Community Boards

On the Rise: Tribeca Welcomes

Large-Scale Development Projects “Hot” may no longer be the right word to describe the Tribeca real-estate market, but neither is it exactly foundering. Lured in part by low interest rates and the possibility of post-9/11 government subsidies for downtown construction, developers are busy raising new buildings in the neighborhood, despite the soft economy. No less than four new buildings are going up in Tribeca’s historic district within three blocks of each other: a boutique hotel at N. Moore and Greenwich streets, a nine-story corporate headquarters two blocks north at Hubert Street, a luxury residential high-rise one block east at Hubert and Collier streets, and a six-story loft residence one block north on Laight Street, near the Holland Tunnel on-ramp.

Community Board 1 reviewed three of the building proposals at its May 20 public meeting. (Construction of the Hubert tower is already well underway and should be completed by year’s end.)

Board members voted to approve the plan for an 80-unit hotel designed by Edmond Bakos of the Rockwell Group, which conceived the stylish W Hotel Union Square. The six-story building’s brick-and-mortar façade, with rounded corners, will be accented by large, recessed windows and steel shutters.

“We wanted to take the historic details that make Tribeca what it is and reinterpret them in sympathetic, modern fashion,” said William Higgins, a partner in the historic-preservation consultancy firm Higgins & Quaesbarth, which works with Rockwell.

Mr. Higgins told The Observer that the flurry of building projects in the area “represents a real affirmation of the continuing vitality and economic liveliness of Tribeca,” despite the blow the neighborhood received from the terrorist attack. “It has surprised me how quickly Tribeca has rebounded and how much energy it seems to have maintained in the face of 9/11,” he said.

The board also voted to approve the Laight Street residence, which it first reviewed back in July 2001. The building, which will replace a derelict gas station, was originally planned as five lofts, each over 2,000 square feet. But citing financial hardship, the developer was recently granted a variance to double the number of units. Most of the 10 apartments will run approximately 1,300 to 1,700 square feet.

The developers of the Hubert and Greenwich Street building have also modified their original plan, but not for financial reasons. Board 1 objected to the initial proposal for an 11-story edifice, which it felt would overpower the surrounding buildings in the low-rise historic district. The revised plan cuts the number of stories down to nine, reducing the building’s height by 33 feet.

The site, presently occupied by a dilapidated warehouse, will serve as the new headquarters for Samuel A. Ramirez and Company, a full-service, family-owned securities firm that has operated downtown for over 30 years. The warehouse will be torn down to make way for a new building with ground-floor retail, four commercial floors and four residential floors. The commercial space will be occupied entirely by Ramirez and Company, and the firm’s principals will live on the top two floors. The others will be occupied either by company associates or rented to the public.

Whereas the hotel reflects the ornamental strain in 19th-century American architecture, the terra cotta, metal and concrete structure designed by Morris Adjmi echoes the geometric and utilitarian aesthetic of surrounding industrial buildings, Mr. Higgins told The Observer . A tripartite vertical scheme, repeating arch motif and abstracted dentil cornice all recall typical architectural features of that period, said Mr. Adjmi, best known for his bold design (with Aldo Rossi) of the Scholastic headquarters on Broadway in Soho. Although pleased with the recent modifications, Board 1 decided to postpone its vote on the proposal.

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has jurisdiction over development projects within historic districts, has already approved the Laight Street residence. The commission will review the hotel and corporate-headquarters proposals during a public hearing on May 27. Mr. Higgins called the chances of approval for both “very good.”

-Megan Costello

Manhattanville Makes Way For More Transitional Housing

Since the late 1980′s, Community Board 9 has tried to fight off incursions by social-service organizations -providing housing for AIDS patients, recovering addicts and the mentally ill-that have been drawn to the neighborhood’s unused buildings and cheap leases. Now, yet another housing organization is looking to set up shop in the neighborhood-but this time around, it may be with the board’s backing.

