Improving Conditions, Through Combined Block Power


BY BILL BOROCK  (President, CCBA)  |  The Council of Chelsea Block Associations (CCBA) was established in January of 1961 by residents of West 20th to West 22nd Streets, from Eighth to 10th Avenues. The boundaries of Chelsea have expanded with the passage of time — and with it, our membership has grown to reflect the wider characterization of our neighborhood.

In last year’s Progress Report, the Council of Chelsea Block Associations (CCBA) identified some community problems, then suggested possible solutions. For the 2014 edition, we happily accepted a return invitation. We’ll use this opportunity to update readers on the status of a few issues we discussed last year, and let you know about some new ones that have cropped up in the ensuing twelve months. I trust that what is shared in this article will give you a good taste of what we’re about, and the methods we’ve used to work with elected officials, community boards, the NYPD, NYC government and local business owners. The CCBA recognizes that change requires work — but if the community will benefit, then the work is worth it.

But before we begin to tell you about the work we do, some introductions are in order. Currently, 15 block associations covering 28 blocks in Chelsea are associated with the CCBA (the ones with an asterisk are in the process of being formed). They are: the 100/200 and the 300 West 15th Street, 100 & 200 West 16th Street, 100 West 17th Street, 300 West 18th/19th Street, 100 West 19th/20th/21st/22nd Street*,  200 West 19th/20th/21st/22nd/23rd Street [south side], 500 West 19th Street, the 300 and the 400  West 20th Street, 300 West 21st/22nd/23rd Street [south side], 400 West 21st/22nd/23rd Street [south side], 100 West 25th Street* and 100 West 26th Street.

Muni Meter parking spaces remain the exclusive domain of commercial vehicles, on the north side of W. 17th St.’s 100 block.  Photos by Scott Stiffler
Muni Meter parking spaces remain the exclusive domain of commercial vehicles, on the north side of W. 17th St.’s 100 block. Photos by Scott Stiffler

In December of 2012, we were notified that Police Commissioner Kelly had rejected our request to make police services coterminous with our community board catchment area. The affected area: West 14th Street to West 26th Street, Sixth to Seventh Avenue from the 13th Precinct to the 10th Precinct. The Commissioner cited some recent Precinct changes they made in Downtown Brooklyn and the so-called difficulties they encountered in doing so. The CCBA was, and still is, very disappointed with the decision that was made, especially because our requested change would align our boundaries with Community Board 4 (CB4) and make for a much better delivery of police services to the area.

With the recent elections, we trust that our new city administration will be more progressive in dealing with, and responding to, our community issues and concerns. The CCBA will be coordinating additional outreach for the purpose of adding more names to those that have already voiced support of the effort to change the police precinct coverage boundaries.

We have requested a meeting with Gale Brewer (our new Manhattan Borough President) and the police precinct issue is very high on our agenda of matters we feel are of mutual concern to discuss with her. Outreach has also been made to our new District 3 City Councilmember Corey Johnson, our State Senator Brad Hoylman, our longtime State Assemblymember Dick Gottfried and our new CB4 Chair, Christine Berthet. It should be noted that State Senator Hoylman announced, at February full board meeting of CB4, that that a letter signed by him and our other local electeds was sent to our new Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, raising the issue of our longstanding request.

Small business owners hope public access to Muni Meter spaces, on the south side of W. 17th St., will make the block more appealing to shoppers.
Small business owners hope public access to Muni Meter spaces, on the south side of W. 17th St., will make the block more appealing to shoppers.

In the 2013 Progress Report of Chelsea Now, we mentioned our support of a request by small business owners on the south side of the 100 block of West 17th Street, who wanted to change some of the Muni Meter parking regulations from only allowing commercial parking to regular parking — which would allow parking for passenger vehicles. The store owners felt that the changes would be helpful to their businesses, as it would allow shoppers to park by their stores. CB4 approved the request and forwarded it to the Department of Transportation whose Bureau of Parking did a land use and occupancy survey and they also approved the request. The new signs were installed in March of 2013 to the delight of the store owners who requested the change.

