Volume 20, Number 43 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN - MARCH 7 -- 13, 2008

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

Front row, from left, Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance; Councilmember Tony Avella; and Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, at press conference before last week’s B.S.A. hearing on the Trump Soho condo-hotel.

Soho condo-hotel is all Trumped up, opponents cry

By Barrett Zinn Gross 

In a standing-room-only hearing before New York City’s Board of Standards and Appeals last week, community members implored the B.S.A. to revoke the construction permit for the Trump Soho hotel-condominium.

Construction on the high-profile high-rise at Spring and Varick Sts. was halted amid safety concerns following the collapse near the top of the northeast corner of the 42-story tower that plunged a construction worker to his death in mid-January.

Last Wednesday’s hearing regarding the Soho Alliance’s appeal of the Department of Buildings’ decision to grant the project a building permit was the latest challenge to the embattled project, which was announced to the public on Donald Trump’s television reality show “The Apprentice” in 2006. Since then, the project has faced a variety of stumbling blocks, including vehement opposition at Community Board 2 meetings, the discovery of centuries-old human remains during excavation, the revelation that a partner in the project was once indicted for fraud and money laundering and the death in the January accident of an employee of DiFama Concrete, a company whose founder is a currently in prison serving time for racketeering. 

However, the B.S.A. hearing was the first time any city officials with the power to affect the process outside of the Department of Buildings have heard the argument against Trump Soho. Although the building had been marketed as a residence, it is located in a manufacturing zone that allows hotels, but not residential use. Yet, neither the City Council Zoning Subcommittee nor any other government agency has held a public hearing on the tower — which was only granted a building permit after Trump and his partners agreed to sign a restrictive declaration capping length of stays at the condo-hotel.

In its appeal to the B.S.A., the Soho Alliance is requesting the agency make a ruling to pull the project’s building permit.

Arguing the appeal on behalf of the Soho Alliance was Stu Klein, former general counsel to the Department of Buildings. Defending the permit were Mark Davis on behalf of D.O.B. and Paul Selver of Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel L.L.P. for Bayrock/Sapir, the main development partners of the tower, which will bear Trump’s name.

Klein spoke first to the board, arguing that by issuing the permit, D.O.B. has made a mockery of the city’s zoning regulations. He cited passages from New York’s Real Property Law, Multiple Dwelling Law, zoning regulations and building codes, trying to explain how Trump Soho violated the law.

However, Christopher Collins, the B.S.A.’s vice chairperson, said that Klein had read too deeply into plain language, such as “primary use” and “day-to-day” to make his case. B.S.A. Chairperson Meenakshi Srinivasan also seemed skeptical of Klein’s’ line of argument. But B.S.A. members Ellen Montanez, Susan Hinton and Dana Ottley Brown appeared more sympathetic. They each expressed concern that the restrictive declaration negotiated between Trump and D.O.B. governing occupancy at the condo-hotel could undermine the city’s ability to enforce zoning regulations in the future.

D.O.B. attorney Davis asserted that the absence of mailboxes and trash chutes proved that Trump Soho units were not residential. At one point, he even compared the luxuriously furnished, glass-walled condos to college dormitory rooms.

Owner-investors of Trump Soho condos sign purchase contracts in which they agree to reside in their apartments for no more than 29 days in any 36-day period and no more than 120 days in any calendar year. They are also required to make their apartments available for rental on a daily or weekly basis when they are out of town. Trump Soho already has reportedly sold 53 percent of its 400 units.

Klein, however, contended the language was too vague to be enforceable. The restrictive declaration also includes provisions for financial penalties should owners exceed their maximum stays. But Klein asserted that D.O.B. can’t fine anyone but the condo owner — meaning that a renter violating the terms of the restrictive declaration would have no financial liability.

Both Davis and Selver, the Trump Soho’s counsel, contended that the project was legally a hotel and therefore could have been built as of right (not needing any zoning variances). Yet, the building permit was rejected several times in 2006 because D.O.B. was not satisfied with plans submitted by Trump Soho.

