Saturday, December 30, 2006

A New Year

Political tails are wagging this week over what appears to be a misinterpretation of events at the McManus Midtown Democratic Club where Carlos Manzano had been reportedly stepping down as President of the club. The Daily News has been playing out the verbal ping-pong in the Ben Smith blog and readers have been spinning off of the controversy with some interesting side tidbits. What was a tasty story for those who know Jim McManus and his politics has veered off into the Downtown quagmire.

Among the controversial blog commentaries are a few morsels involving VRDC (Village Reform Democratic Club) which has recently been reanimated by the Chamber of Commerce and Community Board #2 bar crowd, which includes Bob Rinaolo, Maria Derr, Phil Mouquinho, and Rick Panson, among others. Their gambit has been to introduce lots of new money to shore up the dubious ascendancy of Ray Cline, a former State Committeeman out of the McManus club -- by having Brad Sussman succeed him as President (formerly of the Fields BP office) as Cline retreats behind curtain #1, or is it curtain #2?

While Cline has been known to boast about having arranged successful elections for judges, thereby earning their undying appreciation (in the form of judicial largesse for club members and other "friends"), McManus was not as appreciative of his efforts at his Midtown Democratic Club. Basically, as with the finality of Saddam, Cline was thrown out.

Ray Cline has been described by McManus as "an underhanded individual who couldn't be trusted." Then there were some negative comments.

While his full pedigree will not be fully described here, suffice it to say that his ascendancy as head of a "Reform" club (now with Brad Sussman as President) leaves one to wonder about the future of Village politics, or at least VRDC. The combination of Sussman, who was shown the door by Stringer's office, the bar crowd of CB#2 pumping in money, and the machinations of Cline -- all of whom rely on Allen Roskoff (another bar crowd "consultant" and negative-spin artist) -- makes for an interesting potpourri of characters. With such a cast of characters, community politics for Village idealogues may begin to resemble a ride down the River Styx on a surfboard.

As Joe Kane, one of Joe Kennedy's trusted henchmen, once said, "There are no friends in politics, only co-conspirators."

Among the developments in SoHo, the project at 520 Broome Street seems to have run into more than just a little opposition. What was planned as an 8 story condo with a parking garage, morphing into a 9 story condo with a four level parking garage and a 35 foot high "mechanicals" addition on the roof - is now running into some problems. The project started with slowly developing community opposition that gathered some steam when the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) entered the picture. A small demonstration took place at Thompson and Broome Streets and members of the SoHo Alliance and residents carried placards and chanted slogans about saving the Tunnel Garage from demolition.

Residents of SoHo, the GVSHP under Andrew Berman, the SoHo Alliance and Sean Sweeney as well as other community groups, wanted the developer to save the facade of the building and incorporate the condo within that structure. Before these groups could gain a foothold and bring some pressure to bear through the city and its landmarking process, the building was razed. The people in SoHo were pissed.

And, as the project has wended its way through the political process, reception for the new building has been less than warmly received.

In particular, the surrounding building owners have been understandably concerned about the "bathtub" within which the new structure would be erected. The foundation would essentially be erected upon pilings drilled down to bedrock upon which a concrete bathtub would be poured four stories below grade. The depth of the construction excavation, despite the assurances of the developer's engineers, remains a concern of residents adjoining the property. Bedrock is between 75 and 100 feet below grade in this location.

As a result of this controversy, what has become clear is that builders and developers are clearly better off having reached out to the community well in advance of their efforts to get cooperation. 520 Broome now faces the prospect of a smaller building and interminable delays as it continues the process with an antagonistic community as it heads off to the BSA (Board of Standards and Appeals) for approval after being turned down by Community Board #2.

Speaking of which, at the beginning of the New Year observers will again start to focus upon Community Board #2 elections. Election rumors will start gathering momentum in a few months as a newly constituted Board (new appointments and renewals are announced in late March) will become the hot issue Downtown. The odds-on favorite for new Chair of Community Board #2 is Brad Hoylman since Derr will be term-limited out. While he is Vice Chair and is a member of the Executive Committee of the current Board, he has remained independent of the Chamber of Commerce cronies under the Maria Derr/Bob Rinaolo/Rick Panson/Phil Mouquinho/Martin Diaz/Roscia Sanz management team who are holdovers from the Virginia Fields BP days. The frequent fundraisers by that group to fill the Fields coffers bought lots of new bar-owner Board members whose mission was to stuff as many bars as possible into downtown neighborhoods while fucking the community. Self-interest and personal agendas, real estate development approvals, and liquor licenses for friends and Chamber of Commerce "associates" were the hallmark of their collective efforts. It was not a pretty picture.

Hoylman has been an effective Chair of the Traffic and Transportation Committee and the only apparent self-interest in his agenda seems to be a possible run for future political office -- not, however, using the Community Board for his personal gain. That's more than you can say for many of the members with which he's had to share power on the Board, especially on the Executive Committee dais.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

'Tis the Season

For all of the cranky people out there, this was a spectacular week.

The main question for those of you Downtown rangers is “What’s the rush?”
As in, hey Mr. Mayor, why rush in pushing Trump SoHo (at Spring and Varick in Hudson Square) on to completion after the deal of the Art (as in Con Art) has shown itself to be a residential tower in disguise as a Hotel.

As of right development can make you want to hide the real deal. Hotels go very high – because City Planning has been asleep. Condos go low – like only 8 to 10 stories.

After discovering Bones, as in the humankind, a stop work order was initiated by the Department of Buildings – only to be rescinded today so that the Donald can get back to work selling condos, oops, no Hotel/condos. All 45 stories – which, had he told everyone that he wanted to sell straight condos – he would have been lucky to get maybe, say, 8 stories. An FAR of 5 is about right normally.

So, you can see where a little subtlety (or even lying) might be useful.

There’s no subtlety for Commissioner Lancaster ( Department of Buildings ) or her boss, Mayor Bloomberg. Where a full archeological investigation might have otherwise ensued, we have a stop work order that lasted roughly one week.
That’s after all of the signals out of the Trump organization saying, “HELLO, we’re building a condo here!”
– but that was completely lost on Lancaster and Bloomberg, however.

Gives you a warm feeling when you think about how closely the City and Trump work and play together – at the expense of the residents Downtown.
Politicians keep forgetting about this area having the fastest residential growth in Manhattan. As in votes!

Speaking of building, Pier 40 is now about to have its future reconsidered – again.
The Hudson River Park Trust, the agency responsible for the redevelopment of our Hudson River shoreline, has now begun the process of reviewing plans submitted for the final development of Pier 40, at the foot of Houston Street.
Only four plans were received as a result of the RFP (request for proposal), which was sent to at least 300 potential developers. Of those four received, only two are serious entries – The Related Companies “Pier 40 PAC” (Performing Arts Center), featuring Cirque du Soleil – and CampGroup’s “Pier 40 – The People’s Pier” which primarily features ball fields, a pool center and an educational complex. Both entries have extensive plans and financials that are credible.
The RFP had a few ground rules. Among them were two requirements: that parking would remain and that ball fields would be part of any plan.
The “Pier 40 Working Group” under its Chairman Arthur Schwartz (who is also Chair of Community Board #2’s Parks and Waterfront Committee, will recommend a plan (or no plan) to the Trust Board once it has finished its review of the proposals.

