Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Quiet before the Storm

Yet another development site is being proposed in Hudson Square. The King Street parcel at 179 Varick Street is the next known site for a 16 story hotel proposed for Hudson Square. While activists and community organizations have been pounding the tables at the offices of elected officials, City Planning has been looking over the rainbow. In fact, there seems to be no concern whatsoever at that agency as parcels are devoured and Hotel/Condos and Hotels rush to the planning boards to turn the west side of lower Manhattan into a set for the remake of that famous cult horror movie Motel Hell - now Hotel Hell. Hudson Square is about to become the location for "Short stays" replete with billboards and fast exits through the Holland Tunnel.

Such a bad precedent -the equivalent to the destruction of a community in transition would never be tolerated in SoHo or Tribeca, certainly not Greenwich Village or even NoHo. And, the fact that Christine Quinn, Speaker of the City Council and representative for this area, is taking no obvious action to stop the accelerated development in Hudson Square - is indicative of the money and power behind this anschluss:

Trump (Spring Street), Marc Epstein (515 Greenwich), Wingate (179 Varick), and the just completed 17-story hotel on Watts and Avenue of the Americas.

So, in the midst of this sell-out, while Amanda Burden and City Planning order their second round of watercress sandwiches, Chris Quinn fiddles with her next fundraiser for Mayor and Bloomberg checks his compass for directions to Pennsylvania Avenue - Hudson Square is being lost.

No other burgeoning community has had to suffer at the hands of this influx of BIG money for the simple reason that the zoning classification has been purposely left vague. This is a money decision, make no mistake about it.

Andrew Berman of GVSHP basically has laid this issue on the steps of City Planning and made the issue one that cannot be mistaken. His letter to Amanda Burden, which he has written in response to her very weak logic, deserves to be read and appreciated.

Other letters have also been written as this travesty is allowed to unfold. The pressure to adopt contextual zoning for this area is now critical. It is no longer a manufacturing zone and only hotels and hotel/condos are being built in this no-mans-land of development without limits. The natives are definitely getting restless.

The update on Gansevoort is that no action has been taken in Albany. A reliable source predicts that the recycling center will be killed.

According to this source, there were many who didn't want to piss-off the Mayor on this issue for partisan reasons, and that it will be formally abandoned in the Special Session that starts on July 16th. If true, it's good news for Downtown - and should spur some hard decisions on the use of Pier 76.

The details of the D.S.N.Y imbroglio which have Friends of Hudson Square, squaring off against the City in its attempt to build a parking garage and fuel storage facility in the Greenwich and Spring streets location - have been getting more interesting.

One of the logical sites for this facility is "Block 675" located at 29th street and 11th avenue. In fact, that location was slated by D.S.N.Y for a garage after having completing condemnation proceedings two years ago. However, rumors have been swirling about that a certain developer will shortly be applying for a variance to develop the site for a residential tower and would accept a tow pound but not a garage under the planned building, according to public statements by Ann Weisbrod of the Hudson Yards Development Corporation.

The rumored developer is Georgetown Associates, related to the still powerful Joe Rose who was formerly Chair of City Planning. And, he purportedly still has tremendous influence over this agency's decisions.

According to one activist, in reporting on this situation at Block 675, he said,
"All of the approvals have been in place (including condemnation) since January 19, 2005 for the City to build a park over two DSNY garages and a NYPD tow-pound. There is an urgent need to mitigate 24 million sf of development across the street (30th-33rd Streets Eastern and Western MTA railyards) with some public open space requirements. At one point another developer purportedly offered to build a 70 story residential building and throw in the DSNY garages for free in the basement. Bottom line is that we are told that it is more cost-effective, more efficient for DSNY and would take less time to build this facility privately (avoiding the Wicks law)."

Things just keep getting curiouser and curiouser.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

On the Waterfront

The events of this week were significant for many reasons. The defection of Adriano Espaillat, upper Manhattan Assembly Member who decided to support Bloomberg and Doctoroff to get the Gansevoort Recycling plan underway was a negative event for many. While many of the reasons for attempting to locate a sanitation facility in the Hudson River Park are logical, although contrary to the rules of the Act and its intentions, many of them are misguided. The fact of the NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard) charges belies some other misconceptions about the attempt to locate a facility on that site. Some of them are environmental, some scientific, some racial, many political, and a few are sensible.

