Council Subcommittee Hears Proposal for SoHo Six-Story Commercial Building [Update: Committee approves with modifications]

A rendering of the proposed building at 19 East Houston Street.  Image credit:  Perkins Eastman

A rendering of the proposed building at 19 East Houston Street. Image credit: Perkins Eastman


Developers seek permission for three floors of retail over community objections.  On September 16, 2014, the New York City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises held a public hearing on a proposed six-story commercial building at 19 East Houston Street in the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District of Manhattan, between Broadway and Crosby Street.  The lot was incorporated into the Historic District after the Landmarks Preservation Commission expanded the district in 2010. (See previous CityLand coverage here.)

The proposed building would offer 17,824 square feet of retail space over four floors, three above ground and one subterranean, and three floors of office space, for a total of 30,821 square feet.  The building would feature a 200-foot glass façade along the East Houston Street side of the building and an atrium on the Broadway side of the building.  As part of the proposal, the sidewalk along the Houston Street side of the lot would be improved, and the B/D/F/M subway entrance at Broadway and East Houston would be widened from four to eight feet.  On November 19, 2013, the project received the approval of Landmarks.

On May 22, 2014, Manhattan Community Board 2 voted unanimously to disapprove the project.  On June 30, 2014, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer recommended disapproval of the project.  On August 20, 2014, the City Planning Commission voted to approve the project.

Lois Tendler, Vice-President of Government and Community Relations with Metropolitan Transportation Authority  and Christina DeRose, Vice-Chair of the Economic Development Corporation testified in support at the City Council hearing.  Ms. Tendler testified that the lot at 19 East Houston is currently leased by MTA from the City for storage and parking of emergency vehicles.  Ms. DeRose testified that EDC is permitting the sale of the leased land on the condition that all of the proceeds go to MTA’s capital budget.  Madison Capital’s land use counsel, Jerry Johnson of Fox Rothschild, testified on changes made with the Landmarks Preservation Council and the City Planning Commission to gain their approval prior to the hearing.  According to Mr. Johnson, the building has been raised to match the adjacent building by Landmarks’ request, and per comments at the City Planning hearing, the freight elevator was moved from the Crosby Street lobby to another location inside the ground floor retail footprint.  Jonathan Ratner, a director at Madison Capital, emphasized the small size of the proposed building relative to other retail-used commercial buildings in SoHo.  Mr. Ratner stated that other retail buildings in SoHo offered between 24,000 and 40,000 square feet of retail space, where the proposed building’s entire square footage is less than 31,000.  Mr. Ratner also testified that community fears of light pollution were based on a marketing firm’s rendering of the building, which overstated the brightness of the building light.  Mr. Ratner introduced architectural renderings that he testified were more faithful to the intended building.  During questioning, Council Member Margaret Chin asked why the third floor aboveground was necessary, given that the majority of current retail outlets in SoHo were capped at two floors.  Mr. Ratner re-emphasized the low amount of space available in the building, arguing that “We think because of the challenges and constraints of the site…the third floor is necessary for a certain program.”

In opposition, Manhattan CB 2 Land Use Chair Tobi Bergman testified that while the Board had been working with all parties, they still opposed the project.  Mr. Bergman credited SoHo’s success to its mixed-use character, and that that character was ignored by EDC in its desire to maximize the financial gain for the MTA.  CB2 Land Use Vice-Chair Terri Cude testified that the Board was concerned with the increasing retail presence into SoHo, turning the mixed-use community into a “circus of lights and screaming visual shopping messages.”  Ms. Cude pointed out that there are no zoning or Landmarks restrictions on digital LED advertising displays, so developer pledges to adhere to any such restrictions are meaningless, and called for quantifiable controls on light emissions for the project and in all of SoHo.

Jim Caras, general counsel to Borough President Brewer, read a statement from the Borough President in which she supports the disposition of the property to provide needed funding for the MTA, but opposed the requested special permits for extra retail space.  “While recognizing that the area has evolved into a retail destination, and that more frequently larger national and international retail chains are locating along Broadway, this is not an appropriate goal for every site in the area.”  Sarah Diaz testified on behalf of Assemblymember Glick, expressing concern for the proposed building’s negative impact on pedestrian flow outside of the subway station, and calling for the retail space to not be given over to one flagship store.  “We would hope that smaller stores would diversify the neighborhood and help prevent this new retail space from becoming just another destination large box store.”  Ms. Diaz also expressed concern that the large glass façade would turn into an oversized illuminated billboard.

The public hearing was adjourned without a vote to allow time for Council Member Chin and other City officials to work on the issues presented.  No future date for a vote was set.

City Council:  Public Hearing LU 0115-2014, LU 0116-2014, LU 0117-2014, LU 0118-2014 (September 17, 2014).

UPDATE (9/30/14): On September 30, 2014, the Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises voted unanimously 7-0 to approve the 19 East Houston project. The vote came after Madison Capital agreed to withdraw their request for a special permit to allow a large-scale retail establishment with no limit to floor area. The remaining permit requests were modified to reflect the removal of the third retail floor and the withdrawal of the special permit application. Madison Capital also agreed to expand the sidewalk by three feet and to explore the expansion of the curb extension at Broadway and East Houston Street and the construction of a new curb extension at East Houston and Crosby Streets. Madison Capital further agreed to bring their tenants before Community Board 8 should any issues with the building’s illumination arise.

The Department of Transportation also agreed to a loading zone for the building on Crosby Street, and to explore crosswalks across East Houston and Crosby Streets. Council Member Margaret Chin thanked the Community Board, Madison Capital, and all parties involved for working together to find an agreeable solution. LU 117 was filed pursuant to withdrawal, LU 115 and LU 116 were modified and approved, and LU 118 was approved without modification.

City Council: Public Hearing LU 0115-2014, LU 0116-2014, LU 0117-2014, LU 0118-2014 (September 30, 2014).

By: Michael Twomey (Michael is a CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2014)

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