Case not closed on Tribeca court move

71 Thomas St., where the city hopes to move a criminal court. Downtown Express photo by Kaitlyn Meade
71 Thomas St., where the city hopes to move a criminal court. Downtown Express photo by Kaitlyn Meade

BY SAM SPOKONY | Community leaders and elected officials are expressing concern — while some residents are flat out mad — about the possible relocation of a Manhattan Criminal Court facility to 71 Thomas St., at West Broadway.

Heated rumors about a potential move from the court’s current location at 346 Broadway came to a head at the Community Board 1 Tribeca Committee meeting on Oct. 9. That evening, a city spokesperson was literally shouted down by angry locals and lectured by committee members, after she said eventually said that the relocation to 71 Thomas St. “is the plan,” implying that it is, for all intents and purposes, a done deal.

But this week, a source close to the landlord of 71 Thomas St. said the landlord is not yet satisfied with the city’s proposal, stressing that no agreement has yet been made that would allow the city to secure a lease for the new court space.

One thing that’s clear is that the city attempted to push the deal through without fully informing local elected officials and other community stakeholders.

The story began in March, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced an agreement to sell two city-owned buildings to private developers, as part of his plan to reduce government office space by 1.2 million square feet by 2014.

One of those was a landmarked building at 346 Broadway. It was to be sold for $160 million to the Peebles Corporation, which planned — according to the mayor’s press release — to convert it into a mixed-use property with residential, hotel and retail elements. And in an additional deal put forth by local elected officials, the developer pledged to use part of the building as a digital art and community media facility, for public use.

The building is currently home to the Summons Arraignment Part of the New York State Unified Court System, which is a Criminal Court facility where people who have been ticketed for minor criminal offenses in Manhattan or Brooklyn are called to answer their summonses, and either to pay or challenge the required fine.

Seven months after the announced agreement to sell that building, at the C.B. 1 meeting last week, Pauline Yu from the mayor’s Community Affairs Office answered a question about that deal by saying that the sale of 346 Broadway had finally been “closed.” But she was speaking too soon, because the city in fact still owns 346 Broadway to this day, according to Department of Finance records.

A spokesperson for the Peebles Corporation said on Oct. 15 that the developer had not yet signed the deal, although he explained that a firm agreement remains in place and an official sale date is now planned “for the end of this year.”

But contrary to many reports, the city is still struggling to actually agree on a deal with the owner of 71 Thomas St.

Seventy-one Thomas — which is technically part of the building at 40 Worth St. — is owned by the  Newmark Holdings real estate firm. Before the city can begin any work to construct a court room at the site, it must sign a lease with Newmark to secure the space.

Newmark is still conducting an investigation into the plan, and is not yet satisfied with the city’s proposal, according to source close to the situation.

The source, who insisted on anonymity due to his role in the discussions, explained that Newmark will be meeting with the city within the next week to discuss the plans, but that rumors about any supposed agreements between D-CAS and the landlord are inaccurate.

“[Newmark] isn’t going to make a deal unless [they are] satisfied with the plan,” the source said, adding that the landlord is “not looking to upset residents.”

When asked later whether or not an agreement had actually been reached, contrary to Yu’s statements at the C.B. 1 meeting, Julianne Cho, a spokesperson for the Dept. of Citywide Administrative Services, said that the city is “continuing discussions with the landlord.”

In any case, it was alongside the sale announcement in March that the city was tasked with finding a new home for the Criminal Court.

Again, seven months after that, at the Oct. 9 C.B. 1 meeting, some residents said they had just recently learned that the city was considering several new locations for the Criminal Court, one of which was 71 Thomas St. And up to that point, the city had also not informed local elected officials about its process for selecting a new location.

But it is now clear that, behind closed doors, the city actually made its decision to relocate the Criminal Court to 71 Thomas St. sometime between March and June, and possibly even earlier — months before anyone outside Bloomberg’s administration had been informed of the plan.

Public documents show that the Dept. of Citywide Administrative Services filed an application on June 14 to construct a new “court room” at 71 Thomas St. The Department of Buildings approved that application on Aug. 8.

Cho, the D-CAS spokesperson, said on Oct. 15 — four months after the agency filed the application — that department officials met with local elected officials earlier that day to talk about the city’s plan.
But in statements released later that same day, some elected officials stressed that the city had not been properly forthcoming about its proposal for the Criminal Court relocation.

“I’m disappointed that the city did not provide adequate notification for our community or engage residents in this process,” said State Senator Daniel Squadron. “It’s critical that there is a real system in place to engage community members and address concerns.”

And Councilmember Margaret Chin said, “Moving forward, there must be cooperation between the city, local elected officials and neighborhood stakeholders on this issue to ensure that our concerns are heard and addressed.”
Those concerns about community engagement stemmed from backlash by Tribeca residents, especially at last week’s C.B. 1 meeting, who said the presence of a Criminal Court will create a negative and disruptive impact on their heavily residential neighborhood.

Specifically, some community stakeholders say they are worried about the large influx of people — all of whom have been accused of engaging in criminal activity — that the court will bring to the block. While speaking to the C.B. 1 meeting, Yu said that the city expects the court to serve around 600 people per day, as they go in and out to pay or challenge their tickets.

“The sheer numbers of transient visitors to this area of Tribeca is unacceptable,” Lynn Wagenknecht, owner of The Odeon, the restaurant at the corner of Thomas St. and West Broadway, said during the meeting.

“Placing the court at 71 Thomas St. places an unfair burden on an area finally finding its equilibrium after many challenging starts and stops, and this decision will diminish the progress we have made. This is our home, our schools, our places of work. It is not a suitable location for a court of this nature, dealing with thousands of individuals every week.”

The city maintains that 71 Thomas St. is the only viable option for the court, since other locations would not appropriately serve the necessary court operations.

And responding to residents’ concerns about the large influx of people paying tickets — concerns which highlighted the fact that people who currently pay tickets at the 346 Broadway court are forced to line up outside on the sidewalk — Yu said during the C.B. 1 meeting that the city is planning to construct an indoor seating area at 71 Thomas St. that will allow “approximately 250 people” to wait inside the building, in order to cut down on outdoor lines.

That particular renovation plan was included in the D-CAS June 14 application — later approved by the city Buildings Dept. — for a work permit at the site.

Still, the community board remained unconvinced that the plan for a Criminal Court at 71 Thomas St. is a good one. The Tribeca Committee voted unanimously on Oct. 9 to write a resolution calling on the city to delay the move, and to consider other locations that may be more suitable.

That resolution will be discussed again at the full board meeting at 6 p.m. on Oct. 22, at 150 Greenwich St.