The most uncomfortable comments for the predominantly white, left of center, gender and orientation diversity-sensitive community in Greenwich Village (where the Gansevoort pier is located) - is that all of those strong feelings which many fought to preserve in the name of racial and gender equality - were now being challenged by a garbage dump. In the name of political expediency and Environmental Justice, Downtown was being charged with attempting to push the dump off onto poor black and Hispanic residents by avoiding having it Downtown.

With the media attention that the Bloomberg administration, the City Council, and the Assembly managed to generate, there were many aging Freedom Riders looking in the mirror and seeing perplexed faces. Liberals suffer from introspection guilt - Republicans know this, and so do political strategists. The fact that this was used by the Bloomberg administration to get the deal done was not appreciated.

In fact, the NIMBYist approach was being floated 5 or 6 years ago by some of the environmental groups. It was basically brought to the community boards using the same stock phrases - that "after all we have to start accepting our share of the garbage."

So, this was an adopted approach that has been a long time coming. Then Bloomberg bought the party line and used it to force-feed Downtown.

The problem is that all of this buries the objections of Villagers and other residents of SoHo and Hudson Square - who have felt that this Republican administration has been waging an all out assault against them. There's the Pier 40 attack by Doctoroff and Company to ram the Related proposal through when Downtown's kids need ball fields and passive space that is not turned into what Andrew Berman of GVSHP calls "Vegas on the Hudson;" there is the Trump SoHo development allowed by a passive Department of Buildings, a docile City Council, and an oblivious City Planning; and a D.S.N.Y. garage and fuel facility plan looking to place 43,000 gallons of combustible fluids near the Holland Tunnel tubes and a 15 story parking garage in the middle of a residential renaissance. It is as if His Honor and his Robert Moses wanabee sidekick Dan Doctoroff, can't give away our turf fast enough to make political points. Or, is it "if you throw enough shit at the wall some of it will stick" after the Olympics failed. Whatever the problem is, people are distinctly not amused.

The coup de grace here is the appearance that the boys incited, or at least signed on to, the NIMBYist position and then sat back to see if it would work. The EDC (Economic Development Corporation) had been pushing the Gansevoort deal for some time and the NIMBYist race card appears to have been the ticket to get Albany to accept a change in the Hudson River Park Act for the recycling plan and transfer station.

Rumors had circled to the effect that Shelly Silver would support the change in the Act and was turning a deaf ear to Deborah Glick, Dick Gottfried and Linda Rosenthal, all of whom had misgivings about the wisdom of changing the Act and locating a garbage facility in the Hudson River Park. There were suggestions that if Gansevoort did not get done Silver might have to accept the site in his territory on the East side.

Tom Duane was rumored to be trying to get the ear of Bruno in order to foil the attempt.

Ultimately, some facts escaped that make the political machinations all the more of a concern.

First of all, Downtown is not Shangri-La when it comes to breatheable air. Locating a garbage facility (yes garbage - recyclables stink too) on Gansevoort would simply add more pollution to some of the worst air in the county. It is a Black zone on environmental maps. Hudson Square residents are routinely killed or maimed by traffic rushing for the Holland Tunnel entrance and children and pregnant mothers pushing strollers are common targets. (Hey, how about some Traffic Enforcement, Mr. Bloomberg?)

Seventh Avenue, its Varick Street extension, 14th Street, Houston Street, Canal Street and all of the feeder streets to the Holland Tunnel are a nightmare of trucks, wall to wall vehicles and intense diesel-particulate-spewing pollution. To this, Gansevoort would add hundreds of daily garbage truck trips to the mix. And, folks, let's not delude ourselves into believing that low-sulphur diesel engines on the upgraded vehicles promised would change anything. As former Chair of Community Board #2's Environmental Committee, Ann Arlen observed:

"Mayor Bloomberg has tried to fool us into abrogating our responsibility to the children who use this Park with smoke-and-mirrors talk of fair share, a recycling education center, and Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel. With ULSD the proposal does not mention that the filters that are key to reducing the toxins in ULSD clog up in the start-and-stop operation of sanitation trucks so it cannot be used. (That is true also of the construction equipment on the WTC site, despite Councilmember Gerson's City Council law.) So the reduction is only that of the ULSD fuel, just 10%, leaving the worst toxins in the exhaust."

