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.