Moving along On the Waterfront we find that a curious phenomenon has graced its development. It seems as though the Port Authority in its wisdom has authorized something like $5 million for the Beacon Institute to run the Pier 26 Estuarium when, in fact, the Board of Directors of the Hudson River Park Trust has not yet voted to designate any entity, Beacon or otherwise, to run the Pier 26 estuarium, and no process has yet been determined to select a developer for this site.
But, that didn’t stop the Port Authority from adopting a resolution. To wit:

RESOLVED, that the resolution adopted by the Board at its meeting of October 19,
2006 authorizing the Executive Director to enter into one or more agreements with the
Hudson River Park Trust and/or another appropriate entity, pursuant to which the Port
Authority was to provide up to $10 million toward the development of the new Urban
Estuary Center to be constructed on Pier 26 within the boundaries of the Hudson River Park
in Lower Manhattan, be and it hereby is amended (i) to reallocate $5 million of the funds
authorized for that purpose toward the reconstruction of Pier 86 in Manhattan, the berthing
site of the U.S.S. Intrepid (Intrepid), and toward the cost of repairing the Intrepid’s hull, and
(ii) to provide that the remaining $5 million of such funding for the Urban Estuary Center be
allocated by the Hudson River Park Trust and/or another appropriate entity for the study of
Hudson River estuary preservation strategies by a consortium of educational institutions led
by the State of New York and the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries (Beacon
Institute) pursuant to the Strategic Plan and Conceptual Design 2006 prepared by Gensler on
behalf of the Beacon Institute;

It appears that as Pataki waves good-bye on Trigger like Hop-Along Cassidy, his buddy-environmentalist John Cronin will be left behind like Tonto with a 3 year old firm (Beacon Institute) and $5 mil to make the rounds of potential employers. With the Port Authority as the financial conduit to push the job by funding the money, the question is, do environmentalists take Cronin seriously and does the Trust want to be told what they’re going to say before they say it? In roughly 10 days Trigger could break a leg and Tonto would be left holding a bag of horseshit.

Back on land, the natives on Community Board #2 are a little miffed about items that keep disappearing before they hit the Full Board for consideration and a possible vote. Democracy is a fleeting concept on Board #2.

Like the Board #3 resolution, the one that was approved at Board #2’s Zoning committee Chaired by Doris Diether managed to get lost on its way to the Full Board.

When you consider the fact that the resolution had to do with grandfathering restaurant and bar use in order to limit further liquor licenses, you kind of get the feeling that the Bar Boys & Girls (Rinaolo, Panson, Derr, Mouquinho, Maggio, Diaz) might have sidelined the resolution before it got any real consideration.

This gives Humbug a bad name.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition

When a politician comments about knowing “where the bones are buried,” he’s usually not talking about real estate or his landlord – although a few stories about such results due to hassling tenants are not unknown. Its more likely an unkind remark that is used to ward off threats and unpleasant gossip generated by an adversary.
Unfortunately, for the Trump SoHo project a/k/a Trump Godzilla, the 45-story behemoth about to dwarf Hudson Square and cast shadows on New Jersey, the bones are real.
It seems that in their rush to get a foundation in on Spring and Varick Streets - having bemused residents with the usual Dog and Pony show celebrating Trump luxe – the one thing they did not count on after trying to delude the politicians was bones.
Apparently the remains of ten to fifteen people thought to be of African-American origin have been unearthed -- indicating that this may have been a cemetery for the abolitionist Spring Street Presbyterian Church.

As a result of this discovery, a stop work order has been issued by the Buildings Department. Presently, there is a permit to excavate but not build. However, that work has now been halted. At the strong suggestion of the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation , a full investigation is being considered.

In addition to last week’s discovery that Trump’s own website was selling “Primary, Secondary, and Investor Residences” it doesn’t help the project that the City’s own convention website was touting Trump Soho as a “year-round residence.”
Looks like the selling season may be delayed.

The waterfront is heating up again.

Arhur Schwartz, survivor par excellence, is getting a little flack over a procedural problem on the Hudson River Park Trust Advisory Council.
This Chairman of the (Advisory) Board appointed a Pier 40 Working Group – a committee to review the plans for the future and hopefully final development process for the pier at Houston Street and at least one activist, Friends of Hudson Square president David Rack, is feeling left out.
Pier 40, a 14 acre development site, is one of the largest public lots to be developed downtown and it is now about to witness its second major round of reviews of proposals (RFP’s) received by the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT). The last round of hearings and meetings involving the Pier 40 selection was the scene of major disruptions and mudslinging among politicos. There were charges of insider deals, favoritism and questionable uses, not to mention conflict of interest. Schwartz was one of those at the center of the storm during that period and has risen again, now as a State Committeeman, Chair of Community Board #2’s Parks and Waterfront Committee, Chairman of the Advisory to HRPT, and presumably now also Chairman of the Pier 40 Working Group – a committee chosen by Schwartz to review the Pier 40 contestants. One of the hotly contested questions is whether this is Schwartz’s committee, the Advisory’s committee, or some ad hoc group of individuals simply known as the Working Group – owing fealty to no one but Schwartz. Trust Board members Larry Goldberg and Julie Nadel have taken issue with Schwartz over the pedigree of the Working Group committee and resolution is not yet in sight. Given that the HRPT has made secrecy, or at least the avoidance of public scrutiny, the hallmark of its current administration (a questionable point of view for a public Trust), we may never know how this will all play out.

While rumors have been circulating that Cirque DuSoleil has the inside track on winning the contest (which the Trust Board headed by Trip Dorkey ultimately decides), a number of activists and organizations are concerned about not losing those hard won ball fields which cost $5 million and were completed only last year for the kids Downtown. Parks in SoHo and Hudson Square are about as scarce as family-sized apartments for under $3 million. Space for the Little League and Soccer Leagues are virtually non-existent south of 23rd Street – even if you offer to pay heavily at Chelsea Piers.
The review process will be focused on at the HRPT Advisory, Community Board #2 and among the Electeds Downtown. In addition, Al Butzel’s Friends of Hudson River Park,, a public interest group that carefully scrutinized and weighs in heavily on HRPT decisions, will also be a player. The Trust Board, of course, could ignore everyone and choose the developer they prefer. But, for now, since Pataki is out and since Spitzer is in and more likely to investigate than screw the community, the Pier 40 RFP is likely to be with us for a good part of 2007 before a decision is made.

Schwartz has most of the bases covered, except for the Electeds. He ran against Larry Moss for State Committee and won despite opposition from Speaker Quinn, Assembly Member Glick and Senator Duane. Since Maria Derr, Chair of Community Board #2 shares his building and Schwartz is CB#2 Parks and Waterfront Committee Chair as well Chair of the Advisory – it looks like he’s running the whole show again.

Community Board #2 apparently was asleep at the switch – or at least the Institutions Committee under the sometimes leadership of Bob Rinaolo, of former Business Committee and liquor license fame. It appears that a controversial issue, the NYU co-generation plant expansion that has Mercer Street residents up in arms, was totally missed by Institutions. In an effort to get completely off the grid, NYU is planning to generate all of its own power – at a cost, of course. The question is, who will bear the cost of this expansion (again) – could it be? Yes it could! Yes! It’s the residents again.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Real Estate: Rules of the Games

At an old NYU course, the professor repeatedly referred to the pursuit of real estate deals involving buying or selling as The Real Estate Game. Those who inhabit an apartment in Manhattan view it as less of a game and more of a necessary obsession. Not only has it become the paranoia of numbers, as in "how much of my income is going towards paying my rent (or mortgage)" but more likely "how much higher will the rent/adjustable mortgage-maintenance go before I can't pay it and I have to move out?"

For landlords, it's a simple yet different formula. If I buy that property, how long will it take to get the rent-controlled/rent-stabilized tenants out? How many "Holdover" actions will I have to start in order to recover the apartments? And, how deep are the tenant's pockets - to pay a lawyer to prevent us from forcing the tenant to the wall and agreeing to move out simply because of the cost of a defense?

While Manhattan becomes more of a land of the rich and politicians wring their hands trying to figure out how to provide "affordable housing," the rules have been changing as fast as the landscape. Like the Skinnerian principle of Variable Ratio Reinforcement, tenants and prospective buyers in Manhattan find themselves pecking away - never knowing if they are going to succeed at getting a reward or wear out their beaks in the process. Will they be able to afford the next rent increase? Will they be able to pay the landlord-tenant lawyer the next time the umpteenth holdover proceeding is brought to evict them from their apartment?