Pier 76 is a viable alternative which is north of 34th street and is located in Community Board #4 - and is a sound location for a transfer station. It is not parkland and it is not in a sensitive residential location. It should be seriously considered for this site.

But what is most important is the fact that the use of rail for transport of garbage is now recognized as the preferred and most efficient means of getting the job done.

Even Manhattan Citizen's Solid Waste Advisory Board, has backed away from its support of the Gansevoort Transfer Station to study rail shipping as a more efficient solution.

And, the latest reports indicate that the Black and Latino caucus are no longer supporting the Mayor or Assembly member Espaillat on the Gansevoort site but are taking a wait and see approach to the whole issue.

Oh, and by the way - with reference to responsibility of a fair share of garbage -- consider the fact that Downtown welcomes workers every day from all 5 boroughs as well as Long Island and New Jersey who have lunch, dinner and party in the area (in addition to the tourists and visitors) - who all leave their trash behind.

Is that our fair share of garbage?

Monday, June 11, 2007


When you've got multi-billion dollar companies looking to cash in on the newly discovered development mines Downtown, people start to see what they want to see - or, rather, what they are paid to see. Or, fail to see.

Two of the most objectionable projects that are currently in the process of being foisted up residents of Hudson Square and SoHo are Trump SoHo and the Related development of Pier 40. While the sell-out involving Trump SoHo is well known and currently in progress - with both the construction and the anticipated legal action against it -- few really have a feel for the complexity of the Pier 40 deal.

Thus far, the Hudson River Park Trust Board has not made any decision. At least, not publicly. The Advisory to the Trust, a group of community leaders, a mixture of representatives of the Elected Officials, and Community Board members from Boards 1, 2 and 4, -- has had numerous meetings and hosted a Town Hall style hearing which has all added up to a consensus. The two potential developers, Camp Group and the Related Companies proposal miss the mark for a number of reasons. Camp Group seems to be on shaky financial ground; and, Related seems to want to build something like an adult Disneyland to draw even more tourists Downtown.

The insanity of trying to draw more traffic through Manhattan streets to Pier 40 when congestion pricing is high on the Mayor's fast track list - seems maniacally absurd. Unless, of course, the $8 per day fee is really only about generating more money and not about reducing traffic or clearing the pollution.

The essentials from the Trust viewpoint is that Pier 40 needs repairs. Roughly 10 percent of the pilings holding up the pier need to be replaced or substantially repaired. Over time, the usable space on the pier has been reduced as a result of deterioration. While it's not going to fall into the river, repair work needs to start relatively soon. We are not into year 4 of the two recent rounds of RFP's and proposal reviews. The prior hearings resulted in much ado about nothing and the $30 million dollar hole in the previous community-approved plan, is once again raising its ugly head. The number repeatedly used by the Trust officials, when asked what it will cost to renovated the pier is $30 to $35 million dollars - plus.

This is where the two plans on the table - Camp Group and Related - start to part ways. Camp Group is fuzzy on the numbers for pier renovation and restoration. Related clearly has the money. Camp Group is clearly more community oriented (and certainly more kid-friendly). Related sings to the tune of Disneyland for adults. Or, as Andrew Bergman of Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) calls it, "Vegas on the Hudson."

This plan involves an entertainment center with Cirque du Soleil, plus an 1800 seat concert hall, a 3500 seat banquet hall, 12 movie theaters, 5 large restaurants, and 40,000 square feet of retail. There is also provision for ballfields that initially replaced what is currently on the pier - but now maintains, in essence, what is there now.

Well, but, not exactly.

