Going from funky but chic to just chic in a hurry


By Zella Jones

NoHo, short for north of Houston, often feels like a patchwork of different neighborhoods. It hums with energy along Broadway, its busiest retail artery. It feels like an extension of New York University near Astor Place and along Mercer Street…. The converted factories along Lafayette, Bond and Great Jones Streets feel like classic, postindustrial SoHo. And shades of the punkish, tattooed East Village lurk in the bars along Bowery and Bleecker.

Patrick O’Gilfoil Healy,

The New York Times, May 22, 2005

If you are in the real estate business or don’t live in these 12 blocks, Noho might seem “patchwork.” The fact is, however, Noho has been fashioned by entrepreneurs, artists, speculators, industrialists, academics, laborers, shysters and thespians. Unlike most “neighborhoods,” the connected and disconnected, grunge and glory have lived side by side for more than 250 years, making economic, social and creative waves into a quilt only the daring appreciate. If you live east of Mercer St., north of Houston, west of Bowery or south of Astor Pl., it is hard to ignore that Noho is again toiling in the field of the unexpected. If you are a property owner — old or new — like many an owner in the past, the transition could make or break you. Literally! But, that’s why you are here.

For most of the 20th century, Noho pretty much managed itself. Residents and business owners alike managed buildings, the street, crime. We worked, lived and played among homeless shelters, food pantries, rehab centers, manufacturers, theaters, bakeries, industrial suppliers, preferring substance to glamour. Today, like Soho and Little Italy, we are beset by interlopers eager to buy into Noho’s cachet.

A map compiled earlier this year showing construction and infrastructure work, as well as high-traffic bars and nightlife spots, in Noho.

The truth is, this isn’t the first time. When John Jacob Astor purchased Jacob Sperry’s Botanical Garden in 1804, cut it in half, leased part to New York’s first amusement park, Vauxhall Gardens, and then proceeded to build a French-style enclave for the wealthy called Lafayette Place (christened by the Marquis de Lafayette himself), there was similar angst. Farmers, blacksmiths, merchants and tavern keepers who lived and worked here had already found this nice little niche a pleasant and profitable relief from the city about a mile to the south. The change was radical and the profits enormous.

Today there are three zoning/landmark issues, one Board of Standards and Appeals application and another imminent B.S.A. variance (or City Planning Commission special permit) in hot debate. Noho’s current development and infrastructure projects include:

The Cooper Union large-scale development plan

Astor Pl. traffic rerouting

Peter Cooper Park expansion plan

The Avalon/Christie large-scale development plan

A residential hotel of 10-plus stories (they are still building higher) at Bowery and E. Third St.

M.T.A. subway ventilation reconstruction at Houston St. and Bowery

The $50 million Bleecker St. subway station renovation at Bleecker/ Lafayette and Houston Sts.

A $20 million-plus Houston St. roadbed reconstruction (phase one west of Bowery; phase two east of Bowery)

Water tunnel shaft construction at E. Fourth St.

Eight lots in private high-end development

Most of this stuff hasn’t been touched for over 100 years, some of it 150 years. Whether you are living or developing in Noho, you’ve got your hands full. Just protecting your property and its value from damage over the next five years (a conservative estimate) is a full-time job, never mind the difficulties the construction is making for simple walking, driving, parking, sleeping, working or sanitation. Even the availability of water, electricity and phone service is a daily concern.

Two of three portions of Noho are landmarked; the third, containing the oldest stock of architecturally, if not socially, historic buildings, seems inextricably hostage to the City Planning Commission and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (which will not move on Noho III without Planning’s blessing). The issues are developable land in Noho III and New York University’s interest in developing classroom space.

The Noho Neighborhood Association, the Noho NY Business Improvement District and Friends of Noho Architecture, with approval of Community Board 2, submitted a zoning proposal in 2004 to modify Noho’s M1-5B envelope to allow compatible mixed-use and residential development. Neither the old nor new zoning would allow classroom use. To date, our proposal has neither been heard nor acknowledged by Planning. To date, the Landmarks Commission has not added Noho III to its calendar, and the lawsuits alone on damage to protected and unprotected historic structures is more than $20 million.

