Hudson Square veterans chew over what’s going on


By Josh Rogers

Hudson Square, in a sense, is 10 times behind its neighbors. The neighborhood still gets fewer than one million Google hits compared to many millions for its more popular border areas — Soho, Greenwich Village and Tribeca — but that can be seen as a sign of progress. A year ago, there were 100 times more annual Google searches for Soho and Tribeca than there were for the newer neighborhood, according to a search survey done by Trinity Church, the Square’s largest property owner.

The Square’s southern and western borders are undeniably Canal St. and the Hudson River, but there’s no consensus in the other directions. Give or take a block or two, the other boundaries are Sixth Ave. and Leroy St. But then some still think of the area as western Soho or the southern Village.

Once home to the city’s printing industry, the neighborhood has more and more media firms such as Viacom, MTV and WNYC Radio along with a small, but growing residential population — thanks to a rezoning to allow apartments and condos several years ago.

Trinity is proceeding with its city application to create a Business Improvement District in part of the neighborhood and hopes to have it begin operating by the middle of next year. Five years ago, the church’s BID effort was stymied by community opposition, but this time Community Board 2 is overwhelmingly in favor of the effort because Trinity took the neighborhood’s residential blocks out of the district application.

Carl Weisbrod, who heads Trinity’s real estate division, said the BID will focus on what’s important to residents and workers — improving the “mean quality of the streets.” With snarling traffic from the Holland Tunnel and Canal St. making it difficult to get around, residents and workers want more pedestrian safety and better-looking sidewalks, Weisbrod said.

Neighborhood surveys show people are satisfied with the security and cleanliness of the neighborhood so the BID will not take on those traditional BID functions, he added. BIDS are supervised by the city’ Dept. of Small Business Services and are funded by taxes on the district’s building property owners.

Weisbrod, who used to run the city’s largest BID as president of the Downtown Alliance, said it’s still a “daunting challenge to attract the type of retail residents and commercial tenants want. Retailers want round the clock demand.”

He said famed Tribeca chef David Bouley’s recent deal with Trinity to open a restaurant at 10 Hudson Sq. (Varick between Charlton and Vandam Sts.) will draw more people to the area. But despite the large number of small, interesting restaurants already in the Square, Weisbrod doesn’t see the neighborhood developing like restaurant-heavy Tribeca, which he said will always be more residential than its northern counterpart.

He sees the Square more as a creative district, with new media and entertainment firms dominating.

Phil Mouquinho, who opened PJ Charlton restaurant off the beaten path on Greenwich St. in 1980, said he definitely notices the change in customers.

“We’ve gone from the printers, the policemen and truck drivers” to some financial industry workers, “then morphed into media types — Miramax folks, lawyers in the film business, publicists,” Mouquinho said.

He’s updated the “old fashioned” Italian menu with dishes like watermelon salad and sautéed vegetables with garlic and oil, but many still opt for the ravioli with sauce.

“Makes them feel like home,” Mouquinho said.

He said he likes seeing more restaurants in the neighborhood and thinks of it as help, not as competition.

“More attracts more….We don’t have the pedestrian traffic most places enjoy,” he explained. “Spring St. tends to generate its own pedestrian flow, but on Vandam, King, Charlton, even Houston, there’s not much.”

He remembers seven different restaurants in less than 20 years at one spot on Hudson and Charlton Sts. and said a new Japanese-French eatery, Archipelago, will be there soon. The restaurants that make it in the Square tend to have owners who do a lot themselves rather than the large-staff, “delegate and regulate” model. But he said Bouley, who is in a “league by himself,” should not have that problem because his restaurants are such a draw. Bouley has not said yet what kind of eatery he will be opening on Varick St.

Mouquinho said he and many small business owners are worried about the turbulence on Wall St., but judging how he weathered the stock market crash of ’87, he thinks the effects won’t be felt in Hudson Square until 2009.

“It’ll be a lean mean January to June of next year,” Mouquinho said. “We’ll be okay for the holiday.”

Similarly, Weisbrod said “the softness in the financial markets tends to have a ripple effect, but we haven’t seen it yet.”

Mouquinho said the neighborhood did surprisingly well after 9/11 because many Lower Manhattan firms relocated temporarily to the north. It took a turn for the worse, a year or so later, and has been rebounding well since.

He and many others in the community think the biggest threat to the neighborhood is the city’s plan to build a 120-foot Sanitation garage on the UPS lot at Washington and Spring Sts. The plan is also opposed by Community Boards 1 and 2 and Borough President Scott Stringer. Opponents say the site can accommodate a garage for garbage trucks from Boards 1 and 2 in Lower Manhattan but should not have to take trucks from Board 5 in Midtown and part of Chelsea, particularly since those trucks will have to traverse most of Manhattan to get to its marine transfer station on E. 91st St.

The city has rejected all of the opponents’ suggested alternatives for a District 5 garage, saying the most cost-effective plan is to build one facility for three districts.

Mouquinho expects City Planning to approve the plan with only minor changes in October. He is a member of the Community Sanitation Steering Committee, a group of neighbors and property owners fighting the plan. He said if the City Council gives the final approval — the vote is expected before the end of the year — his group is likely to sue.

Mouquinho said his group has already retained Kenneth McCallion, a prominent plaintiffs attorney who has had successful lawsuits against Dow Chemical, Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant and in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case. The group has consultant studies suggesting property values in the neighborhood will drop 30 to 40 percent with the city plan, Mouquinho said.

He feels certain the issue will be resolved in court but he thinks it all could be settled if the city were open to alternatives.

“Why can’t we do it in a responsible way that’s fair to everybody,” he said.