped that the new administration in the Borough President's office will insist upon complete openness.

A recent application, for example, by the Village Nursing Home for necessary variances needed to build a new facility on West Houston Street -- a much needed community facility -- came before Community Board #2 on several occasions. It's repeated presentation involved much discussion among Committee and Board members, and there were a number of outreach consultations with the community. The process was handled well.

But, at no meeting that was held on this matter, was there mention of the fact that the multi-million dollar parcel in contract for this facility was owned by a Community Board #2 member. While there have been no unseemly questions about the transaction or the review process at the Board -- the fact that this item of information was not divulged publicly during the many hearings in this lengthy process -- creates questions about openness. In fact, some Board members did not, and still do not know, that such a relationship exists.

Recusing one's vote during the vote on an application in which a Board member has a financial interest is not always enough. A simple statement by any Board member prior to discussions and voting -- indicating to the Public and the Board that such a relationship exists -- should be required. Financial interest is one thing, the ability to exercise influence during the application process, is another.

Whether it be a multi-million dollar real estate transaction or a liquor license application -- there should be complete openness and transparency. Speaking up prior to discussions has a clarifying effect upon all involved. This protects the Board member involved and protects the community from the potential for indirect pressure tactics that may be illegal or unethical.

We hope Mr. Stringer, our new Borough President will review this as part of his reform of the Community Boards.

Speaking of Borough Presidents, we have learned that in an effort to stack Community Board #2 with bar owners, a predilection of C. Virginia Fields -- and part of the deal to pay back the Nightlife crew among her supporters and fundraisers -- several of the Borough President appointments to the Board were made as a lame duck. The most recent of these appointments were vetted by Fields' people for their pro-liquor license attitudes. And, you can take that to the bank.

Fields had blocked appointments by Christine Quinn (Tobi Bergman and Jo Hamilton) as well as Margarita Lopez, and held back new appointments during the election -- in an effort to swing the election of Maria Derr for Chair of that Board. Usually, in a transition period, a number of appointments are left for the incoming administration. This is considered to be a matter of professional graciousness and courtesy. Not here.

Fields appointed bar owners til the bitter end -- in a continuing payback for all of those who filled campaign coffers. To Hell with the community.

It is highly unusual for an elected official to so openly play politics with appointments to Community Boards because the power of the Boards is not particularly great -- the Boards are advisory in nature. The Borough President is not supposed to directly try to affect the outcome of any election -- since it is a Community body, not an extension of some group's little Business operation.

But, that's another story.

The application for 311 West Broadway, a new SoHo development which was approved at the Community Board level, will be a 9 story condo project located between Canal and Grand Streets on West Broadway. One of the reasons why this application is important is the fact that currently a 206 space parking lot exists on the site of the development. As has been discussed before in the SoHo Journal, the 74-712 Special text amendment, was specifically enacted to deal with development of the remaining 14 vacant lots in SoHo and NoHo. Unfortunately, while this regulation does deal with the issue of eating and drinking establishments (which have often turned into nightclubs in SoHo), it does not address the severe lack of parking arising out of the disappearance of these lots due to development. However, this particular project does provide for the return of a good portion of the parking that is being eliminated by the two new separate and distinct buildings -- one facing on West Broadway and the other facing Wooster Street. Between the buildings will be a planned open space and below grade there will be a 150 space public parking garage.

Two issues about this development are still unresolved. First, residents of the neighboring building which is a coop, are very concerned with the structural integrity of their homes during and after construction. Since the water level is only 14 feet below grade in this, the lowest spot in Manhattan, the 12 feet deep below grade construction for the foundation and parking facility -- is a troubling issue for the coop owners. Former Board member Tobi Bergman is dealing with just such a problem right now on Watts Street, due to the construction of a 17 story, "as of right" hotel next to him. One of the walls of his building appears to be suffering from partial collapse.
One of the reasons for the fairly speedy approval of the West Broadway project was the impressive array of professionals that were gathered by the owner Albert Laboz, in presenting this proposal through attorney Howard Zipser. If the owner and his consultants negotiate in good faith and do as they say they will do in protecting the integrity of the adjoining building -- it will be a benefit to SoHo.

The second issue involves the lounge, 323 as it is called, located on the parcel being developed. While the 74-712 Special Permit application does not allow eating or drinking establishments, the existing free-standing building (which will remain) that is part of the lot which is the subject of the the application -- has, and will continue to have, the lounge. At the Zoning Committee hearing where the variance for the building was being discussed, several residents complained about loud music emanating from 323 -- but unfortunately they did not bring up this problem during the committee discussions with the developer.
Howard Zipser, the applicant's attorney, and Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance have stated that Laboz is a "good guy" and Zipser tells us that he will be responsive to the community on this issue.

Jim McManus of the powerful McManus Midtown Democratic Club has indicated that he has become interested in the candidacy of Tom Suozzi, the Nassau County Executive who has initiated the "Fix Albany" campaign. The chinks in Eliot Spitzer's teflon armor have developed partly as a result of Republican disinformation, but is also due to the perception by some Democrats that Spitzer is a little too squeaky-clean. Translated: a little too cranky or dismissive with those who disagree with him. The fact that McManus is friendly with the Attorney General, yet sees a more congenial talent in the attractive Mr. Suozzi, speaks volumes.

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