Saturday, February 25, 2006

Barbarians at the Gates

This week was a difficult one for activists Downtown. Reverberations continued from libelous anonymous letters and slanderous whispers. While the origin of these missives and remarks were masked but still well-known (emissaries of the nightlife crew) the more effective the community's actions were the more blatant became the response.

This coming week, for example, a Town Hall-style meeting (March 2nd at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street) is being held with the combined efforts of the NoHo Neighborhood Association, the SoHo Alliance and LESA. The focus is on land use, traffic and S.L.A. reform. The primary organizer of the event, Zella Jones, is a tireless community worker who has spoken out at numerous Community Board meetings. She supported Andrew Berman's GVSHP initiative to curb the expansion of NYU while giving the Village residents a breather from constant development on and around Washington Square. And, as part of her NoHo organization's community efforts, she helped convince Community Board #2 to deny a liquor license at 26 Bond Street. Not only was there an issue of a safe emergency exit, but in addition it was unclear as to whether there were sprinklers or a C.O. for the building. Neighbors also spoke at the CB2 Full Board hearing and the Business Committee decision that had approved the license had its resolution overturned. Few wanted to be responsible for approving a license at a potentially dangerous location. Visions of the Happyland Social Club fiasco danced in people's heads when the vote came to the floor. A liquor license for the applicant at 26 Bond Street was soundly defeated.

So, between the activism afoot Downtown, and the retaliatory nature of the nightlife crew, what was the logical step? Defamatory remarks, anonymous letters, personal smears -- what's next?

Why, a lawsuit, what else?

A few hearbeats after Community Board #2 denied a liquor license to the applicant B-Flat, Inc., which was to open up at 26 Bond Street, a lawsuit was apparently filed by Saada Roberts, as "assignee" of First Pegasus Management Co., against Zella Jones, the NoHo Neighborhood Association, Ruth Bauman (who lives above the space) and Joelle Shefts, a next door neighbor. Saada Roberts reportedly is the daughter of Bahia Chambi, who, according to tenants and neighbors, is a legend on that block -- a person whom they claim has threatened numerous lawsuits. Chambri signed over the ownership of the building in 2000 to Pegasus. The lawsuit claims that defamatory remarks were made at the Community Board about the building at 26 Bond Street. But, while the summons and complaint asks for $5,000,000 in damages, in part for claiming that someone said "Fuck you, go back to your country" to the building owner -- the lawsuit doesn't deny that there is no C.of O. for the building. Curious logic.
One of the former commercial tenants in this building (subsequent to the antique store) was a massage parlor. The sexy young Russian girls who operated the short-term business, or their clients, didn't seem to worry about an emergency exit. Bars, however, do -- or should.

While nasty remarks have been made before at Community Board meetings, which will no doubt continue in the future -- they are not the proper fodder for litigation. Qualified immunity does apply to statements made during open discussions or hearings where facts can be discussed and comments rebutted. Courts take a dim view of suing Board members or aiding people who try to stifle freedom of expression, even if they are incorrect but spoken during the heat of passionate debate. And while some Board members have used the race card to influence approvals for liquor licenses, generally speaking discrimination is a bullshit ploy. Of all Boards, Community Board #2 has a history of embracing minorities of race, gender, or sexual proclivity. Even cross-dressing Republicans are welcome.

This case is reminiscent of what is euphemistically called a "slap suit" which is a lawsuit initiated and intended to prevent people from expressing their opinions.

Such litigation should not be condoned or permitted by the courts and sanctions should be sought for such adolescent back-biting behavior.

What is important here, though, is that it is entirely possible that such a weak legal tactic may be yet another ploy being used by the nightlife people and/or their lackeys among the business community to attack community activists. Is it possible that litigation, instead of trying to reach an accommodation with people among whom they wish to do business, has become another tool to silence activists? Calls placed by the SoHo Journal to Saada Roberts for a response or opinion were not returned.

