In the first full week of the new year, the real estate story that encouraged the greatest flurry of angry letters, intervention from elected officials, and building violations was not Stuyvesant Town’s impending default, nor Atlantic Yards. It was, in essence, two sheets of cloth draped over a building in Greenwich Village.
The Equinox Fitness Center at 97 Greenwich Avenue, near 12th Street, covered its façade almost entirely with two billboards as part of a new advertising campaign, without seeking permits or gaining approval from the city. A bandwagon of residents, city agencies and elected officials attacked the gym, with each day of the week bringing another voice in opposition, covered in large part on the blog Curbed.
Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Preservation Society, alerted the city’s Department of Buildings and the Landmarks Preservation Commission about the violation on Jan. 4.
“The billboards are blatantly illegal — they put them up without even applying for any of the required permits, presumably because they knew they could not get them,” said Mr. Berman by email. “This is a landmark district and a residential neighborhood; historic district and zoning regulations prohibit these kind of Times Square-sized billboards in this area.”
The GVSHP has been fighting what it calls “illegal billboards” for years, succeeding in removing some, but not all signs – the Hotel Gansevoort’s controversial billboard remains, for example. But in the case of Equinox, it appears that the city government, elected officials and many residents are united in their opposition. But even so, the billboards are still on display as of Jan. 8, said Mr. Berman.
On Jan. 5, the LPC issued a warning letter to Edmond Schwartz of Almi Greenwich, the landlord of 97 Greenwich. Since the gym is within the Greenwich Village Historic District, all construction or development must be approved by the LPC. But the letter allows for a “grace period” of 20 working days until a Notice of Violation is served, which has a fine of up to $5,000 — a pittance for Equinox and its huge parent, the Related Companies, compared with the cost of renting prominent billboards.
On Jan. 6, State Senator Thomas Duane, who represents Greenwich Village, wrote a letter to Equinox CEO Harvey Spevak, urging the gym to take down the billboards.
“I’m assuming this was an aberration on the part of Equinox,” said Mr. Duane in a telephone interview. “Our goal is not to catch people and punish them. Our goal is to maintain the integrity of our neighborhoods. There is an issue of visual pollution in general, not just in historic districts.”
From Equinox’s point of view, however, the billboard campaign may have paid off tremendously. Instead of simply catching the eyes of passersby at 12th Street and Greenwich Avenue, the billboards have become the stars of a controversial drama, and perhaps encouraged a few new members.