Causes of Action permitted in Housing Court as Holdover proceedings, for example, are many and varied. Landlords can evict tenants for anything from failure to sort recyclables, to doing renovation work on the apartment without approval. Failure to permit the landlord access to an apartment is a favorite of many slumlords - because it often boils down to "he said, she said" and the one with the greatest staying power (ability and persistence in paying legal fees) usually wins. Slumlords know this and phrases like "the landlord is lying" and "that's not fair" come to tenant's minds - and are reminiscent of schoolyard in the 4th grade. Housing Court judges, with exceptions like activist Judge David Cohen, usually don't give a shit and rule for landlords.

Which leads us to consider some of the newest gifts from lame duck Governor Pataki - the lover of landlords in Manhattan. Assembly member Deborah Glick and Linda Rosenthal have been trying to make people aware of the latest round of tidbits that would make evictions easier in Manhattan. Among the new proposals is a change in DHCR rules that would make the tenant the victim of lead paint found in an apartment. This new and onerous proposal would transfer the cost of lead paint abatement to the tenant - much like saying to a parent "if you don't want to have a brain damaged child, you pay for the clean-up in your apartment." Poor tenants would end up having brain-damaged children rather than report the health danger that could result in their being evicted for the horrendous cost of a lead paint clean up done properly.

Then there's the attempt at evicting roommates who unequally share rent. Another of George's new proposals would allow landlords to evict a tenant or tenants - and would do so based upon the balance of payments collected between consenting adults and forwarded to management.

Deborah Glick has outlined many of these egregious new proposals and has clearly enunciated the danger to many of us who made Manhattan the place where people want to live. Attached is a follow-up to the news conference she held last week.

Scott Stringer has been one of the first politicians to point out that the Emperor indeed has no clothes. Apparently, Trump SoHo is just what everyone thought it was. Throughout the review process for this mega-development, in an attempt to negotiate in good faith for the community, Stringer, Jerry Nadler, Tom Duane and Christine Quinn held several meetings attempting to solve the zoning dilemma. It became a genuine team effort. But, even though the Trump boys presented their case in public and in private with the various elected officials, someone in the Trump organization let the ball drop and the real agenda started to spill out.

According to several activist organizations, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation being one of them, negotiations permitting the Trump SoHo Hotel/Condo to go forward were all but done. The deal that was going down was that there would be a restrictive declaration limiting the number of days that hotel condo owners would be allowed to maintain occupancy. In return for the limitation on length of stays, specifically agreeing that the hotel would be essentially a transient Hotel (and therefore a legal use) for the 45-story edifice euphemistically called "Trump Godzilla" -- a building permit would shortly be issued.

The important element of the agreement was that Trump wanted to be able to sell rooms/apartments and the City wanted the understanding that this was to remain essentially a transient hotel. This love fest had the elements that permitted Trump's boys to start selling before the cement foundation was dry, and allowed City officials to state that we had achieved "Peace in Our Time."

Then, the Trump website went up. The online ad appeared and was quickly picked up by GVSHP and and it made the rounds. What was most interesting and informative about the website ad though, was that it initially offered the apartments for sale either as Primary "Residences," Secondary "Residences," or Investments. The essential fuck-up, of course, was the word "Residence." And, Primary Residence was the Primary fuck-up. This was contrary to what the schmoozers were publicly telling the electeds.

So, which character on the Sales/Website team do you think will get the shit kicked out of him for letting that particular cat out of the bag? It wasn't a surprise to anyone downtown that this was the plan all along - and that the negotiations with the City were all a smoke screen to get the foundation in and get the mortar sliding down the chute.

Stringer fired off letters about the obvious charade, also signed by Nadler, Glick and Duane, and while a building permit may be issued at any moment - there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that if construction goes forward ASAP, the smoke is not only in front of the proverbial mirrors but is also blowing out of a few asses in City Hall. The investors are lined up, the contracts are signed and the website ads are in place - albeit with a little more fluff to cover the tracks.

Oh, and P.S., look for Community Board #1 Chair Julie Menin to seriously look at the City Council slot Downtown. With the work that she has done to bring that Board together, if you know her, nudge her on. Maybe we can straighten out some of the intractable traffic and pollution problems.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Getting the Message?

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) under the vigorous leadership of Executive Director Andrew Berman has been weighing in on zoning issues in SoHo and Hudson Square. The Tunnel Garage was one of the first SoHo locations where a small protest demonstration was held and although the building was ultimately razed, consciousness was raised as well - and developers and their attorneys have taken notice. It's no longer business as usual. And, the Far West Side, where the Superior Ink building became a cause celebre, the Meatpacking District where the High Line has been preserved, the Julian Schnabel "high rise" in the Village and lately the "Trump SoHo" (which is actually in Hudson Square), have become targets of Mr. Berman's intense scrutiny. It's not easy to save buildings or neighborhoods in Manhattan, where buildings and then neighborhoods are destroyed in a matter of a few years. Especially, when politicians are asleep at the switch.

But to her credit, Christine Quinn, the new Speaker of the City Council, seems to be listening. A public hearing has now been scheduled for Monday of next week. One of the criticisms leveled at Quinn, Bloomberg and other political leaders downtown had been what appeared to be the lack of opportunity for the community to review and speak on a few zoning and development issues - notably the Schnabel and Trump matters. That has now changed.

While it is true that GVSHP is an organization which represents the positions of numerous downtown community organizations, it also has a focus of its own. As a result of the persistent attention given to issues raised by the Far West Village development pressures and the SoHo/Hudson Square development pace, there may now be reason for some cautious optimism.

Although no one expects Trump not to build a hotel, it would not be terrible if he actually got a condo/hotel with some real modifications. And, it would not be a travesty if it were 25 stories instead of 45 stories. As a result of the air rights sold to him (Trump is just the marquee on the deal, the money comes from Dubai and the syndicate is out of the Midwest), the permitted 45 stories would really change Downtown for the worse. The real Trump card for Downtown would be getting the rezoning of Hudson Square initiated and on the fast track as a result of all of this.

Quinn's stock just went up 100 points on this effort to bring the community in on the process. At this rate, her chances of preparing for a Mayoral run look a lot better Downtown.

Community Board #2 is still owned and operated by the Bar and Chamber of Commerce crowd and its now wholly-owned political subsidiary, VRDC (Village Reform Democratic Club).

The newly elected president of VRDC, Bradford Sussman, was previously with C. Virginia Fields' office before she term-limited out last year. Scott Stringer defeated several contenders and replaced Fields as Borough President and quickly disposed of a number of her appointees. Sussman hung around for a while before moving on. Now, however, he will be listening carefully to Bob Rinaolo, Maria Derr, Phil Mouquinho, Arthur Schwartz (Democratic State Committeeman), and supported PR-wise by none other than the ubiquitous Allen Roskoff - of CB#2 "Anonymous Letter" fame and political character assassination notoriety in the Downtown political arena. These sparkling jewels of political science is under the supreme leadership of Ray Cline, another of the survivors of political intrigue. Having bounced around Gotham for many political wars, unlike Roskoff he is described as genuinely smart. As President of VRDC before Sussman's recent election, there is little doubt that he will be still running the show, Deus Ex Machina-style. It appears that the "Reform" moniker of this, the Village Reform Democratic Club, has to be seriously questioned as it hitches its trailer to the recent ascendance of Arthur Schwartz, who defied the Quinn/Duane/Glick powers that be and pulled off a stunning upset in winning the race against Larry Moss for State Committee. While Arthur is rising star at VRDC (despite his former adversarial relationship with Cline) he also serves as Chair of the Hudson River Park Advisory to the Trust Board. As wily a character as Schwartz is, he needs to be careful with whom he associates. Traces of Polonium-210 have been suspected at several meetings and a "taster" is rumored to be on call at all of the VRDC functions where food and drink is served.

Speaking of contests, rumors have it that the VRDC crowd - aka the Bar/Chamber of Commerce group currently controlling Board #2 - will float Phil Mouquinho for Chair after Derr is retired next summer. Derr goes off into the sunset to contemplate how to unseat Deborah Glick and Mouquinho will battle it out with Brad Hoylman.

