Selling Out SoHo
First, came the printing factories, warehouses and commercial loft buildings. Before it was “SoHo” it was really just a place where you could pick up cartons of commercial paper arrange to store goods, or get floor tickets printed and bound for use on the Stock Exchange. Then, after World War ll, use of large spaces for painting began to transform the lofts into ad hoc living spaces. “Fixture fee” was the financial term used for evaluating what to pay an artist for his improved space. Of course, what arrived after the arts assault and cultural infiltration that followed the post-Warhol era was the immense real estate development wave. That real estate tsunami was accompanied by a new commercial phase that included the retail expansion of Bloomingdale's, Chanel, and numerous Hotels. The "Manufacturing" zoning has continued to permit completely inappropriate development. Although many original artists have remained and are coop or condo owners there is still the bohemian air about SoHo and remnants of the original street art still can be found— even though they receive no protection from the City.
The perspective held by the political structure downtown, however, diverges from the reality of SoHo as a community. Individual politicians have some sense of the residents but the Community Board fails in that regard. There are only are a very few members from SoHo on Community Board #2 and its needs are often overlooked in favor of a more populated, more recognized group of an older Greenwich Village community. This is nothing new. However, recently there has been some gnashing of teeth over the handling of the SoHo BID. Spearheaded by a real estate group, Newmark, along with Thor Equities, Aurora Capital, and other landlords such as PEP Realty and supported by Uptown social interests like Mary Balaban, it is represented by hired consultant Barbara Cohen who are pressing for a Business Improvement District. The $700,000 budget, to be collected from businesses, commercial interests and coop and condo boards, is intended to clean streets and upgrade tourist-friendly activities. The area is focused on Broadway from Houston to Canal streets. Like the bike enthusiasts who destroyed SoHo's streets who live outside of Manhattan, this is another example of monied philosophy telling us what we should want.
Residents are against the BID and many really don't see why SoHo needs streets and sidewalks maintained by a private group with special interests when we have a City Agency charged with cleaning our streets and maintaining our neighborhoods. As far as enticing more tourists, that's really a stretch. The bottom line is that this really is a real estate and socially-inspired project, you know, those kind of potentially smarmy arrangements that have deep tentacles, promises of campaign contributions and, dare we say, actual cash being proffered? As more tourists are lured to SoHo, bringing more buses, trucks and autos, air quality is further degraded -- overburdening our very limited parking -- and making it less of a community and more of a shopping excursion destination. In fact, Broadway is safer for buses. Only one lane is left for trucks and passenger vehicles. Who does this BID benefit? Certainly, not the residents of SoHo. The efforts of the Community Board clearly show that nothing is returned to the residents. It took nearly 10 years of asking the Board to support bringing back the Bob Bolles sculptures implanted in the asphalt in the early days of SoHo -- unceremoniously ripped out by the Parks Department. Nothing was ever done by Community Board #2. Only when a major developer arrives on the scene and money is spread around, do they take an interest. Isn't that suspicious? Artists showing their works on the street in SoHo are routinely arrested and guerilla art has, for years, been allowed to deteriorate.
When the mom and pop stores have to close up due to higher rents, when artists have had to leave SoHo due to the exorbitant rental escalation costs and lack of dedicated space, when politicians fail to be supportive in the attack against rent stabilized tenants, the answer is simple: political will is nowhere to be found. Only lip service remains. Real Estate interests and Commercial landlords are behind this BID. Not residents.
The Community Board has failed to hear the residents of SoHo in the past. In this instance, through a convoluted number of hastily called meetings and misinformation, the residents had almost no say in the adoption of the BID. The first Community Board meeting, for which there was virtually no notice, only a few residents appeared at Zoning Committee and spoke clearly about their objection. The follow-up Full Board meeting where residents turned out in force, there was overwhelming opposition from the community. Instead of being summarily rejected, however, it was "tabled" through an artful amendment introduced by former Board Chair Brad Hoylman. The Chair of Zoning committee, David Reck, apparently felt obligated to support the BID at the Community Board despite the clear and overwhelming opposition. His handling of this is a clear example of the Stockholm Effect in government service. He has developed close ties to developers and real interests and is often antagonistic to residents and their views appearing in front of his committee.
Following that evening a the Full Board, meetings with no notice and no little participation were held, finally ending up in front of Amanda Burden and numerous commissioners at the Department of City Planning, the next step in this process of "arranged" approval. The Chair of Community Board 2, Jo Hamilton spoke with only two representatives of SoHo present due to the lack of notice. Hamilton, despite the overwhelming rejection of the Board she represents, spoke in favor of the BID and Burden knowingly readily accepted her position -- and, of course, the BID was approved. Brad Hoylman, former Chair of Community Board #2 also inadvertently supported the BID by craftily keeping it alive despite serious community objections. Since the BID was clearly rejected by the Board, "tabling" the issue at the Full Board simply kept it alive for Hamilton to later support on her own as Chair. Hoylman, himself, is an executive at a powerful non-profit real estate advocacy group whose founder is David Rockefeller. We have not heard from any of these quarters in protecting tenants or SoHo. Interestingly, Hoylman had planned to run for Christine Quinn's City Council seat (in an area which encompasses the western portion of SoHo) but was sidetracked by the candidacy of popular candidates Yetta Kurland and Andrew Berman -- and the term-limits fiasco which kept Quinn in her position and Bloomberg in office.
Either SoHo needs a Community Board which clearly represent its interests -- or members from SoHo should resign from the Community Board as a result of this contemptuous treatment. While this cannot be clearly considered corruption, it has the odor of deal made all along the chain of command. Borough President Scott Stringer, who professes to be concerned with affordable housing -- and who ultimately approves the membership of all Community Boards -- needs to address this longstanding issue. City Planning is a creature of Bloomberg and should be dismantled.