On another matter this week, the SoHo Alliance and residents of SoHo took a bus ride up to the S.L.A. hearing for the "Eat 4 Health" Beer & Wine license to be located at 76 Wooster Street. The applicants, Rick Panson and building owner Ron Pasquale once again did not appear after 35 members of the community bused up to 125th Street. The applicants reportedly regretted missing the last appearance at the S.L.A.,according to their attorney, but it is not clear if they also regretted missing this one.

The new Commissioner, Joshua Toas -- a former Upstate Sheriff, and the new Chairman of the S.L.A, Daniel Boyle, appear to be attempting to follow through on their claim of being more community-responsive. After some haggling and complaining by residents that they were being stood up -- again -- the Commissioners ruled that the applicants have 30 days to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy. While the application stated that the building in question had a C.O., it turns out that it does not.

Considering the fact that it is virtually impossible to obtain a C.O. in 30 days, especially when problems exist, it appears that the application is as dead as Kelsey's Cow.

And, now for something completely different.

Congratulations to Noreen Doyle, Vice President of the Hudson River Park Trust -- who will be having a little one. We hope that all goes well and she has a healthy baby.....!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Let the Games Begin

This week a number of important issues bubbled to the surface Downtown and the season of controversy is upon us.

But first, a word from Donald Trump. It seems that Hudson Square is suffering from landlord overload. Trinity Real Estate, typically, refuses to comment upon a statement made by the Trump people that they plan to construct a major hotel in the Holland Tunnel area (50 stories was the number). As the major landowner and developer in the Varick Street corridor, compliments of the Queen, Trinity would likely have insider information -- especially if it was one of their parcels. While the Canal/Grand/Avenue of the Americas/Varick Street block for which Trinity already has construction approvals is slated for demolition and development, it appears to be the rumored location. This Trinity office tower site has ostensibly been delayed because they have not found an anchor tenant; however, that project was only approved for 21 stories. The Trinity project is located in a Manufacturing zone and all things are possible if enough money is thrown at it. Another vacant site nearby is located at Varick Street between Spring and Dominick and is currently a parking lot that is ripe for development. Since zoning permits manufacturing and hotel use without a variance, we may not know about it until he cranes show up.

The Tunnel Garage, which has sparked controversy in SoHo, is slated for demolition unless the City can be convinced that we are losing a landmark AND parking space at the same time. While the 74-712 special text amendment to the Zoning regulations was implemented by the City Council to permit development of vacant lots with City Council oversight, not all developers have chosen to go that expedited route. GVSHP has come to SoHo for this one and Andrew Berman fortunately has weighed in on it. It is difficult to say what the outcome is likely to be. Even major news organizations have become interested in the pace of development Downtown and some observers, like David Reck of Community Board #2's Zoning Committee, tell us that there is a whole slate of new projects coming through on the West Side. Perhaps when some of the electeds cannot find a place to park, more attention will be paid to this developing crisis.

Speaking of which, in a dramatic reversal of Community Board #2's policy, Maria Derr (Chair of that Board) permitted a vote to go forward on a controversial resolution directed at NYU development. After a contentious Zoning Committee meeting two weeks ago, in which long suffering Village residents were very agitated and vociferous over not getting the Board's committee to pass a resolution, Derr apparently relented and allowed the resolution to be presented at the Full Board for a vote. It passed easily and quickly and many activists and members of the community were appreciative of her ability to do an about face without a lot of fanfare. Her official stance had been that a more in-depth hearing was needed in front of a joint Institutions and Zoning Committee meeting was logical but, according to some, unnecessary given the fact that this issue has been ignored for decades. While Bob Rinaolo, Chair of Institutions Committee, was noticeably irritated that it bypassed his committee, it quickly passed on the Board floor.