Hoylman, Chair of Transportation Committee and 1st Vice Chair is not allied with any political group on the Board and seems to be intent on normalizing the nastiness of the last few years. Mouquinho, currently Chair of the Sidewalks Committee is a question mark after having been so closely allied with the business interests taking their cue from Bob Rinaolo, Chair of Institutions Committee, and his underlings. Rinaolo has divested himself of several Village business interests and is sitting on a mound of cash from the sale of former properties, including the Garage Restaurant, Senor Swanky's and the Village Nursing Home parcel - all of which came before Board #2 for approvals of one sort or another whether they knew it or not - and he may now no longer need Board 2's services.

A new dynamic duo of the Real Estate world has seen the rising stars of Mark Ramer and Michael Saperstein wafting in the stratosphere with such luminaries as Trump, Rudin, and 'er Alred E. Newman.

They own numerous properties since giving up dentistry. But while Aeschylus keeps his head high and Trump tries to work the Art of the Deal, these two characters, Ramer & Saperstein, take on a whole new meaning when thinking SoHo Slumlords. But, with psychiatric overtones.

Picture a "Monk" episode which tries to figure out how two supers, both Polish, both in the U.S. on permanent "temporary work visas" as slaves to these landlords, and both dead (in their 40's) from doing the same job at the same building within just a couple of years of each other (no health insurance can do that). Then add several "teen" apartments illegally "shared out" at $1500 per head with 5 to 10 "models" occupying each apartment courtesy of a private, illegal deal involving I.D. Model Management and these very religious landlords, through a surrogate;

Add to this -- a building where members of the Tenants Organization are routinely subjected to threats of eviction and where decontrolled tenants are abused and threatened to keep quiet about building violations;
And then add to this wonderful pedigree, a building infested with bedbugs.

With tenants living in the basement, in storefronts, in commercial spaces, anyplace where another bed can be stuffed - it almost gives landlords a bad name. It's good for bugs, though.

Monk would have a good time but not the tenants of 80 Varick Street. Makes you wonder how bad a building has to get before the electeds take notice.

But, the bugs are everywhere these days. Even the Downtown hotels have been hit.

Europe is a wonderful destination. It's what comes back with the luggage that makes the trip truly memorable. Wipe down your bags with alcohol on your way back from the airport -- don't drink it first. After a few weeks and no bites, then finish the bottle.

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!

Monday, October 30, 2006

State of SoHo

At a recent meeting in SoHo, the not-so-silent minority in Downtown politics celebrated a small success at the Pomegranate Gallery. The focus of the this mini-celebration was the fact that a local shop, Greene Street Antiques, had taken up residence at 76 Wooster Street - the location where multiple bar/restaurants have attempted to set up shop. There were a number of applicants who fought to ensconce themselves in this quintessential SoHo location but were turned down at the Community Board or were fought vigorously in the courts. From upscale restaurants to art bars-cum-nightclub/lounges, the applicants kept coming and the SoHo irregulars fought them off.

Among those sipping a glass of wine and partaking of the food was Caroline Keating, Sean Sweeney, David Reck, Barry Mallin and his wife, and others too numerous to mention.

The gallery was alive with appreciative residents who felt that "something" could, and was, accomplished by a band of not-so-young artists and art lovers who want to preserve the essence of what SoHo once was and is still supposed to mean -- which is not new condo developments, high-end boutiques and trendy eateries. Art is the purifier and the Bohemians are still with us. Just a little more politically savvy.

The owner of Pomegranate Gallery, fittingly, is a man by the name of Oded Halahmy, who represents Iraqi artists. The intensity of his love of art is matched by political views on how the opportunity for peace has been missed by the current regime in Washington.

There is no secret that Downtown was among the first to ridicule Bush and the embarrassment he has become for Americans with any gray matter left. The tragedy of 9-11 has affected us most and yet, despite the fact that war has been waged in the name of our fallen firefighters, police, EMS workers and victims, it is Bush's war - not ours.

The agenda in Afghanistan was questionable; the agenda in Iraq was unconscionable.

Bob Morgenthau is starting early. After winning his recent election for District Attorney, he has decided to act more like a politician than a prosecutor this time around. He has almost four years before the next election but he's and preparing early for the next contest. The question of his age is a perennial subject of speculation. And, the answer is the same. Talk to him and see if you would like to be on the wrong side of a court room with this man. Visiting him in his office is a memorable experience and chatting with him on the issues that he has pressed for - like extending the statute of limitations for rape prosecutions with John Doe indictments and convictions - is an eye-opener. He has also championed the rights and needs of children and crime victims in our city and has been instrumental in helping to track Terror money from offshore banks that use New York City as their conduit. His fortitude follows a family name and reputation that harkens to Roosevelt's New Deal - and he is still relevant.

Several real estate projects have reportedly been slowing their plans as a result of the softening market. The Belazs condo project at Grand and Broadway, known as 40 Mercer has sold roughly 50% of the apartments at prices approaching $3,000 per square foot. That project has been in the pipeline for several years and began construction in a hot market. It's difficult to tell whether the slowing market has damaged the sales of those units or whether the price of the apartments alone has done the job. And, it is even more difficult to interpret the real value of each sale. Seller concessions blur the real cost of purchases and just force the industry comps upward in an unending upward spiral.

However, a few other projects are just not starting up as consumer resistance weighs heavier. The 311 West Broadway development has reportedly seen its cost basis rise dramatically (due in part to the water table) and movement on breaking ground is not yet happening. Parking is still available at that site.

After an intensive round of community negotiations, the development at 350 West Broadway which was approved as a 13 story condo, was finally purchased by Ian Schrager to become a hotel and is now rumored to be on the block as a condos project once again. The asking price is now in the $60 million range. That's up from about $25 million less than a year ago. Well, you know, it's New York, its inflation, its SoHo baby, you gotta be in it to win it.

The real question is, who wants to be sitting and who wants to be circling when the music stops.

An insider recently made comment on the state of the Community Boards downtown.

The "Madeleine Wils" contingent on Board #1 appears to still be very much alive and has not made life easy for current Board Chair Julie Menin. There are a lot of contentious issues affecting Board #1, not the least of which is the pressure by developers to convert "as of right projects" into residential condos. The history of Board #1's internal disputes and the most recent election which ousted Wils is only upstaged by the clique who still runs Board #2.

Board Chair Maria Derr apparently still takes direction from Bob Rinaolo, former owner of the Garage Restaurant and current co-owner of Senor Swanky's and Chair of Institutions Committee at Board #2. Business transactions are not always as they seem and it appears that the "new owner" of the Garage (Rinaolo's current partner in Swanky's) has become much more political recently and fundraisers still are held there. Rinaolo remains partners with Sal Perillo in Senor Swanky's -- who is the current "new owner" of the Garage.
Apparently, Derr's campaign adviser and mentor, Rinaolo, has risen to the role of the Board #2's political advisor and, along with other bar owner luminaries such as Rick Panson and Phil Mouquinho, the direction of the Board is, shall we say, primarily business-oriented. That's the "Community" board that we are speaking about.

At a recent Full Board meeting, other Executive Committee members such as Jo Hamilton and Brad Hoylman could be seen visibly shrinking from what appeared to be a verbal battle with a community activist while the cameras were rolling.

"Why would the Chair of a Community Board fight with the community in front of cameras?" was the comment of one Board member.

"Ask Bob," was the answer.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Political Season

Eliot Spitzer surprised no one and took the primary election for Governor with close to 80% of the turn-out, which was very light. At one point, Tom Suozzi had been the darling of the New York Times but that waned and after missing the Times endorsement, the lack of money just was too much of a hurdle to overcome. The big question for many downtown is whether Spitzer is going to shed the image of a prosecutor once he moves into his new office. A lot of old-timers were reticent to support his candidacy despite his successes in bringing Wall Street to its knees. Or, at least digging deep into its pockets to avoid prosecution. Spitzer certainly has the gray matter to make it work -- it's just a question as to whether he will govern like a Clinton or a Teddy Roosevelt. A Governor with a big stick is not an appealing image.

