A grave situation for the Donald as bones found at ‘condotel’ site


By Lincoln Anderson

Volume 76, Number 30 | December 20 – 26, 2006

A photo from the 1930s of the former Spring Street Church at Spring and Varick Sts. A Presbyterian church, it was razed in the 1960s.

City lets Trump resume work; partner admits mistakes

Donald Trump and partners resumed work building the foundation for the Trump Soho condo-hotel at Spring and Varick Sts. Wednesday following the discovery early last week of human remains at the construction site.

The city Buildings Dept. lifted the stop work order for the foundation work but the agency has never given the team permission to construct the tower. The site was once home to an 1811 Presbyterian church. The city gave the developers permission to resume work as long as they proceed carefully with an archaeologist on site and they keep the Presbyterian Church apprised of discoveries.

Meanwhile, skepticism — fueled by recent Web listings — continues that the building won’t be a transient hotel but residential, which isn’t allowed under the zoning.

Julius Schwarz, executive vice president of the Bayrock Group, one of Trump’s development partners, said in a telephone interview that all previous claims that the building will be a primary residence, have dishwashers or would be a regular hotel were mistaken.

He said the discovered remains are fragments and broken pieces and that some were even found in the foundation walls of old buildings at the site. He said the archaeologist they’ve hired has told them the remains are either from a graveyard that was next to the church or possibly from landfill that was put there at one point. The remains — so far confined to the northeast corner of the site — clearly had been “churned up” during previous work at the site, he said. Schwarz said their plans call for an open plaza — not any part of the building — over this spot.

The South Village area was once known as “Little Africa,” home to a community of freed slaves who were used by the Dutch as a buffer between New Amsterdam and the Native Americans. Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation said the church had a mixed-race congregation and in 1834 anti-abolitionists, vowing to “wipe out the Presbyterian barn,” attacked the church, tearing off its doors and throwing the pews into the street. A new church was erected at the spot in 1836, standing until 1963, when it closed due to changed neighborhood demographics and a dwindling and aging congregation.

Fifteen years ago, the discovery of an African burial ground farther Downtown at Duane and Elk Sts. permanently blocked the construction of a federal building on that spot.

Berman said the Spring St. site may well be an ancient burial ground, possibly containing the remains of Lenape Indians or freed slaves, and that the developers’ workers may have broken them up with their digging. If the bones are Native American or connected to the Underground Railroad, the site could fall under special federal protections, Berman noted.

He criticized the decision to let the work continue. “They’re sweeping this under the rug – a 45-story rug in fact,” Berman said.

However, Schwarz said, “Our archaeologist has shown that we didn’t disrupt the bones or create any damage. There are no American Indians in there, no Underground Railroad. Mr. Berman has his own agenda,” he scoffed. “He’ll say whatever he wants to hinder and impair development of this project.”

Berman said “the site clearly has layers of historic value.”

Condo-hotel or homes?

Berman, local politicians and community members have been battling the condo-hotel, charging that people will be living in the condos year-round, in violation of the site’s manufacturing zoning in the northern end of Hudson Square on Soho’s western edge.

Two prior applications for the building permit were denied by the Buildings Dept. and agency spokesperson Jennifer Givner said D.O.B. is waiting for Trump to resubmit the application and will make its decision based on it.

However, the Trump Soho Hotel’s own Web site recently listed a questionnaire asking potential buyers if they were interested in using the condos as “primary residence,” “secondary residence” or “investment opportunity.” Borough President Scott Stringer noticed this and contacted the developers, who pulled the questionnaire off the site.

Schwarz said it was a generic form that shouldn’t have been posted.

“I apologize for that,” he said.

A few other real estate Web sites not affiliated with the project also described the condo-hotel as offering full-time residences, but Schwarz said they have been sent a cease-and-desist notice and that the condo-hotel’s own Web site now explicitly states the condos cannot be used as residences.

Stringer’s office received a marketing brochure that described the condos as having “kitchenettes,” including dishwashers. Again, Stringer complained that this indicated a residential use. Schwarz said that was another mistake and that any references to kitchenettes or dishwashers have been removed from the marketing materials. The rooms will be standard luxury hotel rooms and the owners will not be allowed to alter them, he said. Each will have a mini-bar, half-refrigerator and sink in its main room, but Schwarz said this hardly qualifies as a kitchenette, and that a sink in the main room (in addition to one in the bathroom) is standard for any five-star hotel.

Berman, for his part, noticed that the city’s tourist agency, NYC & Co., in a press release on hotels, noted in passing that the Trump Soho condo-hotel would allow “year-round” occupancy.

“When we spoke to NYC & Co., it was just a hotel,” Schwarz said. “So it could have been an error.”

Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, said if the condo-hotel’s units really won’t be residential, “Therefore it [the Web listings] must be deceptive advertising — so shouldn’t it be prosecuted? It’s a smoking gun. The city is being like an ostrich sticking its head in the ground.”

Asked what’s the harm of allowing a residential condo-hotel in a manufacturing district, Berman said if this one is allowed to slip in it will lead to a flood of similar luxury condo-hotels in places like Tribeca, Soho and Hudson Square.

“Mark my words, you will see a boom in condo-hotels in manufacturing zones as soon as the city allows this,” he said. “If we’re going to open up manufacturing zones to luxury residences, there should be aboveboard hearings and reviews.”

But Schwarz stressed the project is as of right — needing no special zoning variances. He said that they are working with Buildings on a “restrictive covenant to ensure the transient nature of the building” and that once this has been negotiated, they will be given their building permit. Schwarz said the issue is simply that New Yorkers aren’t familiar with condo-hotels and just have to get comfortable with the idea; this will be the first one here, though condo-hotels are common in Florida and Las Vegas, he pointed out.

“It’s really meant as a pied-a-terre,” he explained, “as a place to stay while you’re in the city; a glamorous address — you can rent it and make money.” Ultimately, he said, the condo-hotel concept is a “financing tool” to help pay for the building’s construction, offsetting high property values and construction costs.

Schwarz said the condo-hotel will, in fact, be a great boon for the Soho area, and will attract a “young and affluent” clientele.

“It’s an ultra-luxury building,” he said. “It brings more glamour and attractiveness to Soho. It’s going to attract shopping and restaurants. It’s going to be more hip, so to speak, than typical Trump,” he added, noting that Trump’s children, Ivanka and Donald Jr., have been “spearheading” it. Donald Trump is a “full partner” in the project, he added. It probably will not have “TRUMP” in giant gold letters on the facade, he said.

A spokesperson for Trump Organization did not return a call for comment.

More than 600 people will build the condo-hotel and 600 more will work there once it’s built, Schwarz added.

In response to Schwarz’s characterization, Berman said, “A pied-a-terre is not a transient hotel room. It’s yours, you own it — it’s your second home; you live there.”

Similarly, Borough President Stringer said, “If it looks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck. They’re not fooling anybody…. I accept some of their apology if it’s an honest mistake — but this raises concerns about what their marketing strategy is. How much can a community take in terms of luxury development in a neighborhood that’s already heavily saturated? But the issue remains for me — getting back to the duck thing — what is this thing?”