Zella Jones, of the NoHo Neighborhood Association, and organizer of the upcoming Town Hall meeting to be held on March 2nd at the Public Theater -- was successful in convincing the Community Board to overturn a contentious liquor license application (B-flat)affecting NoHo. A number of speakers made it known that a bar at that 26 Bond Street location was a potential disaster in the making. Not only did the building in which the bar/restaurant was to be located lack a C.O., but it also suffered from a lack of a sprinkler system. For many, visions of a flaming inferno with trapped patrons fleeing a bar approved by the Community Board, was enough for them to deny the application. John Diaz, Chair of the Business Committee appeared to be ambivalent about opposition to this application and seemed to take the reversal in stride.

This week also saw continuing salvos spread through the community by nightlife operatives and lobbyists who have been hired to undermine the growing sentiment against the "All bars all the time" mentality as the primary business of Downtown. First came attempts by some nightlife Community Board #2 members to claim activists were discriminating against minorities. Then came anonymous personal attacks and dirty tricks which were reminiscent of the Nixon years -- again, directed at those who question the sanity and intelligence of Business interests who apparently want no limit on the number of liquor licenses issued -- no matter how the community feels. Scott Stringer's office, the new Borough President, has been the indirect focus of these baseless attacks since the obvious reason for them has been to affect his expected reform of the Boards. Attack the community activists, the theory goes, and Stringer will be loath to remove Board members who clearly are part of the old Virginia Fields bar owners clique. And so numerous Community Board members (especially on Community Board #2)who are nervous about the conflict of interest allegations have adopted the defensive strategy of attacking the community and its activists.

As if to underscore the seriousness of this issue, rumors abound that not only is the Attorney General investigating the S.L.A. for corruption (all S.L.A hearings were cancelled this week, for at least one week), but interest has also been peaked at Bob Morgenthau's office. Lobbyists recruited by the nightlife association are considered prime suspects by Downtown insiders.

The Community's response to this attempted coercion, libel and slander has overwhelmingly been to crank up the activity and hold a public forum with a respectful, but firm attitude toward the electeds. The message is decidedly clear. The community expects some action.

Alan Gerson, Deborah Glick, Scott Stringer, and Rosie Mendez are expected to be appear and address the audience. They are community-oriented officials who need and want your support.

Even Tom Duane, whose office and staff (past and present) has been wrestling with this issue of Bar/Lounge proliferation is expected to make an appearance. There is no doubt that he has devoted time to this. So let him and those who have been close to him, clearly know where you stand, as well.

Come to Luesther Hall at the Public Theater on March 2nd at 425 Lafayette Street -- between Astor Place and East 4th Street -- at 7 p.m. and make your feelings known about liquor licenses and S.L.A. reform, land use and traffic issues. Your (quality of) life depends on it.

The event is being sponsored by the NoHo Neighborhood Association, the SoHo Alliance, LESA, and the SoHo Journal.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Power to the People

It's been a long time since activists were "manning the barricades" as they did in the 1960's. Passivity and comfort have taken a toll on most of us but a few die-hards in our midst keep the faith. Of course, the new breed is not trying to take over Main Building at NYU for a sit-in, or blocking traffic at University Place in order to get support for the anti-war effort.

But, forty years later -- there are some similarities. Certainly, the Iraq war is starting to destroy our economy while Bush steals our civil liberties and we slide into a Primordial soup. Just wait until they reactivate the draft.

But one of the latest flaps that gets activist juices flowing has been percolating Downtown over a suggestion by Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), that New York University should consider working with the City to find alternative other space for its expanding campus. In other words, the fact that NYU has been slowly gobbling up the Village and parts of NoHo, is starting to get on some people's nerves. One building after another is erected, transformed into classrooms or dormitories, or demolished to satisfy is limitless craving for space -- in one location. During the sixties NYU had a campus in the Bronx but that was closed and everything was consolidated down at Washington Square.