On June 19, members of Board 9 will vote on whether to support Weston United Community Renewal, a nonprofit social-service organization that is competing to lease a building located at 157 Edgecombe Avenue in Manhattanville. If the organization is awarded the lease, it will renovate what is now a shell of a building into transitional housing for the homeless, Weston United officials said in a presentation before the full board on May 15.

The board’s housing and land-use committee has recommended that the full board back Weston United’s plans. If the board follows the committee’s advice, however, it will represent a significant departure for a community with a long-standing opposition to the increasing number of social-service agencies in its territory.

The decision will also come at a time when some board members are looking for legal methods to end the expansion of the agencies already in the neighborhood.

Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, the co-chair of the housing committee, said that he voted in favor of supporting Weston United, despite the fact that he believes the neighborhood is oversaturated with housing for the homeless, the mentally ill, substance abusers and AIDS patients. Weston United’s positive track record, and the fact that it sought the board’s approval even when it wasn’t required to, contributed to the committee’s decision, Mr. Reyes-Montblanc said.

“[Weston United] demonstrated respect for the community, asking for our support even though they didn’t need it,” Mr. Reyes-Montblanc told The Observer . “A lot of institutions don’t have that courtesy. They do their thing and we find out about it afterward, and that almost guarantees unanimous opposition.”

Jean Newburg, Weston United’s executive director, declined to comment to The Observer about her organization’s plans. But at the May 15 meeting, Ms. Newburg said that Weston United was competing for the lease with another social-service agency with similar plans for the building. That organization-which was not identified-has yet to contact or come before the board.

The board will likely support Weston United because it is a known organization with a proven background, unlike its competitor, Mr. Reyes-Montblanc said.

“They have a very high reputation for good service within boards 10 and 11,” he said. “There were quite a number of people who spoke on their behalf, which seldom happens.”

If Weston United is awarded the lease, it will be the organization’s first foray into Board 9′s territory. But the operation would be far from the first transitional-housing facility within Board 9, which is a serious concern to many residents and board members.

While several members said the social-service programs are needed in the neighborhood, many agreed that Board 9 already has more than its fair share of transitional housing.

A study commissioned in the late 1990′s by board member and former chair Maritta Dunn mapped 39 of these facilities in the board’s territory-the vast majority of them clustered in a predominantly minority neighborhood north of 125th Street, east of Riverside Drive and west of St. Nicholas Avenue. Walter South, another board member, calculated that the area’s population of people in transitional-housing and outpatient programs-about 4,100-make up as much as 15 percent of the total population in the corridor east of Riverside Drive.

According to Ms. Dunn, the neighborhood doesn’t have enough political clout to resist the intrusion of social-service agencies, which are attracted by the large number of inexpensive buildings for sale or lease.

“You have to really look at communities where there are minorities … where people don’t have the actual power to say: ‘No, don’t come in here,’” Ms. Dunn said. “Now, I guarantee you, if somebody of power lived in that neighborhood, that map [of 39 facilities] wouldn’t exist.”

Landlords also favor the social-service agencies over traditional renters because the agencies-almost all of which are subsidized with city, state and federal grants-promise a stable and sizable income for the owners, Mr. South said. As a result, landlords make larger profits than they do in rent-controlled buildings or buildings without a consistent tenant base.

While the board will likely support Weston United, its members are also in the process of drafting a land-use plan for the neighborhood (called a 197A) which may call for restrictions on the amount of social-service housing in the neighborhood. But the plan, which can take as long as a decade to complete, is not a perfect solution, because the city and the state are not legally bound to comply with it, Ms. Dunn told The Observer .

“You could put in extremely strong language as to what you do and do not want in that community,” Ms. Dunn said. “When it’s all done, the city still has the option to adhere to what’s in [the land-use plan] or not.”

The only real solution, according to Ms. Dunn, is that “you have to have powerful political and financial backing-and if you have both, you’re wonderful.”

-Brandt Gassman

June 3: Board 7, Fordham University, 113 West 60th Street, 7 p.m., 212-362-4008.