It’s not just Bill Clinton who finds uptown desirable nowadays. The Flower Market Association of NYC Inc. is also seeking to put down roots in the community; Demolition Depot wants to salvage a bit of the space; and Kmart is seeking a bargain uptown.
All three have submitted proposals to the city’s Economic Development Corporation to develop a chunk of city-owned land on the East Side, north of 125th Street and just over the Triborough Bridge. The proposals, submitted for a Dec. 15 deadline, are being reviewed by the city. Board 11 will ultimately get to vote its support or disapproval on the sale of the land.
Two of the three bidders showed up at Board 11’s Feb. 20 meeting to begin smoothing the way should the city accept their proposals. The flower association turned a copy of its proposal over to the board, detailing its bid to flee Chelsea after more than 100 years in the blocks from 26th to 29th streets, between Broadway and Seventh Avenue.
The Flower Market, a nonprofit trade association of the floral industry, hopes to relocate to one of five parcels, the lots between 127th and 128th streets and Second and Third avenues. “Real estate dynamics are pushing people out” of Chelsea, Ricardo Soto-Lopez, the flower association’s director of planning and economic development, told The Observer. Mr. Soto-Lopez said he hopes to move the market en masse to a new, modern facility that will serve as a central distribution point. He came to the board seeking a letter of support.
The area, now a series of vacant lots and rundown businesses, is ripe for development. But city officials and community members want to be sure the right kind of businesses are brought in-namely, those that can sustain themselves, create jobs and spur other economic development. At the same time, city officials will have to assess the impact on Chelsea should the Flower Market make the big move uptown.
But before it gets to that point, some hard decisions will have to be made by city officials and community members. At the meeting, board member Ernest Hobson asked Mr. Soto-Lopez if he was aware that three different organizations want a piece of the area his association covets. When Mr. Soto-Lopez said he did, he was asked if he’d be willing to share the space. Tactfully Mr. Soto-Lopez responded, “Our association is not in the position at this time to pursue any new joint ventures.”
However, at the board’s suggestion, Mr. Soto-Lopez had met with bidder No. 2, Evan Blum of Demolition Depot, to discuss a possible joint effort. The company, which rescues decorations from historic buildings, is located on West 125th Street, across from the development area. But Mr. Blum told The Observer he has big plans for a new business that will encompass the entire site, including the lots desired by the flower wholesalers: He wants to create something tentatively called the Harlem Bazaar, featuring antiques, art and entertainment.
Mr. Blum said he believes the Harlem Bazaar can bring as many as 10,000 customers to the area every Saturday and Sunday, helping to “erase a 50-year-old stigma that Harlem is a dangerous place to be.” He also said the complex will create jobs and complement existing businesses-a concern some community members expressed at the meeting.
But Mr. Soto-Lopez and Mr. Blum were not able to make a deal. For now, said Mr. Soto-Lopez, he’s concentrating on his own efforts, organizing 26 out of 31 wholesalers and numerous freelance floral arrangers.
“If the city designates us,” he told The Observer, “maybe we can work together on an area-wide plan. For now, we do not even know if we will be chosen.”
Mr. Blum, however, said he’s ready to move forward. “We feel there is a way we can work with them. We are open to that,” he told the board. There is, however, one more bidder: Kmart reportedly has expressed interest in putting a store on the site, bidding on two lots. However, the retail company sent no one to the board meeting to make a presentation.
Mr. Blum fired a volley at Kmart nonetheless, telling the board that he fears the addition of a megastore on the site will bring little value. “Megastores do not do much for a community but provide a lot of minimum-wage jobs with no benefits,” he said.
Board chairman David Givens told The Observer he expects the city to move quickly to make its decision, possibly as soon as March 15. “The city’s objective is to put these lots back on the tax roll and develop them before a new Mayor is in office,” Mr. Givens said in an interview. Once the city approves a buyer, though, the board can voice its opposition to the land sale based on traffic concerns, poor use of the property, unsuitable building design and other issues covered under the city’s land-use rules. The process would likely take around six months.
Another Case Of Vanishing Space
In 1969, two towers were built at 55 Water Street in lower Manhattan: a huge office building on the southern end of the lot and a smaller one on the northern end. In exchange for a zoning waiver to build the southern tower, the developer agreed to create a 40,000-square-foot plaza in front of the north tower.
Based on the rules of the game, which are dictated by city regulations, the plaza was supposed to remain public space for all time. And though the plaza is often poorly lit and inaccessible, the arrangement nonetheless suited nearby residents just fine.
But with buildable space evaporating more rapidly than tech-stock value, Goldman Sachs has had its eye on 55 Water Street. At the Feb. 20 meeting of Board 1, the mammoth securities firm sought permission to build a state-of-the-art trading floor there.
The firm wants to build a 14-story building, at a cost of more than half a billion dollars, on the site of the plaza. As compensation, Goldman Sachs told the board that they would fund the renovation of several nearby public spaces: the Vietnam Veterans Plaza, a bike and jogger pathway along the East River and the plaza in front of the north tower. Goldman Sachs representative Ross Moskowitz conceded that the three spaces combined are smaller than the plaza-but, he told the board, they would be nicer than the plaza, which he described as nearly abandoned and rarely used.
But beauty-and value-are in the eye of the beholder, of course. And Board 1 members were adamant: They want to keep their public space.