Absolutely no one is suggesting that NYU leave town. No one is suggesting that NYU is not a desirable neighbor. What many ARE suggesting, is that Washington Square, Greenwich Village and NoHo also exists for residents whose lives are feeling increasingly encroached upon. They want to see a new dialog begin with the administrations -- of NYU and the City -- for the purposes of exploring a way to protect the essence of the Village and NoHo from becoming ONLY NYU. That, no one should want.

Berman asked the Community Board #2 Zoning Committee, whose Chairman is David Reck, to have a public hearing on the issue and to pass a resolution asking NYU and the City administration to explore the possibility of locating other areas that could help with the expanding University's needs. This would merely be an expression of the community's wishes, with no force of law.

Roughly 30 members of the Village, SoHo and NoHo attended the meeting and GVSHP's Andrew Berman made a compelling presentation. A member of the NYU administration was also present, although there was not what she called a team of members to answer everyone's questions.

What followed this presentation, however, was not anticipated. Normally, after a Public Hearing, a resolution is passed either in support of or against the proposal in front of the committee. In this instance, the Board's Chair, Maria Derr, would not permit a resolution to be voted upon. The residents were not happy about this and were angry at the fact that further delays were to be the culmination of their efforts in bringing people out for this meeting. Although there were passionate speeches, including one by Zella Jones of the NoHo Neighborhood Association, who told the committee "I beg you to pass a resolution tonight" and to move this issue forward --these entreaties were rejected.

According to Derr, the issue will now go to a joint Zoning and Institutions Committee meeting -- with Bob Rinaolo as the Chairman of Institutions. Those of you who have been following the machinations on Community Board #2 know that as de facto Board Chair, this delay and insistence upon yet another meeting -- has the silver lining for Rinaolo and the power elite on the Board -- of giving them center stage. That's how power plays out on Community Boards. And, that is the only plausible reason for a delay. While the ostensible explanation for a delay is to give a "full hearing" on the matter --it is hollow. Nothing need stop two committees from taking a position on this issue -- to be molded into a resolution at the Full Board. It's not that difficult an issue to either embrace or reject. But there is a reason for this.
Since Community Boards are advisory in nature, influence flows from the ability to hold center stage, with the Klieg lights focused on the star. And, perks flow to that person, in unseen ways. There are business relationships, professional organizations and personal favors to consider. Essentially, that is what currently drives some people to join Community Boards. Often, unfortunately, it is not to serve the community.

The residents, in this "tempest in a teapot" (the resolution being sought by GVSHP is no more than a suggestion that the City and NYU work together on this)-- will just have to take a back seat to the all important "appearances" of power. Residents were not happy at having to wait still longer in line for the show to begin, however, and this is no way to treat voters. Representatives of all of the electeds were in attendance and clearly heard the drum rolls.

If this kind of duplicitous behavior gets you riled up, don't forget to attend the hearing at Luester Hall at the Public Theater on March 2nd. This Public meeting starts at 7:00 p.m. and will be a joint convocation of NoHo,SoHo and East Village/Lower East Side residents, organizations and elected officials. The subjects are land use, SLA reform and traffic issues. The Public Theater is located at 425 Lafayette Street, between 4th Street and Astor Place. Make sure you get there and let your neighbors know that this is where we make politicians aware that we want action. We want reform and local authority to police illegal bars and lounges, we want the ability to cross the street with or without a baby carriage and not be targeted by drivers, and we want responsible planning for current and future land development in our communities.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Quality of Life

Many of you Downtown know what it's like to walk out of your home, and directly into a photo shoot. The film companies clearly have no interest in your quality of life. While they used to donate to the community for the inconvenience, the Mayor has given them carte blanche and only very organized neighborhood associations get the tribute they deserve. Whether you simply want to get a cup of coffee on West Broadway and Broome, or just want to drop your children off at P.S. 3 on Hudson Street -- the tow trucks are already waiting for you so that the film goons can stake out their turf with orange cones and wave you away. The police help them, not residents. Law enforcement is on site to aid and protect the film companies, not to protect citizens from being inconvenienced. If you doubt this, try complaining about not being able to push a baby carriage over the not so carefully arranged electric cables in your way.

