Back in the 1960s, artists living sub rosa in SoHo and desperate to protect their homes gathered on the ground floor of 80 Wooster Street, then Jonas Mekas's Cinematheque. They debated how to proceed. Some advocated bribing the building inspectors, convinced that the only way to survive was to circumvent the system. Others urged following a legal path -- pursuing a zoning change that would create an artist live-work neighborhood. Tempers were short and advocacy was high. Most everyone in the room was fairly young -- a 20 something or 30 something artist with a stake in this new community.
Fast-forward to 2011 when SoHo residents, now mostly in their 60s and 70s, are meeting again, this time in the Puffin Room, an arts space on Broome Street east of Broadway that closed down about one year ago because of funding difficulties. The meeting has been called by Carl Rosenstein, the Puffin's Director. Now, the subject is not legalizing their lofts but rather fighting the proposed SoHo BID (Business Improvement District), to be funded with a real estate tax surcharge. Despite being rejected by Community Board 2, it was approved by the City Planning Commission on January 26th and is awaiting final approval by the City Council.
According to the document submitted to the City Planning Commission, the $700,000-a-year budget for the BID would cover: $160,000 for sanitation and snow removal; $160,000 for public safety and visitor services; $50,000 for public relations for the neighborhood; $35,000 for mixed-use Co-op Properties-Residential Reimbursement; $250,000 for General and Administrative; and $45,000 for physical streetscape and storefront improvements.
Local residents are not convinced that the BID, which is limited to Broadway between Canal and Houston Streets, is needed, especially because only 23 percent of its total budget will go for street cleaning. Many fear that the BID will increase the number of tourists in SoHo, already a major problem. Artist Claude Sampton, whose Mercer Street building goes through to Broadway, spoke for many of the long-time artist residents when he said, "We do want the component on street cleaning. But it has to be good for residential areas, too. SoHo is special. It is a shopping mall but there are lots of people who live here. We will be affected." Artist and filmmaker Camille Billops quipped, "You can remove God quicker than the vendors."
Businessman Brian Steinwurtzel, who owns two commercial buildings on Broadway, serves as co-chair of the SoHo BID Steering Committee established in 2009. Steinwurtzel believes in the BID. "SoHo is what SoHo is today not because of the BID," he said. "Things will only get worse." When the Association of Community Employments Programs for the Homeless (ACE) founded by Henry Buhl decided that they could no longer afford to clean Broadway because revenue from the mega-stores there was inadequate to cover their costs, the decision was made to look into the creation of a BID. Consultant Barbara Cohen, a senior associate with Robert B. Pauls, was hired to help draft the district plan.
Following a series of meetings with residents, the SoHo BID designed a residential reimbursement plan. Only residential coop buildings that own their commercial spaces will pay fees for the BID.
But the reimbursement compromise plan does not seem to have placated most residents.
The February 28 meeting at Puffin Room was standing room only. It opened with director Carl Rosenstein, a 30-year resident of SoHo, playing "Taxman" by the Beatles. He danced to the music as smiles appeared on the faces of the largely senior crowd. On the white wall behind him were words handwritten in black paint: "Consent of the Governed."
That was the theme of the evening. It was also the theme of Rosenstein's Villager attack on Council Member Margaret Chin, "Angry Buddhist asks: Is SoHo Taking it on the Chin?" Chin, he wrote, "has made a cold political calculation that potential campaign donations by big SoHo real estate that will expand her power base far outweigh the votes that she will lose in a potential 2013 primary by selling out the relatively small residential SoHo community."
Chin, who is on record as saying that she will not support the SoHo BID if the residents' concerns are not dealt with, was, however, a keen supporter of the Chinatown BID, the largest in the five boroughs and one that annexed into its area seven blocks in the SoHo zoning district. Chin defended herself against Rosenstein's rant: "To date, I have not come out in support of the Broadway BID," she said, going on to add that her office has been present at many meetings "where extensive discussions were held with the co-op owners."
While Chin may have attended many previous meetings, she was a no show at the Puffin Room event, although the sign on the door said that Margaret Chin was expected. Some called it an act of cowardice. Others decided that the next step was activism. Sheets of paper with the words NO BID in large black letters and space for personal messages were given out, as were envelopes addressed to Chin's Broadway office. Update (5:17pm): Chin's office said that they were invited at the last minute and that she was unable to attend. However, she did send staff members to the meeting who were turned away by Rosenstein.
One media savvy resident suggested using Facebook pages, email and signing a petition on Twitition. If they can topple dictators in the Middle East, he said, we can defeat the SoHo BID.
Roslyn Bernstein is the author of Boardwalk Stories and the co-author with the architect Shael Shapiro of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo. She teaches journalism at Baruch College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.