Community Boards

Board 7 Weighs In On

Fate of Parking Garage

Take your pick: You can have either parking or affordable housing. Those were the weighty stones on either side of the balance at Community Board 7′s Oct. 7 meeting, in which the board debated whether a collection of Manhattan Valley parking garages should remain as is, or be demolished and converted into affordable housing.

In the spring, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development came to the board for advice on what fate should befall three parcels of property that the city has held since the 1960′s and is now looking to dispose of. The addresses, 103, 137 and 151 West 108th Street, are all currently multi-storied parking garages between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues that collectively contain over 700 parking spaces. No. 103 sits adjacent to the Anibal Aviles Playground, a city park. Two separate private entities-HRF Operating Corp. and E&B Operating Corp.-have long leased the garages, and both hope to purchase the buildings from the city.

Seeking local input, on Sept. 8 the board held a community hearing on the matter that was attended by a stampede of 600 people, almost all of whom were passionately committed to protecting the endangered species known as the New York City parking spot.

Although on Sept. 17 the board’s land-use committee had voted decisively 8 to 2 in favor of selling off the lots (with a 30-year restriction on resale) to HRF and E&B, the full board’s debate was one of the most fractured on any resolution in recent memory.

The resolution on the table stated that it would be “impractical and economically unfeasible” to build affordable housing on the site (partly because the necessary excavation might lead to perilous bedrock), and that none of the current parkers could be accommodated in such buildings. A vote of 20 to 15, with three abstentions (making it effectively 20 to 18, since abstentions count as “no” votes), passed the resolution, to much grumbling from the minority.

Council member Phillip Reed spoke in favor of retaining the garages, and a legislative aide was on hand to pass out Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell’s letter in concurrence. Hope Cohen, the board’s land-use co-chair and another supporter of the garages, informed the board that if the land was used for housing, a mere 150 studio apartments could be constructed, or even fewer family units.

“I have come to the conclusion that it would be lunacy to even consider tearing down these garages,” said Richard Asche, Ms. Cohen’s co-chair.

Mr. Asche added that in order to create proper housing and parking, the site would have to be “upzoned,” raising the level of development that would be legally allowed-an act which the board fears would set a bad precedent. The other option, he said, would be to de-map the neighboring playground, a near impossibility since such a move would involve the State Legislature.

Still, many board members remained committed to developing affordable housing and claimed that housing supporters were not fairly represented. Janet Álvarez, who had translated the flyer announcing the community meeting into Spanish, conceded that she had done a less-than-perfect job of attracting people to the meeting who were interested in housing rather than parking issues, and others agreed that the outreach effort to these people could have been stronger.

Board member D. Maria Watson told The Observer that she believed the board had failed to consider carefully the buildings’ future. She said that if the lots were upzoned from the current R-7 to an R-8 status, which would allow for eight-story buildings, a potential 243 units could be constructed; and if the park were moved across the street (the location of Booker T. Washington Junior High School), 335 units could be built.

Land-use committee member Linda Alexander felt otherwise. “I truly believe that there is something inherently cynical about my colleagues, who would prefer to deprive vital services to our neighbors who have used these garages for decades-having an impact on perhaps 1,400 or more people-in order to appease some kind of misconstrued idealism,” she said.

When contacted by The Observer , H.P.D. spokeswoman Carol Abrams said that she expected her agency to follow the board’s wishes once H.P.D. had gone through the required Uniform Land Use Review Process.

In the meantime, a long-shot candidate is still holding onto the hope of developing the lots as something other than parking. Valley Restoration Local Development Corporation is developing a proposal for H.P.D. that would outline the potential for a mixed-use building housing not-for-profit office space, low-to-middle-income housing and a basement garage. “We’ve come to the conclusion that we need housing in this neighborhood,” Lillian Rydell, the development group’s executive director, told The Observer.

-Benjamin Ryan

Can’t Stop the Music:

Neptunes to Play Union Square

“Hope my style don’t cause you fear …. We’ll see tonight,” sing the Neptunes, the Virginia Beach duo, in their song “Things Are Getting Better.” Actually, we won’t see tonight-not if Community Board 5 has anything to say in the matter. The board voted to reject an application to have the hip-hopsters perform in Union Square Park on Oct. 16.

According to the application filed by Jack Morton Worldwide, the marketing firm that represents the Neptunes, the band will perform for 45 minutes starting at 6 p.m.-no tickets necessary. The gratis admission is due in part to the sponsors, among them Smirnoff and “related products.” In addition, the promoters intend to contact bar owners and encourage patrons to attend the concert.

The reasons for the board’s overwhelming opposition to the concert are twofold: First, as stated by Kevin Guillet, co-chairman of the board’s parks committee, is the general concern that one of the event’s major sponsors is an alcohol producer. “The sole purpose of the event,” he told The Observer , “is to promote Smirnoff products”-a cause that he apparently feels is less than noble. “Parks are for the neighborhood,” echoed David Diamond, the board’s first vice chair. “We don’t want to establish a pattern of approving commercial events in parks.” Second, since the concert will be amplified, board members felt the music’s volume would be unacceptably high.

From the board’s point of view, the negatives outweigh what is perhaps the lone upside of the event: The city stands to make tens of thousands of dollars. And “everybody needs money,” allowed Mr. Guillet.