Or, try to escape from your building when a klieg light is shining on the couple kissing in your doorway. You are the interloper, not the star with the collagen lips.
Clearly, the film companies are becoming offensive and making themselves an unwelcome nuisance.

Filming day or night has been so prevalent during the past several months, from SoHo to Greenwich Village, that with the number of different crews and films -- it is almost impossible to decide what to do. Normally, you might call the cops, but in this case they're too busy sucking up to the stars.

There isn't anyone who will listen. Including the Mayor. The plaintive cry, when anyone bothers to answer you, is that the City needs the money. Well, the City always needs the money -- and the more it gets, the more it will need. Oh, and just as a reminder, in real life (when not playing Mayor) Bloomberg owns a media company. So, don't expect those illegal billboards to come down either. Commissioner Lancaster's not listening.

The New York City Mayor's Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting issues permits for these crews and is totally unresponsive to inquiries by residents. They never met a filmmaker they don't like. Several years ago, a so-called Hot Spot list existed which indicated that some degree of rationality needed to be used in issuing repetitive permits in the same locations. Now, that's not even given lip service.

The result? Well, let's just say that Law & Order, Special Victims Unit (a title which more accurately labels SoHo residents than their series) has reason think that they own SoHo. In the last month alone, their trucks, cables, crews and goons have overtaken Grand Street, Varick Street, Avenue of the Americas and West Broadway for a combined total of two solid weeks. License plates from one of their passenger cars, parked illegally if it weren't for the special location scout parking permit, was registered down South. After five years of shooting in the same location on Grand Street, a location scout "trying" to work SoHo is about as necessary as lipstick on a pig. Lunch in SoHo, with free parking, is more likely. Law & Order already owns SoHo. And, they've given the community nothing -- except aggravation.

Jay Schwimmer, known as SoHo's Mayor, a coop owner and building owner, spoke with us recently and told us of the problems he has experienced during the recent Ben Stiller film being shot on West Broadway. He explained a requirement that film companies never observe without being asked to provide it. The fact is that they are required to have proof of Workman's Compensation and Liability coverage -- proof of coverage for shooting in front of or on sidewalks at local businesses and residences. The obvious rationale is that if anyone gets hurt from work being done during the film shoot, the first to be sued is usually the building and/or business owner in front of whose establishment they are working.

As if this week's filming did not cause enough commotion and annoyance for residents to cope with, there was another crew congregating at 15 Watts Street at the same time. This is the site of Lola, the cabaret styled restaurant/bar that even the nightlife controlled Community Board #2 managed to turn down (before they bought the election from Virginia Fields and consolidated power). Residents, having spent well in excess of $20,000 to fight the SLA's approval of a license that the Community Board denied, have since been treated to an unending campaign by the Lola applicants. After repeated attempts to educate the Board that SoHo has been besieged with bars, booze, noise and crippling traffic jams, activists were additionally treated to orchestrated attacks that SoHo residents were guilty of racial discrimination for not wanting yet another bar. (One of the applicants is black). Where's Johnny Cochrane when you need him?

In other words, folks, if we can't get a license one way, we'll get it another.

Now Lola has decided to wage a media war while their application for a Beer & Wine license is being weighed -- no doubt as a flying wedge -- to force residents to accept their establishment. This effort is aided by the new-found spirituality (as in 50 proof) at Community Board #2. As they helped Besito with the murmurs of discrimination, they are not beneath working for Lola surreptitiously.

So, get ready for LoLa, the movie.

If the electeds or SLA or the courts cave in to this form of financial and psychological bludgeoning and racial blackmail, we had better start lining up some new political talent Downtown. Because it's time to stop the bullshit!