Mark Green had also gotten the endorsement of the New York Times but unlike Spitzer, went down in flames with a superior organization supporting Andrew Cuomo. Fundraisers held by Cuomo were very smooth events and Mario was always around to shake hands. Green may now have a tough time maintaining a presence and being taken seriously for a major public office after losing the mayoral race and now this one for Attorney General. Some attributed Green's loss in both elections to not taking the "high road." Among those responsible for the usual dubious, subterranean antics was rumored to be none other than the ubiquitous PR operative Allen Roskoff -- who was a "consultant" to Green's campaign.

Hillary was, predictably, a shoe-in -- but did get a run for her substantial amount of money. Her adversary Jonathan Tasini did make a decent showing, however. The downtown crowd has been less than thrilled with Clinton because of issues like the conservative Death Penalty and Iraq War positions. For some, she looks more like a Republican in Mr. Bill's clothing. While many hope that there is a Democrat on the horizon to take back the Oval Office, she has more vulnerabilities than one would have liked to see this early on.

Martin Connor successfully beat off the attack by Ken Diamondstone for State Senator and much of SoHo was happy about it. Senator Connor had scored a major victory in the contest between Nightlife forces to have "all bars all the time" throughout SoHo and the community -- by helping in the effort to reform and reconfigure the S.L.A., or at least help sharpen its sensitivity to residents wishes.

Apparently, Arthur Schwartz, Chair of Parks, Waterfront & Open Space at Community Board Two, has managed to pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat. After years in political semi-oblivion, he has resumed his community board role with a passion and recently knocked off Larry Moss as Democratic State Committeeman. Considering the fact that Moss was supported by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, State Senator Tom Duane, and Assembly Member Deborah Glick, it was no mean feat. While Schwartz's win will have no affect on their political careers, there is no doubt that they will be miffed at his ascendance. Of course, while State Committeeman is of dubious political value -- you can work hard to make it count. After having recently had quadruple by-pass surgery, Schwartz has shown remarkable resilience. The political win, however, was rumored to have personally cost him nearly $80,000.

Deborah Glick has had no competition and was not challenged in the Primary. She will be re-elected to the Assembly. However, she recently learned that the gossip column piece which appeared a couple of years ago was not off the mark. The Page Six piece reported that Maria Derr was rumored to be thinking of running for the same seat that her uncle Bill Passanante had held and abandoned to Glick's challenge. Derr originally had denied the rumor -- which, of course, is the way ideas are tested in the political arena. It seems that Derr had recently been making the rounds and seeking advice about the wisdom of challenging Glick -- and was told to forget it. Clearly, that is now more of a possibility for the future -- given that Derr will now have two years as Chair of Community Board Two under her belt. Derr has weathered a lot of criticism for her association with the Nightlife faction on the Board but so far Glick is far and away the more community-oriented of the two. Glick has come down hard on the oversaturation of bars in lower Manhattan and Derr, who once ran the Business Committee which approves liquor licenses and was elected with Nightlife support on the Board, has been antagonistic to residents trying to clean up their communities.

Speaking of bars, the owners of Lola scored a victory at the Appellate Division. The controversial Bar/Restaurant/Cabaret that has been trying to graft itself on to SoHo for last couple of years -- got the Appeals Court to reverse the lower Supreme Court decision which canceled the S.L.A. license. With enough twists and turns to give SoHo residents indigestion (after spending $30,000 in legal fees), the Lola matter just keeps on going. Essentially, the truth is that Lola did not win the right to a license. The Appeals Court sent the matter back to the S.L.A. to state a reason why the granting of a liquor license is in the public interest.

The "old" S.L.A., before Boyle took over as Chairman, was a Pataki group of Republican political hacks that cared little about downtown. But, as a result of the community movements, partly due to the efforts of Zella Jones and Sean Sweeney, political storms enabled the transformation of the S.L.A. into a more community-friendly panel.

So, the "new" S.L.A. denied a Beer & Wine license that Lola applied for during the long Appeals Court deliberations for a full liquor license. Now that the new regime at the S.L.A. is getting the liquor license issue back before them again, the community is making known their displeasure with Lola. In addition to the fact that there are at least 17 bars with 500 feet of this proposed establishment -- PR efforts have been leveled at any and all activists who have been fighting the application.

And, despite that fact that some pretty nasty accusations have been leveled by parties on both sides of the aisle, few people can avoid the fact that a cabaret on Watts Street where 3 lanes of horrendous Holland Tunnel traffic blocks intersections -- is a bad idea. This feeling is shared by residents who had the audacity to turn down an offer by Lola's owners to permanently seal off their windows -- so that the 4 a.m. closing hour with live entertainment would not keep them awake. Now there's an offer you can hardly refuse. Especially if you've paid a couple of million dollars for your loft apartment.

The race card has also been prominently been played by the applicant. Not wanting the cabaret has been widely played as discrimination. Page Six has been enlisted by Lola's PR machine which has given lip-service to this phony racial theme. The SoHo Alliance was criticized and false information was spread around. Sleeping at night, somehow, does not seem to be a black or white issue. Unless, of course, you want a liquor license. Anything that works has been tried -- including the harassment of community activists. Private investigators had been hired and tracked residents who oppose this bar in a relentless effort to discredit anyone in their way. A community should not have to endure this just to fight one bar. Talk about discrimination?

Contact S.L.A. Chairman Boyle, Commissioner Healey, State Senator Connor, Assembly Member Glick, Councilman Alan Gerson, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Mayor Bloomberg to make your feelings known about this issue in SoHo.

And, speaking of Sean Sweeney, he has been the recipient of the latest in a round of "smear" letters leveled at activists who criticized the Community Board, the Nightlife lobby, and political cronyism. Only this one isn't anonymous -- or is it by the same hand who wrote the last one? An attorney by the name of Shanahan wrote, or allowed to be written on his stationery, a 3 page letter appearing to be a "Cease and Desist" letter -- stating that Sweeney essentially has been nasty to Maria Derr, Chair of Board Two, and threatening to obtain an Order of Protection. It has been confirmed that Maria Derr hired Shanahan to represent her in this matter. The basis for Sweeney's alleged faux pas ostensibly is that he criticized Derr for her role as attorney for the Estate of Arty Strickler (deceased Board #2 manager) and acting as Chair of Community Board Two while allegedly trying to obtain $27,000 from Board Two coffers for the Estate. Of course, the problem with such a letter is that one attorney writing a letter to protect another attorney who is fair game as far as criticism of an elected official is concerned, hardly needs an "Order of Protection." Protecting Maria Derr from Sean Sweeney is a little like protecting Winnie the Pooh from Donald Duck. It's a ludicrous concept -- in reality as well as fantasy. The letter, consequently, is ridiculous on its face and calls into question the sanity of the writer, not to mention his client.

Interestingly enough, there are so many wild accusations and threats of legal retaliation in this letter, not to mention passages that call to mind someone ready to burst into song about being gay, that one has to question its real message. Is it really about Sweeney "threatening" Derr? Curiously enough, while the letter has been cc'd to several downtown politicians, we could not confirm anyone having recieived it. The Post Office isn't that bad. As Sweeney remarked,"phony accusations and hollow threats like this just give attorneys a bad name and it emboldens me to fight harder for what I believe in for the community's good."

This not-so-anonymous letter to Sweeney is curiously similar to the "anonymous letter" crafted by the Nightlife people and cirulated by PR operatives like Allen Roskoff (who, incidentally, is a friend of Shanahan), and the Board #2/Chamber of Commerce/Bar crowd. As another downtown activist put it, the messages have been -- "we will relentlessy smear and attack you if you don't back off. We have the money and the contacts and we will bury you for standing up against us (Derr) in favor of the community."

That is also the real message to Sean Sweeney; the message to the community; and, is also the oblique message to Borough President Stringer -- for having had the guts to begin the difficult process of reform on the Community Boards. And this message is coming directly from voices at Community Board #2.

What is the response going to be to this organized assult on the community?

That's the real question.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

SoHo Security

Or, how I learned to live with the bomb.