Instead of the $5 million dollar ballfield renovations that were completed less than 2 years ago - which the kids have just started to use - Related wants us to move them onto the roof and they can continue to play ball while the construction gets underway.

Now, have you ever tried to live in your apartment while renovation was going on? Have you ever lived next door to a construction site? Have you ever been downwind of the new building going up next door?

Well, picture hundreds of kids on the roof of a pier, or worse, on the same level, with the wind off the water and the dust and debris blowing in their faces as construction begins on a pier built with materials that were legal, from 50 years ago. You're right, "Not my kid." And, then, try to get them there among construction rigs and trucks.

A straw poll taken at the Advisory to the HRPT, a group which admittedly has only an advisory capacity in relation to the Trust decision - had no members in favor of either plan. Community Board #1 has come out against the plans. The community has rejected the Related plan with hundreds of families and kids appearing at the PS 141 hearing. The Related plan, especially with the attempt to keep the ballfields open during construction is merely putting lipstick on a pig.

But what is more of a concern for Downtown residents is the marginally subtle attempt to force-feed the residents. There is now a big push to get this deal done.

The belief of many activists is that this is Doctoroff's particular pig. Not only is he a member of the Trust Board, which is a concern, but some interesting "consultants" have recently come out of the closet to join the process.

Shep Messing and Jay Kriegel, both part of the 2012 Olympics effort which was killed, are now part of the Related team, reportedly with the help of and as a favor to Doctoroff - who may feel that he owes them as a result of the failed bid for the Olympics.

As an added push, Jim Capalino, a smart, folksy Village PR guy has been contacting people in the community to sing the praises of Related to those who are unaware of how good this will be for all of us.

But, just so everyone does not get too misty-eyed for Related, consider this.

Hudson Square and SoHo families have NO parks for their kids. We spent $5 Large on ballfields and have parking for cars that have practically nowhere else to go since development is quickly depleting garage space. And, don't kid yourself, once a contract is awarded, the changes will come fast and furious. Things that were promised will disappear as fast as that last Pringle's chip.

Whether a Conservancy is established, or there is an appeal for State and/or Federal funds, or there is an increase in income from parking and fees, or appeal is made to the Legislature to allow a bond issue - we need to keep Pier 40 for the ballfields that exist there now, parking that is there now and community passive space that will be there as the pier is reclaimed. As the Trust considered just after the previous round of plans failed, the Pier could be repaired over time and uses should be added as the structure and community review approves each new use.

This is not a site where the Community should be pressured to sell off another prized asset to a developer. No matter who stands to benefit from the deal.

Unless it is the community.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The 64-Dollar Question

As a kid, $64 dollars actually was quite a lot of money. If you had that much money you got a lot of respect. Of course, that was before the Dollar slid into the abyss of multiple wars, from Kennedy's foray into Vietnam, to Johnson's War as a follow-up, to Reagan's Arms race designed to bankrupt the Soviet Empire and winding up with Bush's "Nation Building" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, we have been prolific and have been revving up those printing presses for nearly fifty years. Now, gas is nearly $4 a gallon.

But, again, $64 dollars once meant something. And, the phrase, "The $64 dollar question" came to mean a tantalizing question referring to, as yet, unknown information. So, here's the $64 question that the community is pondering:

Among the activists who spent a lot of their time making their wishes known about the over saturation of liquor licenses, where do they stand with the new Community Board #2 which is about to take office in June?

For several years, the Business Committee was headed by Bob Rinaolo, who himself had two liquor licenses in at least as many restaurant/bars in Greenwich Village. There was controversy and charges of conflict of interest and eventually Borough President Fields ruled that he should step down as Chair of that committee. Eventually, he did. But, he remained on the committee and many of the members of the committee remained with him - so that, in fact, nothing had changed.

Interestingly enough, one of the applicants that came before his committee when he was Chair was the controversial applicant known as "Lola." Despite the fact that Rinaolo appeared to have never met a bar he didn't like, he approved the license at committee level but did not fight its denial at the Full Board because he felt that he had been lied to by the applicant - especially, when it came to the issue of live music in an outdoor area behind some very expensive condos in SoHo.