And, Besito, which had a lot to do with the Maria Derr/Nightlife crew election -- is rumored to now have new owners, related to the applicants AND the Naked Lunch crowd a block away on Grand and Thompson Streets. Inquiries into the possibility of adding a little night music have been reported (as in nightclub and lounge) and are being quietly floated by the new management, to augment their restaurant income. Running a Latino-styled restaurant (which the original applicant professed to be his life's dream) may not have been the real game after all. Lots of new people have been wending in and out every day during this rumored changeover in operation. And, they weren't there for quickie empanadas. There is no confirmation on this yet, but it bears watching, amigos. The functional political split on Community Board #2 was focused on this SoHo joint and the ethnic/race card was also used here to get them their license.

Speaking of Quality of Life issues, Zella Jones of the NoHo Neighborhood Association has been working hard on planning a genuine Town Hall meeting -- on March 2nd. Several of the electeds, including Deborah Glick, Tom Duane, Alan Gerson, Rosie Mendez and Scott Stringer, will be discussing Traffic, Land Use and State Liquor Authority Reform. Don't miss it if you give a damn.
We expect SoHo Alliance members and residents to attend, as well as many activists from NoHo.

The event will be held at Luester Hall at 425 Lafayette Street at 7 p.m., between East 4th Street and Astor Place at the Public Theater. For those of you interested in learning more about what is being done, or contemplated -- or to find out what level of activity your political representatives are exhibiting (actions not words), show up and speak your mind. This is a public meeting.

Pay attention to the level of solicitousness aimed at any nightlife representatives present, if they appear. Community Board #2 and Board #3 are already controlled by nightlife money.

Watch how the politicians deal with nightlife representatives. As Joe Montegna said in the House of Games, watch for "the Tell."

The new Community Board applications have gone out. All of those people, who are members of the Boards and are planning to "re-up" in April when their terms end, must fill out a new "Scott Stringer" form.

Basically, it is expected that everyone will be assessed on an equal footing.
In other words, experience and interest in the community will come first this time around. One should not automatically expect to be appointed (or reappointed) if one's only asset is a bar/lounge/nightclub/restaurant. Clearly, a break from the Virginia Fields tradition of only appointing bar owners who vote with liquor license buddies, is anticipated.

Hopefully, Mr. Stringer, a well-liked and widely admired politician will enable those on the Boards to see the light -- whether that be the bright white light of the Sunlight laws or, for some undeserving Board members, the inevitable light of an oncoming train.

For those of you who have not been following the saga of the Hudson River Park's development, the arcane game of three dimensional chess has finally paid off for residents of Greenwich Village, Hudson Square and SoHo. With virtually no parks for the children in lower Manhattan, the HRPT development has been watched with a keen and jealous eye.

The Friends of Hudson River Park recently succeeded at settling with the Department of Sanitation over the messy situation at Gansevoort Pier. For years, there have been negotiations, promises, plans -- and recently a new building erected -- on a pier that has become an eyesore for those wishing to see the Park completed. Completely aesthetically, that is.

The Friends, under the guidance of Al Butzel, a cagey, and smart lawyer who small talks longingly about his unfinished novel in quiet tones -- sued Sanitation and brought them to the table. The deal that was cut, at the insistence of the Court, leveled the playing field.

Although Kate Ascher of the Economic Development Corporation has been pushing the Mayor's plan for a recycling plant at this Gansevoort site -- all the while dangling an unspecified sum of money for its acceptance by the community -- the deal the City has been offering was always contingent upon the building of a Recycling and Transfer station. With that would come the rumbling of garbage trucks (both public and private) more streets clogged with pollution and traffic, noise day and night, and the concomitant smell from putrescent waste. Not to mention a lot of unhappy residents. The Community Board hearings held on this plan were not happy ones.

Butzel's deal, courtesy of the Courts, gets Sanitation off of the pier at Gansevoort within 5 years and collects about $14 million from DOS to develop it as a Park. The trucks move off and a park gets built. No deal for a Transfer station. No trucks. No traffic increase. No smell. And, we get a park. Nice going Al.
How can we learn to play chess like you?