Last year, Chelsea was faced with the prospect of having our Old Chelsea Station Post Office, located at 217 West 18th Street, closed. Needless to say, CCBA — along with CB4, many residents of our community and other groups, as well as our elected officials and their staff — became galvanized by this issue and worked together by making calls, sending e-mails, signing petitions, arranging for meetings and lobbying the appropriate people. As a result of this combined, coordinated effort, the decision to close the facility has been taken off the burner (at least for the moment). We will continue to monitor the situation.

With the election of a new Manhattan Borough President, achieving better cooperation among community boards with regard to matters of mutual concern is something the CCBA would like to see. In the past, for example, there had been a joint CB2 and CB4 14th Street Committee that addressed issues affecting both sides of West 14th Street.

It is relevant to note that at a recent CB4 meeting dealing with the selling of air rights by the Hudson River Park Trust, CB2’s Chairperson was in attendance and he suggested that it would be helpful if a joint committee of both community boards was formed. At the time, CB4 felt that it was premature to act on the request, but said that it was something that they could consider and discuss in the future.

Another example of activity crossing community board boundary lines is the current effort to form a new Business Improvement District (BID) — which would combine the current activities of the Meatpacking District Improvement Association with the Chelsea Improvement Company, into one BID. The catchment area would cover the area from Horatio Street to West 17th Street and from west of Eighth Avenue to east of Twelfth Avenue. The CCBA realizes that there are those who oppose the plan for different reasons as well as others who support the plan for a variety of reasons. It is only mentioned here as an example of the concept of having residents who live in different Community Board districts working together on common issues/problems/concerns.

The CCBA voted not to take a group position. We felt that the decision should be made by the individual block associations falling within the boundaries of the proposed BID. However, we are supportive of efforts to have joint cooperation and activity with other community boards, when appropriate.

Old Chelsea Station Post Office has been taken off the chopping block, for now.  Photo by Scott Stiffler
Old Chelsea Station Post Office has been taken off the chopping block, for now. Photo by Scott Stiffler

Throughout the past year, CB4 notified the CCBA about applications being made to the Board regarding a variety of planned establishments. The purpose of sharing this information is to make the community aware about what is planned for the sites and to allow for feedback from those who live (and work) nearby. The feedback usually relates to matters of concern such as hours of operation, disturbing noise from music and patrons, obstruction of sidewalk, potential impact on traffic (especially if the establishment will be having events for large numbers of patrons), odors from kitchen vents, unruly behavior of patrons, etc.

One example is The Meatball Shop, at 200 Ninth Avenue. The CCBA supported their sidewalk cafe application and it was approved. However, after a while there were some noise concerns raised about loud music being played in the basement of the restaurant which was bothersome to residents living close by. Along with local residents, the CCBA met with the restaurant owner in a constructive dialogue. The situation was discussed and an agreement was reached to stop the live music causing the problem. This is a fine example of cooperation between a business owner and the community.

CCBA has been supporting the group Friends of 20th Street Park, which has identified an empty lot at 136 West 20th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues) as a site for a small neighborhood park. The lot was vacated by the Department of Sanitation and seems ideal for the park-starved area of East Chelsea. Unfortunately, the group’s efforts became somewhat complicated because they were not aware that many years ago, CB4 had designated the site for affordable housing. Although there is a lot of community support for the park, with a tremendous number of people signing petitions and sending letters, the group did not want to get into what some call “a battle for a small piece of the pie” by park advocates “against” affordable housing advocates.

The well-organized Friends of 20th Street Park have been spending a lot of time and energy looking for an alternate site where the affordable housing units could be created and built. The goal is to have a win-win situation: find and build the affordable housing at a different site and create a much-needed green space: the 100 West 20th Street Park.