On the bright side, The Historic Districts Council has sponsored Noho III for inclusion on the Preservation League of New York State’s “7 to Save” list and Friends of Noho Architecture is diligently applying its resources to documenting the history of Bond, Great Jones and E. Fourth Sts.

Virtually all Noho development over the last two years has occurred through B.S.A. variances, which have thankfully supported most of Noho residents’ desired zoning modifications. Ironically, if Noho III was a designated landmark area, the developable parcels would fall under the City Planning Commission’s 74-712 special permit, which would mandate precisely the regulations we are calling for.

Luckily the community has thus far prevailed and precedent has been set on issues of contextual or contributing design; bar and restaurant size restrictions; residential unit size (at least 1,200 square feet) that could, in theory, accommodate joint live/work use space for 21st-century artists; and the strong preference for ground-floor retail other than restaurant use, preferably art related.

Intense negotiation, community and political collaboration, along with liberal doses of vitriol, have contributed some interesting, and probably significant triumphs. At 366 Lafayette St. (between Bond and Great Jones Sts.) there will be an innovative five-story structure built of shipping containers similar to several in London. Replacing a cherished garage and auto-body shop, the new metal structure, though modern, is reminiscent of the cast-iron Robbins & Appleton landmark building to its south and will house small boutiques.

In the works at 32-40 Bond St. is a “residential hotel” developed by Ian Schrager and designed by the highly touted Swiss team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. Though taller than its neighbors by 40 feet (did we mention vitriol?) the design and anticipated use will be a contributing and innovative addition to Noho character. Scrapping original ground-floor retail, Schrager has created “townhouses” at the base of the building, with individual entrances and private backyards. The remaining 10 stories will feature 1,200-square-foot (predominantly) condos for “design-conscious Downtown loft buyers” and a three-room hotel. As for the design, the Pritzker prize-winning designers will re-imagine the classic cast-iron buildings of the neighborhood — fashioned from glass pieces handmade in Barcelona.

A new building planned at 25 Bond St., previously home to a 1930s era garage, will retain approximately 50 parking spaces, will also stay within the floor-area-ratio of 5, though will be 20 feet higher than its neighbors, adhere to a restaurant prohibition, will forgo a commercial mezzanine, maintain a 35-foot rear yard and create a maximum of 14 condo units. Originally a Tri-Beach development project, which inflicted damage in the millions to its next-door neighbors, it was purchased by Goldman Properties in 2005. Thus far, the new owners have shown a genuine respect for the neighborhood, if only for the expense of the alternative.

If we can eventually forgive the overconspicuous height and startlingly futuristic design of Charles Gwathmey’s 21-story residential tower, named Astor Place, at 445 Lafayette St., it does, in its fashion, show some respect. The all-glass structure is, actually, highly reflective of its environment, and though it dwarfs the notable 19th-century innovation of The Cooper Union and Astor Library (now the Public Theater) architecture, it does not entirely obscure them. Happily, its ground floor is to house a much-desired art gallery, a concession the neighborhood prays will be a success.

Rapid development on the Lower East Side, increased residential occupancy in Noho, ever-increasing weekend tourist traffic in Noho and Soho, more nightlife and increased daytime east-west commercial traffic along Houston St. (to avoid Canal St.) has impacted Noho greatly. The intersections at Bowery and Broadway on Houston St. are the most highly trafficked and dangerous in the city. Virtually all City Department of Transportation planning is done on outdated population surveys and virtually none of D.O.T.’s individual projects are coordinated within our area. Thus, for instance, the folks working on Astor Pl. roadbed and traffic abatement have no contact or knowledge of the Houston St. roadbed reconstruction. Unbeknown to D.O.T., Bleecker St., which dead-ends at Bowery, has become a major east-flowing traffic thoroughfare. Gridlock and road rage predominate. Streets flowing north from Canal — Elizabeth, Mulberry and Crosby Sts. — are increasingly used to avoid abysmal Bowery traffic congestion, but all dead end on Bleecker St. Lafayette St. will dead end at Astor Pl., if the Astor Pl. plan isn’t modified. Noho Neighborhood Association, Community Boards 2 and 3 and Councilmembers Alan Gerson and Margarita Lopez are desperately fighting for a current, comprehensive and coordinated traffic study and solution.

For more information on Noho, visit www.nohomanhattan.org.

Jones is chairperson, Noho Neighborhood Association