Sunday, February 24, 2008

Standing for Something

Eagles may soar, but weasels don't get sucked into jet engines.
-- John Benfield

All power is a trust; that we are accountable for its exercise; that from the people, and for the people all springs, and all must exist.
-- Benjamin Disraeli

Since the worker fell to his death at Trump SoHo, there has been a lot of public gnashing of teeth trying to figure out how to deal with a few of the issues created by The Donald’s latest “five-percenter” deal. As most people in the industry know, his main gig aside from T.V. host and Learning Annex professor, is selling the family jewels for 5% of any deal that anyone will bring to his organization. It’s hard to assess what this says about those who buy into this familial game, but the combination of limos, models, shiny glass and huge structures apparently appeal to enough people that developers are able to bankroll the smoke-and-mirrors. About the only credible aspect of Trump’s projects are the “investors” that place a deposit (like a bet), expecting to flip the deal for a profit, quickly.
The moniker “Trump SoHo” was as calculated a lie, as was the intended use.

That has been the play on most of his projects. In this case, the hotel rooms above the 20th floor should get a good view – and, let’s face it, expecting Bloomberg’s Special Enforcement unit to seek and destroy by busting “owner-tenants” for staying in their apartments past the time agreed upon in the restrictive declaration is a joke.
It’s not the Hamptons, where Code Enforcement conducts illegal raids with the permission and support of the Republican Party on immigrants for not having batteries in their smoke detectors. In the Hamptons they criminalize landlords for renting to people they would rather see camping in the woods with their legal, American children.
But, there will be no enforcement downtown if Ivanka stays a few weeks longer before her flight to Vail, wink-wink, nod-nod.
These are condo apartments. Trump’s developers, with the cooperation of our very own elected officials, figured out how to build a 45 story high condo project, compliments of Mayor Mike’s office, and got around the community variance process.
Don’t let anyone bullshit you about that particular fact! Remember the media banter that went on between Mikey and The Donald during the period when this project was being mulled over by activists. They couldn’t stop joking with each other.

Why else would anyone want to build a 45 story building on Varick Street with a view of the Holland Tunnel? Unless, of course, it was merely a financing vehicle to flip and run. The demand for hotels in a gothic Manufacturing zone is so high right now that we should all wonder whether to expect a permanent mass influx from Staten Island and New Jersey. It’s not because of demand for the luxury of Varick Street.

Of course, the real reason why so many hotels are being built in this area has nothing to do with need. As a law enforcement junkie once confided, “If they build that new jail, the criminals will come.”
The reason is much simpler. It is because they can.
While that seems simplistic and non-sensical, the fact that hotels can be built as of right in a manufacturing zone without any approval from the community – in light of the fact that we need more affordable housing and SCHOOLS – is absurd and contrary to public policy. So much for the people we put in office!

The community opposed the Trump SoHo project for a full year before they broke ground. There were a few meetings at the Community Board and there were several meetings, both public and behind closed doors, with the elected officials. Ultimately, due to the fact that no one heeded the many warnings by such community leaders like Andrew Berman of GVSHP and David Reck of Friends of Hudson Square, there was no action that could be taken to stop the project. Of course, that is no action short of litigation, could be taken – because our Dear Leader, Michael Bloomberg and his right hand man Dan Doctoroff were too busy trying to sell off Manhattan to as many developers as possible.
Giuliani, one suspects, would have buried the project with litigation had he disagreed with it. Time was always the enemy of this project. Had it been delayed, it would have been killed. The legal challenges continue as the first hearing of the legal challenge against the city’s approval of the Trump SoHo 'Condo-Hotel' takes place this Wednesday, February 27th at 10 am.

Where we are now folks is that the loophole permitting hotels or condo-hotels has not been closed and there are several more hotels either in varying stages of completion or about to start construction in an area which could have had schools or community-supported housing.

We need to institute a requirement for licensing which permits a hotel or hotel-condo to be built in a manufacturing zone. The as-of-right rule must be “trumped” by the appropriateness of the proliferation of unnecessary development. City Planning will not oversee this, City Hall will not take any action – but the City Council should do so immediately. The message should be transmitted by neighborhood associations, Community Boards and City Council Members that action must be taken. And, taken NOW.
Waiting until downtown, specifically the South Village and Hudson Square, to be rezoned so that new construction is contextual, is a pipe dream. That has been promised by the elected officials and nothing has been done to move that forward.

Let us see which elected officials have the character to work for the interest of the residents – or, which will pander to the interests of developers who fill campaign coffers.

At each Community Board Zoning Committee meeting, developers explain patiently that if they do not get the variance they want, they will build a hotel as an as-of-right permitted project. One that community will have no say or control over.
It is time to stop that form of threat as well.