The attorneys were followed by a two-hour parade of speakers from the Soho Alliance, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, Community Boards 1, 2 and 4, Manhattan and Brooklyn business councils and residents. There were at least 75 people in the audience. Those from the public who spoke all called Trump Soho a thinly disguised residential condominium project — a “Trojan horse,” according to Soho Alliance Director Sean Sweeney, whose group filed the appeal — that would open the floodgates to unrestricted development in the city’s remaining manufacturing zones.

The opponents said they feared that the displacement of business tenants and the loss of thousands of working-class jobs would worsen the city’s already-wide economic stratification. Andrew Berman of G.V.S.H.P., described a future in which low-cost, low-rise industrial areas would inexorably give way to luxury hotel-condos once developers are given the green light to exploit the zoning law loophole precedent punched open by Trump Soho.

Community opponents denounced the restrictive declaration’s rules as meaningless and unenforceable.

However, a Trump spokesperson responded in an e-mail, saying that all occupants will have to register at the condo-hotel’s front desk.

Zack Winestine of the Greenwich Village Community Task Force pointed out to the B.S.A. members that even if the condo-hotel’s registers were properly maintained, “What city official will ask the owner and their family to go out on the street on the 30th day?”

Selver argued that since kitchens were removed from the original building plans, the units are not legally residences. But Selver raised additional concerns by announcing a new feature of the apartments — a locked owner’s closet. This revelation enraged Klein, who claimed that since it did not appear in the plans filed with the city it constituted fraud, a charge alluded to by many members of the public in their testimony.

Other speakers also pointed out the irrelevance of kitchens in New Yorkers’ lives. Tobi Bergman, a C.B. 2 member and an owner of two small buildings in the shadow of Trump Soho a block south of the condo-hotel site, testified that potential renters of his units had often asked him to remove the kitchens to gain more living space.

“Are there not hot plates?” said Gregg Levine, drawing laughter from the crowd as he spoke for the Thompson-Sullivan Coalition. “Are there not microwaves?”

City Councilmember Tony Avella, of Queens, chairperson of the Council’s Zoning Subcommittee who is running for mayor, denounced D.O.B. and Trump at a press conference before the hearing. During the hearing, Avella asked the B.S.A. to declare its independence from the rest of the Bloomberg administration, which has allowed the Trump Soho project to move forward despite problematic issues that pose the risk of flouting city zoning.

On the other hand, the silence of local elected officials on Wednesday was deafening. There was a conspicuous absence of local elected officials or their representatives in the hearing room. Asked later how many local electeds he saw in the room, Sweeney said, “None.”

Assemblymember Deborah Glick, who represents Soho in the state Legislature, did not attend the hearing or send a representative.

But afterward, Glick said she supports the Soho Alliance’s appeal. She feels the Trump Soho represents “the nose of the camel peeking in the tent” of residential development in manufacturing zones. She said that, from the start, the project’s marketing flew in the face of zoning regulations, and that the B.S.A.’s endorsement of the dubious condo-hotel would only increase the problem of tenant harassment. Glick believes not only residential, but commercial tenants, would likely be affected with landlords trying to pressure them out with cash buyouts.

At the hearing’s end, B.S.A. Vice Chairperson Collins said the crux of the case was D.O.B.’s interpretation of Section 1210 of the city’s Zoning Resolution, which is simply a list of definitions of the terms used in the text of the Zoning Resolution. Collins also asked both sides to examine the precedent established by Buildings in the case of 848 Washington St. in the Meat Market, another quasi-residential hotel project that was rejected in 2004 in a strongly worded letter by then-D.O.B. Deputy Commissioner Fatma Amer.

The date for the next B.S.A. hearing on Trump Soho is May 6. On the construction site, work is now limited to the lower 23 floors. Atop the building’s still-unfinished steel frame, the collapsed northeast corner remains shrouded in a veil of black safety netting.

If its appeal fails at the B.S.A., the Soho Alliance will file an Article 78 lawsuit against the B.S.A.’s decision.



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