Volume 17 • Issue 35 • Jan. 21 - 27, 2005

Owner seeks permit around Soho artist-resident law

By Albert Amateau

The owner of an eight-story building in the Soho Cast-Iron Historic District who is seeking a special permit to eliminate the requirement that live/work lofts must be occupied by certified artists received a resounding no vote last week from the Community Board 2 Housing and Zoning Committee.

At the same time, the corporate owner of 96 Spring St. is asking the City Planning Commission for permission to exceed the limit on the size of retail uses on the ground floor and basement of the building at the corner of Spring and Mercer Sts. The committee also turned down that part of the request.

“We’re reluctant to give up the artist-in-residence requirement,” said David Reck, head of the committee, at the Jan. 13 meeting that attracted artists who have lived and worked in Soho for 30 years — since the time when artist certification was made part of the zoning that allowed live/work lofts in the manufacturing district — and longer.

Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, had a harsher judgment. “It’s the most outrageous application I’ve seen,” he said. In addition to preserving the hard-fought artist-in-residence zoning, he said, Soho residents have been fighting to keep the recently enacted 5,000-sq.-ft. size limit on eating/drinking establishments on the combined ground floor and basement levels and a 10,000-sq.-ft. limit on other retail uses.

Marjorie Perlmutter, a land-use lawyer representing the owner, said the combined ground-floor basement space is 12,115 sq. ft. In addition to the commercial space, the owner plans to create two 3,000-sq.-ft. loft units on each floor from the second to the eighth floor.

While community boards have only an advisory role on City Planning applications, the City Council can alter or stop zoning changes and special permits. And Councilmember Alan Gerson, who represents Soho, said later that the application for 96 Spring St. was unacceptable.

“We’ve let the owners know that before we even consider a waiver of the artist-in-residence requirement, they would have to agree to a substantial giveback to the arts in the building — like studios or galleries — and that’s just across the threshold for considering a change,” Gerson said.

Perlmutter said later that the owners would review the application and return to the Housing and Zoning committee on Feb. 10 with revisions before going to City Planning, Reck said.

At the Jan. 13 meeting, Sweeney noted that neighbors particularly didn’t want oversized bars and restaurants in the district — “It’s basically so people can get to sleep at night,” he said. Sweeney asked Perlmutter if she could assure neighbors that the ground floor would not be a bar/restaurant.

Perlmutter introduced Kevin Cornell, one of the partners in the ownership group, 96 Springs L.L.C., who said, “We’ve had several inquiries for retail but we haven’t had any for a bar or restaurant.” But Cornell admitted that he was not ready to guarantee that no bar or restaurant would ever rent the space were the zoning restrictions to be waived.

Last year, in a zoning change that affects the 16 vacant lots in the Soho Cast-Iron District, Gerson imposed a ban on eating and drinking establishments in the ground floor/basement retail spaces. But 96 Spring St. is an existing building and that provision does not apply.

Perlmutter said the application to allow non-artists to buy live/work lofts in the building would not prevent any artist from moving in. “It would also allow professionals like architects and fashion designers to work in the places where they live,” she said.

In return for the waivers, the owner is agreeing to undertake an extensive exterior maintenance program approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Perlmutter said the owner has already received Landmarks approval for a $1.5 million preservation program for the building.

Perlmutter told the committee that the artist-in-residence requirement makes it more difficult for developers to finance restoration projects in the Soho Cast-Iron District. Out-of-town banks are particularly reluctant to finance projects that require artist certification, she said. But Sweeney replied that local banks are familiar with Soho and have financed many artist-in-residence projects.

The application goes before the full Community Board 2 meeting for a recommendation at the end of the month and then to a Manhattan Borough Board review followed by a City Planning Dept. hearing and then to the City Council.


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