Sunday, November 19, 2006

A Failure of Leadership

or; How We Learned to Love "the Donald's" Bomb.

The natives in SoHo and Hudson Square are very restless over the planned 45 story Trump hotel/condo about to be built. The Dubai based money is funding the Trump moniker (the family name for a fee or a management deal) in Hudson Square on Varick and Spring Street. True to form it's being hyped as a SoHo project, presumably because their PR department thinks it will sell better.

Nowhere in the description for this mega-project, the largest building between Midtown and Wall Street, does it mention that it is less than one block from the Holland Tunnel entrance - home to one of New York City's premier daily traffic jams along Varick Street where New Jersey commuters block half of that roadway from 3 pm to midnight, including weekends.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights (and from 4 pm to 8 pm weekdays), Varick Street is a six lane traffic jam with horns blaring, trucks honking and pedestrians frozen on street corners with no police or traffic enforcement to get them across any of the street corners. Neither the Holland Tunnel route (three lanes) nor the through traffic (three lanes on the "Trump" side) on Varick sees any police after 7 pm. The cacophony goes on until midnight or one a.m. Port Authority Police occasionally blare instructions at motorists from bullhorns mounted on their patrol cars which echo in the night, but they never get out of their vehicles - they charge extra for that. Imagine the help this new project will bring to the lives of residents in Hudson Square when limos drop off the Trump Condo elite?

But, it gets better.

The screaming is about a few noteworthy details. SoHo and Hudson Square have been part of the outcast communities - the home of M1-5 zoning, where Manufacturing (and Hotels) is as of right. No variances or waivers are needed for commercial development unless there is an unusual circumstance -- as when Trinity Real Estate wanted to eliminate a street (part of Sullivan Street) to augment their project. When a change of use to residential is sought, the community has a right to review the entire plan and weigh in on its appropriateness. Usually, an FAR of 5 is recommended when conversion to residential use is sought. In other words, depending upon the size of the lot and the height and density of the building, it can be modified when residential use is planned. Along the way to approval, details like lot-line windows, which normally block light from neighboring buildings, the height of the structure and general characteristics can be negotiated with a developer eager to start building. Money sitting as a credit line can dry up if the concrete doesn't start pouring.

Not so with the Trump deal. There is virtually no limit on height with certain as of right building types in certain locations. Such is the case in Hudson Square and parts of SoHo that have not been landmarked or spot zoned.

Why? Because no one ever anticipated a 45-story hotel in a manufacturing district; and City Planning and City Hall were asleep at the switch. No one was listening to community leaders.

Organizations like the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), under the leadership of Andrew Berman, had been warning the city for 10 years about this loophole in the zoning laws. David Reck, leader of Friends of Hudson Square had also been insisting that Hudson Square needs to be rezoned. For many years these messages have been ignored by politicians and agencies like City Planning. No one has been listening.--until now. Although we are at the crossroads, however, it does not help us prevent the Trump deal. The City, and as a result, the community has been screwed.

A hotel is "as of right," condos are not. A hotel/condo is technically not legally permitted in this location but the prohibition is not clear-cut nor does the City (under Bloomberg) wish to fight it in the courts. Despite his "Presidential" appearance, between this project, the Stadium and the proliferation of illegal Billboards, he clearly doesn't give a shit about Downtown. And the deal that is likely to be cut is that the apartments will be sold as time-share-type condos that will function as hotel rooms - with occupancy for no longer than 28 or 29 days - the length of stay that usually connotes transient use as opposed to residential occupancy. And, that's the best deal our illustrious leaders can offer us.

The City is allowing (yes, folks, the fix is in and the permits will be issued to build) the precedent-setting use in a precedent-setting size. And, where the "as of right" size of the building might have been roughly 30 stories, Trumps boys bought the air rights from the adjoining building at 145 Sixth Avenue - a commercial condo building where several businesses, including The Villager newspaper is located. As a result of that condo Board's decision to sell their air rights, roughly 15 stories have been added to the mega-Hotel. That transaction made a dubious development into a monster of hideous proportions. It's a new landmark for what will become Downtown's Trump-Godzilla.

The questions that have to be asked are: Why have the meetings with the City and the developer been held behind closed doors without a thorough review by the community? Virtually no notice was given for community leaders to attend some meetings by Speaker Quinn. AND what's the rush? The lot is already under construction even though the permit to build has not been issued. Perhaps they know something we don't?

For the politicians who hold the cards in this fast-unfolding drama, shutting out the community was not a popular move. Most downtown activists are feeling sold-out. Even if the project could be viable and acceptable in some form (like, say, 20 stories shorter), the way it has been handled just smells bad.

City Planning, Mayor Bloomberg, Developer-Mayor Dan Doctoroff, Speaker Quinn might have listened to those warning of just this kind of project being put forth but they clearly were not interested. Hudson Square was simply a conglomeration of printing lofts and Trinity Real Estate commercial buildings, as SoHo once was, but the residential explosion in the last few years found them asleep. Or, were they?

Does anyone seriously believe that Bloomberg, Doctoroff and Quinn could not modify or stop this development if they chose to? The Mayor could simply pick up the phone and tell Lancaster to "sit on it." He has more money than Trump but he needs to make up for the Stadium debacle somehow. Trump and boys would naturally have sued, but a negotiation might easily have ensued. For developers, time is money. To save a huge area of the City from horrendous out of context development, the cost of the lawsuit to taxpayers would have been a welcomed trade-off.

And, come to think of it - it still is.

And, as for the proposed restriction on condo use (no stays over 29 days so it's more hotel than condo), who's going to police that? Can't you see the Department of Buildings Swat Team rousting tenants out of their apartments after fois gras and champagne on Sunday nights as they watch the traffic enter the Tunnel?

"Come on Bif, we own this place for December but the Cheney's are moving in tonight - and, God, you don't want those awful Condo Nazis or the Department of Buildings Po-Po forcing us to pack at gunpoint, do you? What would the Donald think? What would happen to our Time-Share mortgage?"

"Wait until after midnight. We can't move in that Tunnel traffic anyway. The Garage entrance is blocked. Next year, let's go to Nicaragua."

In fact, the way the restrictions are being proposed, up to 150 days a year (5 months) will be acceptable "transient" occupancy by any owner. With weekends, holidays and vacations, that allows enough time in their "condo share" to stay in town all winter and move to their Hamptons home for the summer.

Years of complaining to Commissioner Lancaster over the media companies' assault on SoHo, NoHo and Hudson Square with illegal billboards (mainly courtesy of VanWagner Communications) -- got no enforcement at all. The troops from the Department of Buildings are not going to get off their Asses for this either? They care as much about Downtown as the Port Authority Police currently do.

The West Side of SoHo and Hudson Square now must either be landmarked or re-zoned so Carnival Barker/Real Estate Packagers like Trump and predator developers don't destroy Downtown.

To Electeds and Activists, as Gordon Gekko said: Go to work!