Jonathan Greenspan, the president of the 3 Hanover Square Owners Corporation, a residential 200-unit co-op just behind the plaza, told the board that the space meets the residents’ needs. “It’s a beautiful space,” Mr. Greenspan said. “Or at least it could be. But there’s no public sign and there’s no lighting.” Joyce Saltamachai, another resident of 3 Hanover Square who addressed the board, said the plaza’s history has been sad. She said she wondered whether the plaza was deliberately blocked so that fewer people would complain when it was bulldozed: “This seems to me a good ploy to get rid of an under-utilized space.”
But a representative of 55 Water Street disputed the residents’ claims, saying the plaza has plenty of signs identifying it as public space and is rarely closed. His remarks were met with hisses, boos and shouts during an hourlong debate that became increasingly hostile.
Board members sided with the residents.
“In New York City, when you move into a new building, you can expect things around you will change and you might lose light and air,” said board member Bruce Ehrmann. “But when one of those things is a public park, you shouldn’t lose it. You should be able to count on it for perpetuity.”
Board member Bernard D’Orazio challenged Goldman Sachs to offer the community more than a renovated park and walkway in exchange for losing the plaza. “You should come in here and knock our socks off,” he said. “Why would we take the extraordinary step of eliminating public space in exchange for almost nothing?”
Most board members agreed. Although their financial-district committee had previously endorsed the Goldman Sachs plan, the full board voted against it. The proposal will now go before the City Planning Commission for consideration.
That wasn’t Board 1’s only vote that night to preserve treasured spaces: Earlier votes-both unanimous-opposed an amended plan to build a penthouse addition on the Woolworth Building and a new residential building in the heart of Tribeca at 3-9 Hubert Street.
Take The … W Train?
You know it’s City Council election season when a crop of candidates suddenly pops up at a community board meeting.
And what can be more fun for a City Council candidate than a hot transit conflict-the kind of issue that sets New Yorkers’ blood to boiling and draws legions out to sign petitions and, later, to the polls come September’s Democratic primary?
So it was that three of the six Democratic candidates running for City Council in District 1 (Chinatown and lower Manhattan) turned up at the Feb. 22 meeting of Board 2. The three came to lambaste the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for its plans to shutter B, Q and D train service at the busy Grand Street Station.
The issue is ethnic New York’s equivalent of Mom and apple pie: Like Duke Ellington’s A train-which has long connected largely black Bedford Stuyvesant to Harlem-the Grand Street subway stop has become the portal between heavily Chinese Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Chinatown, as well as the centerpiece of a thriving downtown Manhattan commercial district.
The candidates are following the lead of Public Advocate Mark Green, who for more than a month had been making frequent visits to stops along the embattled subway lines to rile up voters against the M.T.A. and the city’s Department of Transportation. The agencies have announced extensive service changes on the line for the next four years, starting sometime in early summer, ostensibly to make major repairs on the Manhattan Bridge-the bridge thousands of riders cross every day between Manhattan’s busy Sixth Avenue line and South Brooklyn.
Because of the repairs, train operators coming in from Brooklyn can’t transfer between the Broadway tracks to the south and the Sixth Avenue line to the north once they have crossed the bridge into Manhattan. So the Q, N, R and W trains will all run on N and R tracks in Manhattan, bypassing Grand Street. A shuttle to the Broadway–Lafayette Street station in Soho would link the Grand Street station to Brooklyn-bound F trains.
But shuttles are always unpopular with commuters, who want to minimize the number of transfers they make in a trip, and many of the board members said it seems more likely that congestion in the bustling Canal Street commercial district will increase, while mom-and-pop shops near Grand Street will lose a valuable customer base.
So the M.T.A. and the city were in for a beating, with residents complaining-as they often do when dealing with the M.T.A.-about the agency’s failure to communicate with straphangers and community members about the plan and to take advice in return. All three City Council candidates asked for a moratorium on the service changes until public hearings can be held.
“There should be a series of informational meetings for the community,” said Margaret Chin, speaking for the group Asian Americans for Equality-and as a City Council candidate.
“Imagine the busiest subway station in your neighborhood being closed for four years,” said Rocky Chin, also vying for the seat. “That’s what’s going on.”
“There’s great evidence in this room that not enough has been done,” thundered Brad Hoylman, a board member and Council candidate. “People on the Lower East Side should get the same thing as folks on the Upper East Side.”
Mr. Hoylman also chastised the M.T.A. for what he said was the lack of serious consideration given to alternatives to shutting down B and D service at the station. “You’re coming up with new ideas as you speak,” he said. “This hasn’t been thought through. The T.A. [the New York City Transit Authority] has to approach this more thoughtfully in the future.”
Steve Strauss, assistant director of governmental and community relations at the M.T.A., said that the agency is not required to hold formal hearings for temporary service changes-and even a four-year service change is considered temporary, he said.
But Mr. Green, testifying before the City Council on Jan. 23, had said a four-year service change is significant enough to warrant hearings. He said the M.T.A. is hiding behind a legal technicality to deny riders a chance to speak out and to offer alternatives.
Other elected officials, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, citizens’ groups like the Straphangers Campaign and several Chinatown agencies have also urged the M.T.A. to hold public hearings.
Board 2 joined the pack and passed a resolution-unanimously-saying the service changes at the Grand Street station “will result in a drastic reduction in subway service” that will “create an unfair burden” for residents and businesses in lower Manhattan-especially Chinatown.
“[The] Asian community has expressed the perception that their concerns have been ignored,” the resolution reads, “and that this construction may severely affect the economic survival of this mostly immigrant community.”
March 6: Board 7, Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 7 West 83rd Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, basement, 7 p.m., 362-4008.
March 8: Board 5, F.I.T., 227 West 27th Street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues, Building A, eighth floor, 6 p.m., 465-0907.