Volume 17 • Issue 30 | Dec. 17 - 23, 2004

Some in Soho like modern design, but city has questions

By Ronda Kaysen

A developer’s plan to transform a vacant lot in Soho into a modernist residential building — the first of its kind under the neighborhood’s new zoning rules — has evoked a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation from community members and a critical response from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Last December, the City Council approved a change in the city’s zoning text to allow for new residential developments in Soho and Noho, a change that will undoubtedly have an effect on the appearance of the historic districts. A harbinger of the new Soho to come, developer Albert Laboz has enlisted the modernist architectural firm, Gwathmey Siegel, to design a five-story, glass-and-metal building atop the spacious parking lot at 311 W. Broadway, across from the Soho Grand Hotel. For many in Soho, the possibility of a tastefully executed modern design sits better than a poor reproduction of the cast-iron buildings that make their neighborhood famous.

“One hundred years from now people will be more impressed by a beautiful 21st-century building than by a cookie-cutter copy of a 19th-century building,” said Sean Sweeney, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Landmarks Committee. “We don’t want to look like Disneyland.”

The decision not to mimic the historic architecture, said Laboz, was intentional. “We’re doing a modern interpretation of a cast-iron building,” Laboz said in a telephone interview. He declined to release design renderings because the Landmarks Commission has asked for changes.

Noting the developer’s responsiveness to community concerns, the committee gave Laboz a nod of approval when he presented his plans last month. “We got what we wanted. Everyone was thrilled,” said Sweeney, who is also director of the Soho Alliance, a neighborhood group.

Sweeney said community members were especially relieved to hear that Laboz’s plans include a 150-car underground garage, which will help make up for parking lost when the site, which is currently a parking lot, is developed.

Although the building’s designs include ground-floor retail space on W. Broadway, they also include ground-floor townhouses on its Wooster St. side, an unprecedented design for Soho, which typically does not permit ground-floor residential use. The developer will need to apply for a special permit in order to include the townhouses in its plans. “You’re not allowed to live in the ground floor in Soho,” said Sweeney. However, he added, “We’d actually prefer people moving in.”

Not all board members agreed with Sweeney’s aesthetic assessment of the building. Andrew Jones, a public member of the Landmarks Committee, took issue with the ground floor’s height. Unlike many buildings in Soho, which have a taller ground floor in comparison to upper floors, the ground floor at 311 W. Broadway is the same height as the higher floors, creating the illusion of a squat building. “The building is another example of a developer squeezing as many floors as possible into the zoning envelope,” said Jones. “It’s unaesthetic in a setting where the other buildings have different proportions.”

Jones encourages modern design in Soho, citing the Mies Van der Rohe Seagrams building on Park Ave. as an example of appropriate modernist architecture. He thinks Laboz’s plans, however, do not make the cut. “There are modern buildings that achieve historic proportions,” he said. “It can be done, but this didn’t do it.”

In apparent agreement with Jones, L.P.C. sent the developer’s team back to the drawing board after a Dec. 7 appearance before the commission. “They [the commissioners] asked that the architect work on the design,” said Diane Jackier, L.P.C.’s spokesperson. “They had issues with the overall massing and the setback [of the building.]”

“We have to study [L.P.C.’s findings] and come back with a revised or modified plan,” said Howard Zipser, the developer’s zoning and land-use lawyer. “Hopefully we can resolve these issues and make an application to City Planning.”

Residents in the area — especially those in the adjacent buildings — worry not only about what their new neighbor will look like, but whether or not its construction will inflict damage upon their own building. “Everyone [in Soho] that’s had construction next to [their building] has had problems from minor to very serious,” said D. James Dee, a resident of 12 Wooster St.

The building that will, in all likelihood, be most affected by the Laboz development — 307-309 W. Broadway, a co-op — has already endured damage from a new luxury residential construction on its Wooster St. side. Residents at 307-309 W. Broadway are increasingly concerned the Laboz project may cause further damage to their own building, said Dee. According to one 307-309 W. Broadway resident who declined to give her name for this article because of fear of retribution from fellow residents, the building sustained damage on every floor. On one floor, at least, the wall separated from the floor. The co-op’s residents, not the 7 Wooster St. developer, are paying for the repairs, the resident said.

Concern about structural damage is not unfounded in the low-lying neighborhood. The residents at 74 Grand St., a five-story cast-iron building, were evacuated in September after a heavy rain flooded an adjacent excavation pit, causing extensive structural damage to their building. In November, a backhoe digging a new sewer line for a building at 51 Crosby St. hit a water main, forcing residents at neighboring 53 Crosby St. to temporarily evacuate. And last March, a long vertical crack split open the side of 620 Broadway, the result of a new Macklowe Properties Inc. construction.

“There have been numerous instances of adjacent buildings sinking,” said Jones. “It’s a very serious issue.” C.B. 2’s Landmarks Committee does not address issues other than aesthetics and therefore cannot comment on structural concerns in its findings.

The nearby residents need not worry that their building will suffer such a traumatic fate, said Zipser. “We’ve assembled the best team in the city on this and we’re going to do all the monitoring that’s required to make sure there is no disturbance at all,” he said. “The way the building is constructed, it will have minimal effect on the other buildings.”

“Our main goal has always been to work with the community,” Laboz added.

But until Laboz can secure L.P.C.’s approval, 311 W. Broadway will remain as it is: a parking lot. Dee, a Soho property owner himself, expects Laboz’s plan will eventually be approved with fewer headaches than other Soho developers because of his attitude towards local residents. The developer and members of his design team met with the Soho Alliance on two separate occasions before they presented the plan to Community Board 2. “It’s costing him more money upfront,” said Dee of Laboz’s strategy of engaging the community. “But it seems to me that he wants to do it right. By cooperating with the neighborhood, you don’t have any lawsuits that are going to cost you money. By not upsetting the neighbors and by staying within the law, he’s going to take this development pretty much straight on through.”


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