The most recent proof that Homeland Security is keeping us safe is the D.O.T.'s recent refusal to allow the gift of planters partially sponsored by Bloomingdale's to be placed around SoHo. The planters, each one dedicated to a fallen 9/11 Fireman, were to have been placed around SoHo to beautify and lend some sense of foliage to our concrete arts Mecca . In spite of the love that the city professes to have for SoHo -- as Lady Bird Johnson once suggested -- we need to plant "a tree, a bush or a shrub to beautify".... SoHo.

However, as Joshua Simons of the Crosby Street Block Association has learned, the D.O.T. apparently considers the planters a "bomb threat."

Just exactly how a planter with the inscription of a dead fireman who gave his life for that tragic event could be considered fodder for yet another terrorist attack leaves one incredulous. The local chapter of Al Qaeda seems to be more interested in large targets rather than designer lofts with Bosch appliances.

Or, is there another explanation for denying SoHo the planters.

A simpler one may have leaked out of the lower rungs of the D.O.T. when it was learned that Commissioner Iris Weinshall, Chuck Schumer's wife, lives across from Prospect Park and doesn't like planters. She has a point. Planters really are not a good substitute for grass, trees and flowers.

But Iris, can you bring us some grass, trees and flowers? At over $1000 a foot, we can't even get weeds. We'd love some rolling meadows too! It's just that, well, can someone bring them to us - like, now? We'd be happy to give up our planters.

So, what has been passed along to us as a security protection smells suspiciously like a personal predilection on the part of a City Commissioner. It must be nice to be a Commissioner who gets to decide what all of the little people are permitted to have in their lives.

The heat has been turned up on the City over the Trump development at Spring and Varick Streets. The Trump people insist that the hotel/condo will be built - a 45 story residential tower in a manufacturing zone. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, GVSHP, insists that this is not a permitted use in a manufacturing zone and that this project perverts the use and variance system and defeats the zoning process. While a hotel is "as-of-right" in a manufacturing zone, residential use requires a variance. Thus, transient hotel use is permitted while long term residential use is not - unless a plan comes before the community and becomes subject to its comments, suggestions, modifications and approval process. What is as stake here is the foisting upon a downtown community of a huge mega-structure without review, comment or modification that would normally be subject to the carefully negotiated zoning structure. We have a huge new structure with a high density of tenants, perhaps families, and no social net to absorb them. Mr. Trump, you build buildings but do your planners have any interest in what becomes of the community or your new tenants once you have moved on? What about schools, what about the parking crisis, and, forgive us, but what about the silly concern about light and air?

The City has not yet issued permits to the Trump people, but they have not agreed to meet with Andrew Berman of GVSHP either. Our guess is that the bureaucrats are trying to figure out how much heat they will have to take if they give this project the green light without consulting with residents. Right now, Berman is putting their feet to the flames but they are dragging them nevertheless. If you object to this project, contact the City.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Dog Days

These are the lazy, dog days of summer yet there seem to be rumblings of thunder coming from the DOI and DA's office as the aftermath of those investigative subpoenas looking into records at Community Board #2 continues. There were rumors afloat that there was some connection between the Pier 57 fiasco after it was learned that Cipriani pulled out of the "Leonardo" development team leaving Witkoff, et al, seemingly holding the bag-- and the defeat of Berlusconi in the Italian election as a possible connection. Unseemly allegations flew.

But it turns out that aside from continuing application woes of the Pier 57 development team, the investigation appears to be focused upon the history of the Oceanarium proposal that was submitted several years ago as part of the Pier 40 RFP. Despite the fact that the applicant was defeated by the Korman bid (and then all were rejected by the HRPT), both DOI and the DA are apparently delving into allegations of wrongdoing in that area.

Several sources have confirmed that James Ortenzio, former Chair of the HRPT, Republican County Chairman and consultant for the Witkoff Group involved with the Pier 57 proposal -- has had interviews with both investigative agencies and is rumored to be trying to avoid an indictment. The rumors are that both agencies are investigating a connection between the Oceanarium effort and money changing hands to keep the Pier 40 application viable during the year of 2003.

Arthur Schwartz, Chair of Parks, Waterfront and Open Space at Community Board #2 has stated that contrary to comments implying that he was close to Ben Korman are incorrect - and that he (Schwartz) had, in fact, sued Korman in order to secure more interior space on Pier 40 for ball fields. Thus far, there have been no rumors that Schwartz is a target of this investigation and he has been very active during his recuperation from quadruple by-pass surgery only two weeks ago.

Speaking of Waterfront matters, Julie Nadel, member of the HRPT Board recently re-appointed by Scott Stringer, is now also a member of Community Board #1. In a swift elevation, Julie has been chosen to head the Waterfront Committee by Board Chair Julie Menin. It looks like Nadel will be THE person to talk to on Waterfront matters. Here's wishing her luck in her latest assignment.

The success of the Town Hall meetings and the Summit, which was organized by Zella Jones of the NoHo Neighborhood Association, Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance and at least a dozen other community organizations, has apparently been picked up by the press - and the politicians. The New York Post recently published an article giving credit to Speaker of the City Council Christine Quinn and Mayor Bloomberg for bringing the issue of bar over-saturation to the forefront. But, from the community's point of view, safety is only a narrow view of the problem. According to one activist....

"....Safety is the wrong issue. Solving it leaves the real problem -- that nightlife proliferation undermines community -- untouched. The nightlife issue needs to be viewed in the context of community displacement, away from narrower problems of safety. The problem is the nightlife strip: strips raise commercial rents driving out commercial diversity and small businesses; strips attract young and transient residential tenants who care little about noise and community, who drive up residential rents especially under the new rent (de)regulations which contain new means to pressure older tenants out. The only solution to the community displacement problem is the banning of nightlife strips -- some revision of the 500 foot rule." -- Rob Hollander (LESA)

Making matters worse for some activists, not only is safety the wrong guiding issue but Quinn's office is planning on having the Nightlife Association be in charge of inviting the attendees to this "Summit." One activist described this as being akin to placing the fox in charge of the chicken coop.

Listen guys - downtown has been screaming about this saturation of liquor licenses issue for a few years. Between the violence and the "wild west" antics at certain bars, the noise and the "zoning by fiat" when neighborhoods are changed with too many bars and lounges - wouldn't it be appropriate for these elected officials to give some credit where credit is due? And, invite the community to the meetings?

Where were these powerful elected officials when the smear campaigns, lawsuits and anonymous letters were being spread around by the nightlife operatives and undercover members of Community Board #2? Where was the Mayor's and the Speaker's wise support when the Nightlife crew at Board #2 began to retaliate against activists who were fighting bars and trying to improve our neighborhoods?

It wasn't two months ago, before the tide clearly had turned against the nightlife people, that the Daily News was printing slurs in its gossip column about Community Board members - rumored to have been placed with the aid of paid PR operatives like Allen Roskoff of the Durham Group - a close personal friend and sometimes weekend guest of Maria Derr, Chair of Board #2. Roskoff was formerly a Tom Duane employee and is currently one of Mark Green's campaign staff operatives (Green is running for Attorney General).

The Speaker and the Mayor should address the hard work of downtown people -- like Zella Jones who was sued for fighting a bar in NoHo; Sean Sweeney who was smeared and vindictively removed as Chair of the Landmarks Committee by Maria Derr because of his objection to bar proliferation; David Reck who was removed as Zoning Committee Chair by Maria Derr partly for his stand against nightclubs; and, Jo Hamilton who was removed from Board#2 for her stand against Gansevoort bar proliferation. All of them have given much time and energy to rid downtown of liquor license saturated neighborhoods where it has become too dangerous for families and children to walk about freely in the evening.

If they doubt that we have all been hard at work on this issue, they should check the archives of the SoHo Journal.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Investigation

Just when you thought that Community Board #2 couldn't get more complicated, enter the Department of Investigation. In a rare showing of equanimity, neither mentioned nor shared with the Full Board, the Chair of Community Board #2 and its Executive Committee apparently discussed a subpoena issued for all documents related to the Waterfront Committee and its deliberations during 2003 under the tutelage of Arthur Schwartz.

