Too Tall or Too Trump? Activists Wage Soho Battle

With a tall tower tucked among tiny office buildings and warehouses on the West Side in Soho, here comes Donald Trump, pricking the sky.

Mr. Trump’s proposed 45-story tower, which would be part hotel, part condo, at 246 Spring Street, next to Vandam and Varick streets, would be by far and away the most conspicuous symbol in the neighborhood.

So, for the past five months—and particularly for the last two weeks—as the Department of Buildings comes closer to granting a permit for the building, Mr. Trump and community activists have been wrangling over the building’s development.

But this dispute has a special wrinkle to it. No one is contesting whether a very tall building can go up in the area—in fact, the building, which is being constructed in a manufacturing zone, can legally be built.

The problem lies with whether the rather fuzzy combination of a condo and a hotel should be allowed to go up in this zone. The city’s zoning resolution says that transient hotels—like S.R.O.’s—are allowed in manufacturing districts.

Critics of the tower—which include the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and officials like City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Congressman Jerry Nadler and State Senator Tom Duane—argue that the building might look and feel like a hotel, but residents will be living there, not visiting.

They said that this would lead to a troubling trend: Once Mr. Trump gets this building approved, developers everywhere will be eyeing manufacturing districts for large condo-hotels.

“There’s a specific and philosophical problem with it,” said Ms. Quinn. “Specifically, I think it’s too large and out of context. Philosophically, I don’t like the idea of having loopholes in manufacturing zones.”

So, is the conflict being waged in an attempt to stop a landslide of condo-hotel developments in manufacturing zones? Or is this a loophole for activists to stop tall buildings—condo-hotels or otherwise—in Soho?

Critics contend that they’re primarily concerned about the project’s lasting effects throughout the city, not its scale in Soho.

“If Trump built a 15-story condo-hotel, we would be absolutely, absolutely against it,” said Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “The height and the scale of the building bother me incredibly, but there are things illegal about the building and legal things about it. The condo-hotel is illegal. I don’t want the scale of the issue to be a red herring that hides the fact that the city is violating its own laws here by approving this building.”

“This building will stick out literally and figuratively like a sore thumb,” said Ms. Quinn. “The problem is that once you do this once, it’s no longer out of context and there will be a physical precedent set.”

To understand the nitty-gritty of a potential wave effect, the Trump project is being constructed in a manufacturing zone called an M1-6 construction zone. These zones would be the ones most vulnerable to a wave of construction, since the floor-area ratio allows for buildings that are, say, 45 stories tall.

In Manhattan, there are M1-6 zones in Hudson Square, the Flatiron district, the garment district and in midtown south. The far more ubiquitous manufacturing zone is the M1-5, which has a shorter floor-area ratio—so buildings of, say, 20 stories, rather than 45, could go up.

“Our concern is not just the hype,” said Mr. Berman. “Whether it’s a 45-story building or a 25-story building, they just don’t belong in manufacturing zones.”

On the Trump project, the Department of Buildings has granted permits for foundation work and excavation. Ms. Quinn said the Department of Buildings is in negotiation with Mr. Trump and his joint developers, the Sapir Organization and Bayrock Group, over a restrictive declaration that would make sure the building is actually a hotel. (A spokeswoman for the Buildings Department, Jennifer Givner, disputed that and said the department isn’t in negotiations, but merely looking over proposals that the developers have made.)

Mr. Trump’s original permits for the project were rejected in May. The problem in the original applications, Ms. Givner said, was the presence of kitchens—a feature that would make it seem condo-like (and not enough hotel-like).

According to a source familiar with the negotiations, as part of an agreement with the developers, kitchens will not be included in any of the units, and no tenant will be allowed to bring in their own furniture—just like a regular hotel.

These reasons seem to be putting the Department of Buildings and some officials in the city at ease about the project.

“The land-use office seems to feel that this is a standard practice and not the watershed moment that Andrew [Berman] believes or I believe,” said Tony Avella, chairman of the City Council’s Zoning and Franchises Committee. “They said to me that this project is similar to a time-share situation.”

Even without kitchens or furniture, Mr. Berman isn’t convinced.

At the least, the area around the Trump project is hot. Trinity Real Estate has a planned development on its Web site that proposes a 35-story office building right around the corner from the hotel. And as the condo-hotel inexorably rolls toward construction, Mr. Trump has been “inundated” with offers to buy the site, according to a source. He has no intention of selling the site, the source said.

Mr. Trump and the developing team declined comment for this story.

Even as critics remain steadfast in their opinions, Mr. Trump hasn’t backed down. (In June, he was quoted in the New York Post as saying of the critics: “They’re wasting their time.”)

“Donald knows how to read the tea leaves,” said Barry LePatner, a longtime corporate-construction counsel. “What about that 70-story building near the U.N.? Everybody said they’d stop it. But Donald knows he’s right and knows he doesn’t have to answer to anybody.”

For now.

“If this is allowed, basically we feel it’s a Trojan horse,” said Mr. Berman. “It’s a way for a citywide zoning change without going through any sort of public process.” Too Tall or Too Trump? Activists Wage Soho Battle