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Soho Residents Worry Glass Triangle Will Shine So, So Bright

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The triangular retail-and-office building that Madison Capital has proposed for East Houston Street continues to frustrate neighbors. Tasked with weighing in on the six-story project the developer has planned for that main drag between Crosby Street and Broadway, Community Board 2 members said in a meeting last night that the current design may allow for bright signage that is too overwhelming for the Cast Iron Historic District.

The take-down by neighbors comes in the midst of the 60-day timeframe that community members have to comment on the application the developer currently filed with City Planning, which is part of the ULURP process through which all large new-construction projects must go. In the course of its lifespan, the design for 19 East Houston has already been revised to be less glassy and more opaque after a couple of rounds with the Landmarks Preservation Commission last year. But the board says there remain outstanding issues with the building that haven't yet been addressed.

Most perplexing for the board was how the renderings shown last night by Navid Maqami, a principal at architecture firm Perkins Eastman, showed no light or advertisements glowing through the windows as seen in a brochure put out by brokers Cushman & Wakefield [warning: PDF!]. The image in the brochure, board members said, was not part of the renderings that passed muster with Landmarks. "Whether I like the architecture or not, that architecture has certain compatibility with the historic district," said Land Use committee chair Tobi Bergman, adding, "but this experience says massive branding." The brochure shows something "very different than the building that was presented to Landmarks as a building that was in context," he said. Another board member, Susan Wittenberg, said, "It was explained as if it would not be glowing in the dark."

Maqami said he didn't know how light would be used at the building, as the rendering wasn't his own. Wittenberg asked, "Are you saying that even though you didn't do those illustrations, they are correct, in theory?" Then Jonathan Ratner, a Madison Capital director, said a retailer had made the image. Sean Sweeney, another member and president of the Soho Alliance, pressed him, "Is it a misrepresentation or not?" Ratner then replied, "It's for marketing purposes" and "This is a projection of what the building can look like at night." It was explained that only the first three floors would be used for retail. But as Bergman pointed out, "Essentially it looks like a billboard all the way up to the top." He then conceded that some buildings nearby flaunt ads while others hold back.

That sentiment was spelled out in an April 15 letter that CB2 sent to the Economic Development Corporation: "Generally, the committee is concerned that the ULURP application has failed to recognize the intensity of current retail uses in the area and its impact on a mixed-use neighborhood, and instead seems to say because that is what's there, it's okay to add more." The letter went on to address the brochure rendering: "This use has significant impact on the appearance of the facade, transforming the building design from what was approved to something very different."

The other big point of contention was how changes would be made to the sidewalk without impeding the busy flow of pedestrians. The lot—currently next to a wall with a Hollister logo painted on it—is currently used by the MTA to store equipment, leased by a fruit stand monthly, and borders a B/D/F/M subway entrance and a bus stop. The plan so far involves moving a subway grate from inside the lot to near the curb, moving fire hydrants and the bus stop and expanding the 12-foot-wide sidewalk three more feet into the street. The crowd last night deemed these accommodations insufficient, expressing concern about the subway grate, loading and unloading of deliveries, and just about everything else. "The community would really like 12 feet of unimpeded sidewalk on a busy street which is also an entrance to a busy subway stop," said Shlomo Angel, an NYU urban planning professor who lives nearby.

Kicking the outrage up a notch, noted NIMBY Georgette Fleischer said, "This plan is not ready for prime time yet. This looks like a square peg in a round hole. I don't understand how bus stations are supposed to be changed, fire hydrants are supposed to be moved."

When asked by the board why the sidewalk couldn't be extended all the way into the lane that is already filled on the Broadway end by a bulbout, a spokeswoman from the Economic Development Corporation said the Transportation Department allowed three feet as a maximum. A board member then said that DOT had not shown up to any of the meetings on this so far.

Despite all the discussion, the committee hasn't yet committed any resolutions to writing to bring before the full board.

UPDATE: The Landmarks Preservation Commission issued the following statement: "The Commission expressed concerns regarding possible signage behind the glass facade at the Public Hearing and subsequent Public Meetings for 19 East Houston. The applicant responded by presenting a revised façade design which limited the possibility for large signs behind it, which was approved. The rendering on the advertising materials on the 606 Broadway website has not been reviewed by the Commission. However, plans for large interior signage behind the glass would require a Department of Buildings Permit, as well as a permit from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Plans for signs directly behind the glass would require the project to be calendared for a new public hearing."
—Shannon Ayala
· Big Glass Triangle Gets Less Glassy, Approved By Landmarks [Curbed]
· 19 East Houston Street coverage [Curbed]