According to the Parks Department, Jack Morton Worldwide is shelling out $60,000 to the Parks Department, $30,000 of which is earmarked for Union Square Park and the remainder for “programming.”

Financial windfall or not, the board decided to put immediate quality-of-life issues first. Mr. Diamond pointed to past complaints prompted by commercial events with amplified sound that have taken place in Union Square Park. Board member Muriel Bernstein agreed, recalling the bad experience the neighborhood had with “the Nissan concert”-a reference to the Oct. 1, 2002, performance where the rock duo the White Stripes played a lunchtime show in the park, an event sponsored by Nissan. According to the board, the 13th Precinct responded to the noise complaints and, during the band’s cover of “Boll Weevil Blues,” the organizers cut the juice-an act that had little effect.

Hours after the event took place, MTV.com reported: “Sans amplification, the group persevered, as Jack White, after hushing the crowd’s booing, perched near the lip of the stage and screamed the dialogue between farmer and pest, and drummer Meg White gently tapped her cymbal in time.”

The White Stripes’ concert is not a harbinger of things to come, assured Bob Garafola, the Parks Department’s deputy commissioner for management and budget-but, he cautioned, “I’d have to talk to somebody about that.”

Despite the objections of the board, the Parks Department’s prior approval all but guarantees that the Neptunes’ show will go on.

Addressing the issue of the city partnering up with a liquor company (as board member Judy Breidbart asked, “Will [Smirnoff] be giving out coupons?”), Mr. Garafola said: “We’re working with Smirnoff on this event, and it doesn’t bother us particularly. They will not be giving out any liquor; there will be no sampling going on.”

When asked how the city felt about being so at odds with the community board, Mr. Garafola said he was unaware that there had been any contention over the issue at the board.

“This is news to me,” he said.

-Elon R. Green

Small Step for Artist,

Splendid Step for N.Y.C.

As the United Nations forges on in its continuing struggle to make strides toward international consensus and community, steps of another, more modest sort are being made down the street by the Baghdad-born Israeli-American sculptor, Zigi Ben-Haim.

Mr. Ben-Haim has recently cleared several hurdles-including gaining the approval, on Oct. 8, of Community Board 6-for his sculpture titled, fittingly enough, Splendid Step , to be installed in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at 47th Street, between First and Second avenues, at the beginning of November. As for its installation in the plaza (which is named for the U.N.’s second Secretary General), Mr. Ben-Haim said: “The location is perfect for me-lots of decision-making, steps forward, steps back.”

Mr. Ben-Haim, a 57-year-old New York City artist whose work is exhibited in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Ghent Museum in Belgium and the Tel Aviv Museum in Israel, is currently fabricating the 14-foot-high sculpture. It will be constructed of aluminum and wire mesh, with its armature filled in by a stone and concrete mixture. The piece, which will reside only temporarily in the park, is vaguely human-shaped, with long, slender, burnished-metal “legs” and one “arm” that curves around the blue wire-mesh and metal “body” and resembles an artist’s palette. The focal point of the sculpture is a recurring motif in Mr. Ben-Haim’s work: a leaf-shaped object, which the figure appears to be carrying. “I use organic shapes [in my art], shapes that open up, start new life,” Mr. Ben-Haim told The Observer in his Soho studio.

He said that his sculpture is generally composed of manufacturing materials as opposed to “fine arts” materials in order to better reflect the quotidian world. According to Mr. Ben-Haim, Splendid Step will cost approximately $20,000 to fabricate, insure and install in the park. He said the funds for the sculpture are being raised privately.

Mr. Ben-Haim secured the blessings of Board 6, thanks in part to the enthusiastic approval of the Friends of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, a nonprofit park-stewardship group. Michael Butler, the group’s president, told The Observer that “everyone [in the organization] loved [ Splendid Step ], and we feel that Dag Hammarskjold Plaza is an excellent place for artists to display their work.” Board 6 was originally scheduled to vote on the matter during its September meeting, but it tabled the resolution until Oct. 8 so that the Friends of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza could vote on issue first. Gary Papush, chair of Board 6′s parks, landmarks and cultural-affairs committee, told The Observer , “This kind of a situation, where the Parks Department wants a temporary placement, will be approved by the board unless there are compelling reasons to oppose it.”

Typically, for an artist to install artwork in a New York City park, a proposal must be approved by a panel that includes the commissioner of the Parks Department and, depending on the scope and scale of the work, the local community board. Securing funding is up to the artist. The art is usually displayed for six months, as Splendid Step will be. The transitory nature of the display suits Mr. Ben-Haim well: “Good art you can see by its reflection of life at the moment it is done,” he said.

-Matthew Ian Grace

Oct. 15: Board 8, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, 430 East 67th Street, auditorium, 7 p.m., 212-758-4340.

Oct. 16: Board 9, 565 West 125th Street, ground floor, 6:30 p.m., 212-864-6200.

Oct. 21: Board 11, El Museo Del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, first floor, 6 p.m., 212-831-8929; Board 1, 250 Broadway, 19th-floor general-assembly room, 6 p.m., 212-442-5050; Board 3, P.S. 20, 166 Essex Street, 6:30 p.m., 212-533-5300.