While Schwartz is currently the Chair of Parks, Waterfront and Open Space -- a title that seems to convey the impression that he's calling the shots on most of the external world in CB2's territory -- he was only the Chair of Waterfront in 2003, before he was summarily removed during the "Saturday Night Massacre" by Board Chair Aubrey Lees.

Her actions were spurred on by rumors of inside deals and financial coziness. In fact, the entire Waterfront Committee was disbanded as was the Pier 40 Working Group.

The theory at that time speculated that there was too much "friendship" between the developer, the Chair, and members of the Waterfront Committee who were charged with making recommendations to the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT) as to which selection was preferred by the community after extensive review. The Korman/Durst plan seemed to have the inside track and was ultimately selected by the community anyway but was then rejected by the Trust. Schwartz actually sued the Trust over its rejection of the Korman plan but later withdrew the lawsuit.

What bothered some people was the fact that Korman was already the operator of the parking concession (a $5 million dollar per year operation), was friendly with Schwartz and needed support from Community Board #2 to get the nod from the Trust. Durst, the financial partner of the Pier 40 development team was a member of Friends of Hudson River Park (FOHRP), a respected watchdog group that supports the waterfront and its development and Schwartz was also a member of the FOHRP Board. For some, there just seemed to be too many interlocking interests.

So, why is all of this being resurrected again now?

The Korman/Durst plan was rejected by the HRPT and since that time some beautiful new ball fields have been installed at Pier 40 at a cost of $5 million dollars. This was agreed upon by the community after extensive hearings at Community Board #2, after Schwartz's ouster and prior to the election of the current Chair, Maria Derr.

Derr and Schwartz share a law office and were mutual supporters in the Board Chair elections. And, since Schwartz is now the high mucky-muck of everything in the Board #2's external universe, including Parks, Waterfront and Open Space, he is once again poised to be in the position to make the decision regarding Pier 40.

And, guess what was just issued?

That's right rangers, the new RFP for Pier 40. The classy moniker for the HRPT's announcement that it is now again ready to receive proposals for the development of the pier. This is a bid request for a 14 acre property in lower Manhattan. Modest estimates would place this puppy in the $250 million dollar category with no problem. There's a lot of room for fuzzy thinking in those numbers.

As Yogi Berra once said, "It's Deja Vue all over again."

With the shenanigans that have lately been going on at Board #2 with the Nightlife crew who took over the Board leadership and looking to shore up its connections at the Chamber of Commerce and the Nightlife Association -- following the money is something that members of the community are a little leery about. And, with the serious effort made by the current Board leadership at character assassination -- including using the talents of PR undercover operative Allen Roskoff -- it's not surprising that the issue has once again reared its ugly head. Anonymous letters, smears against David Reck (Derr's opposition candidate in the election), and attacks heaped upon community activists - make a cogent argument for some disgruntled downtown resident to want an investigation to be initiated.

The financial report on Treasurer Roscia Sanz and Chair Maria Derr's watch has been the subject of much consternation and has caused such a stir that records have been requested by the Borough President's office as a result of their being too little, too late provided to the Full Board. The sums in that matter were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Pier 40 RFP, controlled now by the same people, involves hundreds of millions of dollars. Somebody is uncomfortable about the situation.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Trump This

You have to give him credit. He keeps on coming.

Despite tremendous opposition to Donald Trump's attempt to develop the Spring and Varick Street parcel into a 45 story Hotel/Condo his people attended the recent Zoning Committee hearing of Community Board #2.

Of course, the Donald hasn't yet met Andrew Berman. Through the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), Executive Director Berman has managed to move his focus from Gansevoort to the West Village and now onto SoHo in his mission to downzone and preserve downtown communities. Few landlords would place him high on their list of favorites. In zoning circles, he is as well known as Trump is himself.

Berman describes the Trump development as a Trojan Horse Hotel, and just as illegal as 848 Washington Street was before the Hi-line became a fact of life. His concern is that allowing an as-of-right development disguised as a "Hotel condo" - would set a precedent for further residential development in this area without having to pass through the review process normally required of such a variance application. In Berman's words it would "strip away" zoning protection in areas like NoHo, SoHo, the Meatpacking District and the Far West Village. Berman calls this development plan an "illegal circumvention of the law."

Key, of course, is taking action to prevent any kind of proposed development of this magnitude.

Substantially more than 100 residents came out to express their opposition to the plan and as a result a resolution was passed denying the application at the Community Board's Zoning Committee.

There is a long and growing list of elected officials downtown that are opposing the plan and thus far the City has not issued any permits. It looks like they might have a very big stampede if they were to do so. Opposing Andrew Berman is like fooling with Mother Nature when it comes to zoning issues.

Diether's new role as the Chair of the Zoning Committee is like Yogi Berra's "deja vu all over again." After David Reck was fired by Board Chair Maria Derr for opposing her in last month's election contest, the only Board Member left who could claim to have the knowledge of how to run the Zoning Committee was Doris Diether. Reck was unquestionably the most knowledgable and competent person on what is described as "wacky Board 2."

As a white-haired survivor of the Community Board wars, Doris Deither (at 86) is not someone to be trifled with. Like a cat dropped from dizzying heights she always seems to land on her feet. The only trouble is that she has a Conflict of Interest and no amount of sympathy for the octagenerian changes that fact. Gentle little white haired old ladies can also be wily foxes that cut corners. The most recent ruling on her private consulting work which she does for landlords and developers - whether they come in front of Community Board #2 or not - was ruled on by Borough President Virginia Fields a few years back. During the 80's Diether had been told that as long as clients did not appear in front of any Board Committee of which she was Chair (the most likely being Zoning), it would fly. However, that was changed by Fields a few years ago.

The current ruling, made by Fields, prohibits any Chair of the Zoning Committee from engaging in a business relationship with landlords or developers that go before any Community Board.

The race between Maria Derr and David Reck was widely viewed by downtown as a loss to the Nightlife people, but the lopsided rejection of several liquor license applicants shows us that isn't the case.

In fact, what was suspected by some and now appears likely is that there was a well-coordinated smear campaign that started several months before the election itself that was later augmented by a fear campaign. This secret agenda, organized with the help of political operatives like Allen Roskoff of the Durham Group - a close personal friend of Maria Derr - and supported by the Nightlife contingent on the Board (Roscia Sanz, Phil Mouquinho, Bob Rinaolo and supporters like John Maggio and John Diaz), was part of a coordinated campaign of fear and intimidation. Some members on the Board were threatened where it hurts - in the pocketbook. Particular Board members are dependent upon referrals from political connections friendly to Derr. Ray Cline of VRDC, for example, has made it known in the past that Judges dole out patronage assignments (foreclosures, probate, etc) and control purse strings in the political arena - and Board members not voting correctly would not be smiled upon if Derr did not win. Others were threatened with expulsion to the archipelagos of the Board like the Youth Committee or the LBT Committee. Still others Board members did not want to risk the wrath of a vindictive and vengeful Chair despite the Kennedyesque fiction and much-hyped aura claimed by the Passanante-Derr connection. Between the fear, the intimidation (some Board members were told to vote for Derr, Sanz, Maggio, and Diaz), the financial threat and the threat of expulsion to a political Siberia - worked.

Election speeches and articles about Community Board #2 as corrupt body were drowned out and not welcome. For the last year, and now for another year, it will be business as usual. The Chamber of Commerce and Nightlife Association will continue to run Board #2.

The Borough President's office has stepped in and commented upon the selection process for District Manager of Community Board #2 . Up to this point, the process has suffered from a lack of Sunlight. Even a flashlight would have been helpful. Maria Derr is handling the confidential legal work for the Estate of Arty Strickler (the now dearly departed District Manager), yet the selection committee seems to be suffering from the same level of privacy. The BP's office has commented that the level of disclosure emanating from the Personnel Committee which was configured to select a new District Manager -- having conducted 7 meetings and 14 interviews without reporting anything to the Board membership -- is a violation of the By-laws. All requests for a peek at the CV's was either ignored or given lip-service. Board members didn't even know who the candidates were until this past week and the vote will be held on Wednesday. It is a mockery of Democratic process and is insulting to the membership of the entire Board.