A second issue, which the Trump building brought to the surface, involves the competency of the Department of Buildings.
Arguably, the Trump death was one of the unfortunate realities of major construction. The fact that the building was constructed in great haste could easily be written off to the efficiency of Bovis Lend-Lease.
Proving that the developer/builder used shoddy workmanship or cut corners related to safety will be virtually impossible. The fact that the site was shut down for a month, to be sure, caused some increase in acid-reflux.

For those who looked on, however, what stands out in the SoHo/Hudson Square area is the number of building projects that seem to be poorly reviewed by the Department of Buildings.
This is an agency operated by Commissioner Lancaster. An unresponsive Bloomberg flunky who started her reign by ignoring the rules and regulations regarding the Billboards in lower Manhattan and operated a dog an pony show with community hearings to “take testimony.” There was never any intention to either impede or reverse the construction of the hugely inappropriate signs plastered over our buildings.
In fact, the “hearings” were disproportionately populated by sign construction workers and executives from VanWagner. A well-known downtown activist, Doris Diether, pointed out that there were so few community people at the meeting because they hadn’t been notified.

When subsequent “action” on these illegal signs was supposedly about to begin – which, by the way, never began – VanWagner was chosen as the company who would remove or cover them up.

This is the enforcement, with a media Mayor, by a media Mayor appointee, to improve the quality of life of residents downtown?

So, it should come as no surprise that the Peter Vallone law, which codified fines against media companies of up to $25,000 per day for illegal signs, is neither enforced nor ever mentioned any longer.

Of more concern is the frequency of unstable construction sites.
Why construction permits have been issued at the corner of Wooster and Grand – with a vacant site next to a collapsing building – remains as a testament to incompetent bureaucracy. Why was the construction site planning at 350 West Broadway not better managed – the adjoining building began to move by about a foot and a half before a huge structural support was built to prevent further shift.
And, why is there no response when the Department of Buildings is repeatedly called by residents advising them of illegal construction being done by landlords?

Borough President Stringer has apparently gotten wind of some of these issues and advises his constituents that he will be asking some questions.

Finally, despite the messages from the Community Board, the residents, the elected officials and perhaps even members of her own Trust Board, Diana Taylor still appears to want Related to develop Pier 40.
The new date for a decision on whether to pick a developer from the contestants at hand, pass on all of them and do nothing, or strike a more conciliatory tone with the Partnership – is March 27th.

What concerns some people downtown is the fact that the Trust Board has apparently hired a PR firm, the Marino Organization, to get somebody’s message out there. The question really is: Who’s message is the Trust trying to get out there?
It is a confusing piece of information that was not really offered by the Trust itself.
First, we have the fact that any budget item of $100,000 and over must be approved by the Trust Board. The Marino budget is rumored to be slightly less than that number. Curious. So, no open approval is needed.

Then there is the fact that shortly after that decision to have an outside source handle PR (when there is a staff person who does that job) – lo and behold an item appears in the New York Times and is in eloquent support of – bet you can’t guess?

While the Times is dealing with the McCain matter, the editorial support of a project that is universally hated by the community of downtown New York – is reason enough to question whether Howell Raines is back at the editorial helm, or whether, since no reporter would touch it – that some mysterious PR company got it placed. Nah, couldn’t be!

Well, we do know that none other the Related CEO recently attended meetings with community people. When they start to mingle with the “little people” as Helmsley liked to call us, you know they’re having trouble cramming it down our throats.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Rumors or Realities?

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
--Yogi Berra

The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less
than you settled for.

--Maureen Dowd

So far we have a few uncommitted candidates for next year’s fireworks.
The Presidential election doesn’t garner all that much interest among political professionals simply because the candidates are rarely seen on ground level without a motorcade or the Secret Service. Even Chuckie is above visiting his former teammates downtown. While Nadler tries to cut a deal with the Molinari forces in Staten Island, SoHo is still gasping for air as a result of the Verrazano one-way toll. Congestion pricing would almost be unnecessary if the free round-trip from New Jersey and out the Holland Tunnel were done away with.

The theories for ‘09 are that Scott Stringer and Eric Gioia will run for Public Advocate. Stringer has the problem of being out of synch for another meaningful office to occupy if he remains for a second term as Borough President and ergo a lateral move to that “Assistant” Mayor office. Gioia is Chair of the City Council Investigations Committee and is an ambitious young politician. Both of them have a great deal of energy and would certainly be more visible than Betsy Gottbaum. Mark Green, someone who knew how to lose an election, was actually a responsive Public Advocate if you had ever tried out his office when he occupied that seat.

Thus far the known Mayoral candidates are Bill Thompson, Chris Quinn and Anthony Weiner – with Brian Ellner, Adolfo Carrion and Tony Avella as possible contenders. So far, for those interested in vetting the candidates based upon responsiveness (one of the ways that some activists assess supporting a candidate) Thompson has an office that returns calls and is responsive to inquiries. Sometimes, the back office is a better indication of a candidate’s future than all of the media hype.

