PROGRESS REPORT: Zoned out: Buildings Dept. is really regressing in Soho

Looming over Soho and Lower Manhattan, the 46-story Trump Soho Hotel, at Spring and Varick Sts. Photo by Lincoln Anderson
Looming over Soho and Lower Manhattan, the 46-story Trump Soho Hotel, at Spring and Varick Sts. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

BY SEAN SWEENEY | ‘Solamente Por Mayor.” Those were the first Spanish words I learned moving into Soho in the 1970s. It was a common notice posted on many stores along Broadway underneath its English translation, “Wholesale Only.” It advised shoppers not to enter seeking a small swatch of leather or a piece of fabric. If you want retail, it enjoined, shop elsewhere.

The reason is because zoning in that part of eastern Soho — and its sister neighborhood, Noho — basically permits only wholesale use on the ground floor. Retail use requires a special permit. A few stores were grandfathered.

However, in the early 1990s, new retail stores began sprouting along Broadway. As more popped up, the Soho Alliance contacted the Department of Buildings to find out what was going on: Stores we knew had been exclusively wholesale were suddenly selling retail without having applied for permission for a change of use.

Rudy Giuliani’s Buildings Department’s response was that the landlords had been able to show retail use on the premises in the past, but based on such specious evidence as to be laughable were it not so scandalous.

One landlord claimed to have a leaflet advertising a one-day sale “open to the public” 20 years earlier. That’s it!

Another outrageous example was a well-known wholesaler with a photocopy machine charging a dime a copy. Thus, the Buildings Department gradually changed Soho’s zoning while bypassing the City Council.

Fast-forward 10 years to the Bloomberg administration and witness huge, oversized stores opening along Broadway, such as the Bloomingdale’s 50,000-square-foot department store, for example. But Soho’s zoning limits retail to 10,000 square feet without a special permit. Lacking the $100,000 needed for a legal challenge, we watched as the Bloomberg administration allowed our zoning to be corrupted.

A couple of years ago, under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s watch, we complained to Buildings that Old Navy had a 20,000-square-foot operation going on for years without obtaining the special permit needed for such oversized use.  Two years ago, our councilmember and the borough president wrote to Buildings, inquiring why it was not enforcing the zoning laws. No response.

And it’s not just blatant violation of retail uses that the Buildings Department ignores. In 2007, Donald Trump tried to skirt the zoning laws when he applied for a permit to build what he called a “condo hotel” in west Soho. The twist was that, in that part of our neighborhood, hotels can be constructed without much paperwork, but a new residential condo building requires a zoning variance. We all knew Trump’s game. He blatantly advertised his “residential condos” in The New York Times. Yet Buildings accepted his alternative fact that it was a “condo hotel.”

Then-Council Speaker Christine Quinn included a restriction limiting condo owners’ stays to no more than 29 days at a time, requiring strict accounting of residents’ stays.

We recently asked Buildings to produce the Trump Soho logs. No response. Why? Likely because the agency is, yet again, failing to uphold the law.

Sweeney is director, Soho Alliance