The Personnel Committee, controlled by Derr supporters (Derr, Schwartz, Sanz, Yankay) should be disbanded, the election should be cancelled and the process should begin anew -- observing the "Sunlight laws." All of the Board members, with comment from the community (which has contact with the District Manager on a day to day basis), should have access to resumes and all of the proceedings. Arty Strickler was sometimes perceived as heavy-handed and sometimes insulting to community members who wanted information. That should not be the face of the new Community Board #2.

Friday, June 30, 2006

New Beginnings

During a recent interview with Assembly member Deborah Glick, there came the unsettling realization that defending the community from encroachment on all sides is a daunting task. The path for any activist as well as a community-oriented politician (as is Deborah Glick), is risky and incredibly difficult - full of barbs and punji traps.

We spoke about a few issues that affect residents in the most basic of ways.

Housing - shelter -- is one of those most essential needs that affects all of us so fundamentally. And, anyone who depends upon the stock of rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartments - especially in Manhattan - are especially prone to becoming targets of changes, attacks, scams, legal decisions (or indecisions), and bureaucratic ineptness, all of which can effect tenancy. Landlords are always looking for novel ways to take that rent-regulated apartment away from a tenant. Or, at the very least, multiply the rent many-fold.

Glick discussed two of the more recent attempts to deprive tenants of a place to live. One is the recently revised notion of "demolition." The accepted fact is that if a building needs to be torn down, tenants have to leave. But the most recent variation on this theme has the landlord doing a "partial" demolition for which the express purpose is evicting tenants with the help of the DHCR. Often, the current ploy of partial demolition is really a cosmetic matter that hardly meets the criteria of demolishment in any language - in Togo it might come closer to the word for Fraud. But, so far, City government is playing ball with developers. Glick feels that demolishment should be re-defined in legal terms as the total razing of a building so that this does not become a rampant new means whereby developers legally evict tenants.

Similarly, the cute little moniker "landlord recapture" has been another soon to be abused concept. Recently, a 14 family apartment building was purchased by an individual who proceeded to begin evictions against all of the tenants in the building. This Lower East Side landlord claimed that he needed space for his growing family. This novel approach, if it weren't so ludicrous, is currently being tested in the courts and could have a potentially devastating effect upon the lower and middle class housing stock in Manhattan.

Deborah Glick is running for re-election and should be vigorously supported - few of our elected officials and even fewer of our Community Board representatives have bothered to make these issues known. The City and State have done a miserable job in protecting our rent-regulated housing stock and have pandered to the development of luxury coops and condominiums. It is a short-sighted view which destroys the vibrancy, diversity, and artistic creativity of our communities.

For those architecture lovers out there, Doris Diether has put the Victorian Society's proposed expansion of the Soho-Cast Iron Historic District on the Community Board #2 agenda. The Landmarks Committee will be meeting next Wednesday, July 5th and the Zoning Committee will also be reviewing this issue. Shawn Brennan, the vice president of the Victorian Society, will be presenting the proposal which was described here a few weeks ago. For those of you who have any interest in the possible changes, here is a first-hand opportunity to see what may be in store for SoHo.

The dust has settled, the axes have been buried, and the invectives have all been hurled at Community Board #2. The election between sitting Board Chair Maria Derr and Zoning Committee Chair David Reck was widely anticipated and closely watched by residents, Board members and several politicians for a number of reasons.

For one thing, Derr has been closely associated with the takeover of Community Board #2 by the Chamber of Commerce and Nightlife pro-business, pro-bar faction on the Board. Derr was their successful representative to which she added the Passanante name. While her uncle Bill was liked by many old-timers in the Village, he meant nothing to residents of SoHo or Hudson Square and apparently Derr was rumored to be not all that close to him either - until it became politically helpful.

Maria Passanante Derr, as she is now apparently known, won the election handily. And, while there were dirty tricks (is this not politics?), she gave a great speech and handled herself with composure and even-handedness throughout the election evening.

She even permitted a second vote on an issue due to the fact that some Board members were in a hall outside the voting chamber -- which turned out to negatively affect a liquor license issue. Unusual for her previous behavior. Was it a good show, or was it a new beginning?

Despite the fact the old Bill Passanante was considered a bag of wind by some; a little suspect by others; a prescient crusader for gay rights by others still -- and despite the fact that Carmine DeSapio was also a relative and a politician but was not mentioned - Maria did well. She now stands on her own. She no longer needs old Bill or Carmine and she should dispense with that questionable baggage.

So, what does this mean for SoHo, which counts for nearly a third of Community Board #2 -- but is represented by less than half of that in voting privileges?

Not much.

An political insider has speculated that the vote was indicative of a core group of bar-owners wishing to hold on to control of the Board and also those who owe fealty or who are afraid of them; then there are the Greenwich Village historicals (not to be confused with GVSHP), and those who mistakenly believe that Passanante equals Kennedy and Camelot.

And, then there were those who just liked Maria Derr better than David Reck.

Reck is a fighter who has been aggressive and passionate. He delivered a strong, sobering message - that the Board has lost its direction and that those outside of the Board speak disparagingly of the way the business of the community is being handled.

Derr's message was smoothe and conciliatory. She spoke of change and spoke of the need to move on and put negativity and divisiveness behind. She cited what she believed to be changes on the Board that had already been made in favor of the community.

Neither of them could hold a candle to Lewis Black, but then again, this isn't supposed to be stand-up comedy even if appears to be. And, there wasn't a funny comment all evening - until Phil Mouquinho joked about losing all three of the contentious licenses coming in front of his committee.

Unfortunately, that was the one funny remark that wasn't funny.

The message gotten from this election was not that many Board members are afraid to vote any way but the way they are told (for Derr), on pain of losing their financial connections and Board status;

It was not that the Board membership can now sit back for another year and wait for Brad Hoylman to bring some balance back to Community Board #2;

It was not that the Nightlife contingent on the Board managed to threaten, smear, or distort their way into buying another year of control.

It WAS that the activists on the Board, along with newly appointed members, have forged a new alliance. There is now a new bloc of voters on the Board who see issues first and foremost from the perspective of the Community. It was a portentous change that augurs well for all of us. And, it was apparent as well in the spirit of change evident at the Quality of Life forum held at the Puffin Room this past week. Zella Jones of the NoHo Neighborhood Association, Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance, the new Commissioners of the SLA, the police brass and numerous elected officials and their representatives were all in attendance. Significantly, there were representatives of 26 community organizations from lower Manhattan at this "Summit."

There is a new working alliance forged between members of Community Board #2,the community organizations and the political structure of City government to effectively deal with Quality of Life issues.

The new S.L.A (State Liquor Authority) had two of its three members at the Forum, Daniel Boyle who is the Chairman and Noreen Healey -- a new member and resident of Brooklyn Heights, is both a former prosecutor and a Democrat. It's nice to have another woman in power as well.

Boyle is a former prosecutor who helped clean up the police corruption in Schenectady and is expected to clean out the cobwebs and anti-community sentiment at the S.L.A.
State Senator Marty Connor, who is our SoHo representative, is credited with having been instrumental in helping us get the new Democratic representative to the S.L.A. -- recommended by Governor Pataki and confirmed by the Senate. Connor's influence and friendship with Pataki has apparently paid off for Downtown. Remember that when you think about the fact that of the last ten contested 500-foot-rule hearings, seven were denied by the newly reconfigured S.L.A. Connor is facing re-election and we should support a candidate who produces for the community. We need people like Marty, especially in our fight against oversaturation of bars and support for quality of life issues.

The Forum was congenial and respectful and there appears to be a clear path towards a working relationship on the quality of our lives -- including problems with bar oversaturation, pollution and traffic. Could illegal sign enforcement be far away?

And, as for the new beginning promised in her campaign speech at the Community Board election --after being elected Maria Derr proceeded to remove her opponent David Reck as Chair of the Zoning Committee.

Some might just see that as retaliation, not a new beginning.