Bloomberg had seemed to be backing off from his presidential thrust, and then it burgeoned again, according to recent national-scene news commentators. Whether Hillary is now positioning herself well and Mr. Bill has been wagging his tongue less vituperatively its hard to tell. The fact that she has ditched her campaign manager begs at least one question. But Obama is still clearly in the running. With Nader threatening to enter the mix again, there may be just so many bargaining chips out there to land a slot in the new Democratic administration. But, with a wide-open convention, Bloomberg could still find himself in a bargaining position.
Don’t count McCain out, though. There are Democrats who find neither of their candidates very attractive. And, McCain's got a little of that Harry Truman thing going for him.
Obama benefited by the Kennedy endorsements and the likening to JFK – but that only works if you haven’t read “The Dark Side of Camelot.”

Arthur Schwartz, an Obama fan, is still trying to get the message across to Diana Taylor that the Pier 40 Partnership. is the way to go. The resistance is strong from the HRPT – and the question is whether it is purely based upon the financial figures or whether the pressure from Related is just that strong politically. Let’s face it, if Related manages to pull this out of the bag – in spite of the clear message from residents and voters Downtown that it is NOT wanted, we might as well all move to Peoria. Or, start manning the barricades, as the students did in Paris during the 1960’s. There’s a point where elected AND appointed officials need to get the picture that they work for us, not themselves. No matter who you break croissants with every morning.

Tenants at One Bank Street have fallen into a small abyss that is reminiscent of the Trump SoHo project. That is, rules and regulations, zoning and legal interpretations, lawyers and lobbyists – not to mention failure of political will – are coming home to roost and are about to try to kill Manhattan’s affordable housing stock.

Not that Senator Tom Duane hasn’t fought the good fight in this instance. It appears that even Duane has been shocked by the neutering of the agencies responsible for monitoring the regulated housing stock in Manhattan.
What is unfolding around us, is a lack of political will at the City Hall level – leaving our Assembly, Senate and City Council elected officials scrambling for a way to enforce a policy decision that is very clear. Stop screwing with regulated housing and that enormous voting base.

Apparently Lucky Bhalla, the owner of One Bank Street has decided to evict all of the tenants of that building in order to turn it into a hotel.
One of the problems is that this property is still subject to a J-51 tax abatement, which is a legal deal made by property owners and was a cooperative effort to create and maintain affordable housing in Manhattan.
Now that Bhalla is trying to double-dip, the enforcement agencies, that have been intentionally weakened by Pataki, are backing away from the community’s call to stop the evictions while this legal quagmire is negotiated. Both DHCR and HPD are refusing to stop the evictions of tenants in this building while the legal process weighs the conflicting arguments involving the J-51 agreements.
The fallout from this is startling. We have one million apartments in Manhattan potentially affected by this and a real estate industry that would be nothing short of ecstatic over the dismantling of rent control and stabilization.

Trump SoHo was a mistake. And, by the loss of life and poor construction, it is an embarrassment for Downtown. That, on top of the fact that the project is completely inappropriate and of questionable legality.
City Council held hearings that took testimony with regard to the claims that Bayrock ignored safety concerns in its rush to complete this 45-story “condo-hotel” tower. But, what has emerged from this fiasco is the fact that the Department of Buildings is an agency that is politically managed, badly staffed, ignorant of its mission and possibly corrupt as well.
From personal experience, many residents report that D.O.B. representatives and inspectors are completely ineffectual to the point of exasperation. Instead of protecting tenants, there are reports of brief, chummy meetings with landlords and supers – that end with no actions against gross violations of the building codes.
A look around Downtown at the proliferation of illegal billboards will tell us the story. How many of these huge signs have been removed by what Lancaster had initially held hearings about?
We were all duped into believing that the crews from VanWagner, ClearChannel and North Shore Neon Sign, were a thing of the past. Just walk by the neo-Time Square look at West Broadway and Broome Street in SoHo if you believe that the Department of Buildings took any action.

If Bloomberg had any real interest in grassroots support, instead of the same kind of media-hyped “we like Mike” he would start removing the billboards from the acknowledged center of the Art world.

But, don’t hold your breath. As Helmsley put it, we’re only “the little people.”

Sunday, February 03, 2008

In Memoriam

Great artists are often “discovered” after they have left us. It has been true of the Masters and is true among those 20th Century painters that we have come to love and respect.

While Adrienne Goldberg may not yet have arrived at that Pantheon of artistic luminaries of this new century, she was a talented and innovative painter whose work was a pleasure to experience. She was also loved and respected by those who knew her well.

She left us last week and both her husband Larry, a lawyer and an important member of the Downtown political community, as well as her daughter Alexis, will cherish the memories of a wonderful, warm, loving wife and mother whom they respected and loved.

So that we may all appreciate what we have lost, take the time to enjoy her art.
Her art was special, as she was special.

May she rest in peace.