The CCBA did identify a possible site and shared that information with the park group, but it did not work out. We will continue to keep our eyes and ears open for alternate locations — and when we meet with our electeds and their Chelsea representatives, we will continue to voice support for the win-win outcome of getting both a park and affordable housing. For more information, visit 20thstreetpark.org.

Since the idea of selling/transferring air rights was first floated, we have been very concerned about how the community would be impacted. The CCBA has attended and participated in many meetings and public hearings on this subject. We are supporters of Hudson River Park and what it provides to Chelsea residents.

We see a nice park along the river for people to enjoy — but we also see an area ripe for unwanted over-development. Look what happened with the High Line Park. It’s a great, innovative idea and a wonderful place to walk — but with more than four million visitors yearly, some of the surrounding neighborhood residents are beginning to feel overwhelmed.

We still have a lot of questions regarding the air rights issue. How far east will the developers be allowed to build? Is it really just one block? What role will the community play? We just found out that all the piers within the park (not just the commercial piers) are eligible to be transferred. We would like to know the number of sites, what can be built, how many square feet and how tall the building will be. We also want an assurance that no changes will be made to present agreements reached with the community.

Although the Community Board asks an applicant (for things like sidewalks cafes and liquor license permits) to contact us — and the specific block association that their business is located on — this does not always happen. Instead, we may find out about the proposed plans by reading about it or by word of mouth.

To improve transparency and communication, the CCBA recently provided CB4 with an updated contact list of our block association representatives. We suggested that CB4 notify/contact our appropriate representatives at the same time the community board is responding to the applicant’s application.

When seeing this headline, the reader may wonder what a pavilion in Union Square has to do with Chelsea — but it is of great importance to our area, because the CB4 district ranks near the bottom of districts with regard to park space.

I count myself among the many residents from our area who enjoy going to Union Square Park. In fact, I have an old photograph of my son’s Pre-K Montessori School’s graduation class taken at the pavilion in the park with a sign in the background saying, “This area reserved for children and guardians only.” The children from my son’s school, which was located in Chelsea, use to go to the park all the time. For more than nine years, the Union Square Community Coalition (USCC), a non-profit 501(c)(3) which was established in 1980, has (among other things) been fighting to have the historic pavilion restored so that it could be used as a sheltered community facility year round for children, teenagers, seniors and families.

The problem has been that the city wants to lease the space for use as a restaurant (previously, an open air cafe called Luna Park was located nearby in front of the Pavilion building). USCC filed a lawsuit and after years of being in court, in January of 2013, a preliminary injunction was issued — temporarily stopping the restaurant. However, on February 20, the Court of Appeals dismissed the case. Finding no illegality in the Bloomberg administration plan, it can now move forward.

It is difficult to understand why, with so many restaurants surrounding the park (one count indicated over 150 eating establishments, bars and markets within a two-block radius), the city would choose to have a restaurant instead of a much needed community facility.

Over the years, the CCBA was asked to support the effort to have a community facility in Union Square Park. We agreed to do so by sending letters of support and testifying at meetings. It should be noted that former State Senator Tom Duane, former Borough President (and now City Comptroller) Scott Stringer, Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Richard Gottfried all opposed the restaurant plan. Gottfried was also a participant in the lawsuit. Now, with no more court cases/hearings, the only way to stop the restaurant is for our new mayor to void the concession agreement between the city and the restaurant, Chef Driven Market. He has the legal right to do so (this was even stated in the last court hearing).

An important point to make with regard to the use of the pavilion as a community facility is to be aware that Columbus Park in Chinatown has a pavilion that has been renovated and restored. This pavilion serves its community with a variety of programs for children and seniors.

The same can happen in Union Square Park. All our new Mayor has to do is say NO to the restaurant and YES to a needed community facility. If anyone feels the same way, share your opinion with Mayor Bill de Blasio (nyc.gov/html/static/page/officeofthemayor/contact.shtml) and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (mviverito@council.nyc.gov or 212-788-6960).

See you around the neighborhood,
Bill Borock