After many twists and turns of the legal system and two and a half years later, Lola is about to open. This, despite a Herculean effort on the part of the community in SoHo, despite the rejection by the Community Board, and despite the tens of thousands of dollars expended in stopping just one bar from opening in an area saturated with bars. While the legal effort is not completely over, it seems likely that Lola will open - with or without live music. In front of Judge Marilyn Sheafer, Lola's lawyer, Eric Sherman, assured that judge that if the application went back in front of the Community Board - there would be no problem in getting a resolution supporting their efforts.

Now, the $64 dollar question for those in the community who have fought the over saturation of bars, held Town Hall meetings to educate the new S.L.A. about this issue and lobbied for meaningful changes at the Community Board - is this: Why did Mr. Sherman state, in front of a sitting judge, on the record, that he could easily and quickly get a resolution passed supporting the Lola application? Especially, now, after such efforts by residents to curtail new licenses?

Is it possible that Brad Hoylman's (pictured left) choice to run the Business Committee - Ray Lee - an appointee of Maria Derr and Bob Rinaolo, a friend of the Chamber of Commerce influences that still hail from the Virginia Fields days - is known as someone who will be helpful? The fact that Lee is a holdover from the pre-reform days when the Business Committee ran roughshod over the wishes of residents and then was made Chair of that committee, is not relaxing activists. In fact, some of his methods of settling disagreements in committee are to tell residents who object to an applicant in their neighborhood to "work it out" is contradictory to Board policy. It's not the job of the Chair to let others do the work - especially, to put residents in the position of having to negotiate their objections with an applicant. The Community Board has an obligation to protect the community.

The other, potentially disturbing, aspect of Lee as Chair of Business committee is that he Is likely part of the "negotiation" spearheaded by Arthur Schwartz(pictured left), the new phoenix of the downtown political junkies and Ray Cline's man at VRDC. All of the Rinaolo/Derr people moved over to VRDC two years ago in order to take over a political party that would accept heavy donations with open arms. Having won State Committeeman, in spite of the antipathy of the Glick/Quinn/Duane preference for Larry Moss - Schwartz is rumored to have made the kind of deal that is reminiscent of a scene from The Godfather by making Hoylman an offer he couldn't refuse. That's Schwartz for Waterfront, Phil Mouquinho for Vice Chair of Zoning, and retains Ray Lee on Business. If not, the rumor goes, Schwartz would run for District Leader (which Hoylman recently took away from Schwartz) and VRDC would not support Hoylman for City Council two years from now. (Not that Hoylman should really believe that, if it were offered.)

So, after years of trying to clean up the inside deals on the Business Committee, restructuring the S.L.A. and reforming the Board - we still potentially have the same crew operating the show. The $64 dollar question is this: Did Mr. Sherman know what he was saying in front of Judge Schaefer? Is there an inside track to liquor license approvals on Community Board #2?

Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) has been one, among several, who have been in the forefront of the battle to change zoning downtown so that it reflects the history and wishes of the community -- not only the Empire building aspirations of Bloomberg and Doctoroff. The most egregious example of the need for such change has been the Trump SoHo development which is now proceeding. The community in Hudson Square, where Trump SoHo will be built has been very antagonistic towards this unwanted invasion of a 45-story building. Legal action is in its early stages of discussion and planning and it proves to be an interesting fight.

The essence of this issue is, of course, the need to change zoning in Hudson Square and parts of SoHo so that it reflects the surrounding area - in short, a change to contextual zoning. It has been discussed for ten years and it has been continuously -- well, discussed. Only now, after the situation has become clearly dire, discussion is no longer enough.

What is disturbing is the fact that awareness of or interest in the problem is non-existent at the Mayor's Office and is just now getting attention at Speaker Quinn's office. At City Planning, however, they believe that things are quite satisfactory as they are. Andrew Berman recently received a letter explaining that nothing further needs to be done.

So, the $64 dollar question is this: Will the Electeds act to quickly change the zoning or will we have to litigate the 30, 40 and 50 story buildings that threaten to destroy our neighborhoods disguised at "condo-hotels?"