The malling of Soho: Big-box plan sparks big anger from locals

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A photo from 2012 of 462 Broadway, which stretches between Grand and Crosby Sts. It was built in 1880 by Mills & Gibb, a firm specializing in importing and jobbing lace, linen and dry goods.

BY DENNIS LYNCH | The owners of a large, six-story commercial building in Soho who want to convert it into one jumbo-sized retail space enthusiastically presented their plan to locals and the Community Board 2 Land Use Committee last Wednesday night. To their chagrin, they were met with near-unanimous opposition from those at the meeting.

Steve Meringoff, the owner of 462 Broadway, and his team specifically are requesting two special permits to make over the 1880 building into a single, large, 45,000-square-foot store.

However, many locals said the store would bring throngs of customers, noisy late-night deliveries and heaps of trash to the area around it, and made that clear in no uncertain terms.

“You have a right to make money, but you don’t have a right to destroy the quality of my life,” a longtime Crosby St. resident declared. He noted that on that street, on a regular basis, delivery trucks unload merchandise and trash trucks pick up refuse from other large retailers.

Around 40 local residents turned out for the meeting. Every single one of the two dozen or so who spoke opposed Meringoff’s request for a special permit to allow him to exceed the area’s 10,000 square-foot limit on ground-floor retail. The owner also hopes to use the building’s basement and parts of its upper floors for retail. City zoning regulations require any property owner who wants to obtain such a special permit to bring the application first to the local community board for an advisory vote, after which the Department of Buildings officially decides on the request. Yet, few Soho property owners actually follow that path, many of them bypassing the community board.

Soho has become one of the world’s premier retail districts, but is actually zoned for manufacturing. Meringoff, like all the district’s other property owners, needs a separate special permit to rent the ground floor for retail use in the first place.

It’s a 60-day review process and Meringoff will either resubmit the current plan for a vote at C.B. 2 or revise and resubmit it for review next month. The Land Use Committee didn’t take an official position on the first proposal, but committee chairperson Anita Brandt said the hope is that the development team returns with a proposal for around three smaller stores on the ground floor and office space on the upper floors.

Many locals are all but completely soured on large-scale retail in Soho, though, because of the disruption they say that it brings to the neighborhood. Only adding to residents’ anger and frustration, most property owners who have opened large-scale retail in the area have skirted the special-permit process by exploiting loopholes in city regulations. Some have long accused D.O.B. of failing to — or intentionally choosing not to — enforce the regulations.

The last time a property owner requested a similar special permit was in 2009. Owners of an empty lot at Lafayette and E. Houston Sts. received one for an entirely new building with oversized retail in 2013, according to local activist Pete Davies. While many locals commended Meringoff for at least going through the proper process, his apparent genuine desire to go by the books still didn’t warm them to his plans.

In some respects, last Wednesday night at C.B. 2, Meringoff and his team stood in as punching bags for the previous actions of other property owners. Residents voiced their pent-up frustrations — built up over years — passionately venting over late-night deliveries to large-scale retailers in the area and the bright lights these stores keep on overnight, even when the stores are closed.

But Brandt said she didn’t think the community would want a big-box retailer, even if those bad actors had never poisoned the well. She said large-scale retail creates “an environment of destination shopping where people are driving to a store, double-parking. It’s creating huge volumes of trash, huge volumes of deliveries. And because [the area is] residential in nature, it’s a conflict, inherently.

“What we’re trying to maintain is a mixed-use community, not one thing or another,” she added.

Brandt noted that the city has denied special permits for large retail in the neighborhood before, notably when Scholastic wanted to create up to 32,000 square feet of retail space in its corporate headquarters at 557 Broadway. The city’s Board of Standards and Appeals denied that first application and later approved the retail conversion only if Scholastic broke the space up into parts less than 10,000 square feet in size.

Meringoff himself, standing at the front of the New York University classroom where last Wednesday’s C.B. 2 committee meeting was held, bore the brunt of the criticism. He has owned 462 Broadway since 1981. He pledged to put strict stipulations into any lease he signs with a retail tenant. These would include limiting delivery hours and restricting lighting on the building’s upper floors, to prevent the “nightmare” so many locals described with other large-scale retail stores.

He said that he would maintain a dialogue with nearby residents and work to solve any issues they brought to him. He said he has no plans to dump the property for an easy dollar.

“Listen, this is our baby, we are going to live with this and I will die with this building,” he told the crowd. “This is a legacy asset for us. We are not here to make a quick buck — up the net income and sell it.”

Meringoff wants the special permit because the International Culinary Center, which used the space since 1984 as a sort of test kitchen and restaurant, decided to change its business model and use only space on the upper floors. Zoning allowed the culinary school to use such a large space on the ground floor. Meringoff was legally required to advertise the space to get a conforming-use tenant for a year. He said he did so for two years, but didn’t get any bites. Many at the meeting were skeptical, though.

Now Meringoff either needs to break up the large space, rent it as commercial — rather than retail — space, or get a special permit. Many locals urged him do either the first option. But he said that Americans With Disabilities Act handicap-access and Landmarks Preservation Commission rules wouldn’t allow for the new entrances that multiple spaces would need.

Brandt, who is an architect specializing in landmarked buildings, said Meringoff could make it work, “no sweat,” she said.

“We hear that every week at the Landmarks Commission, that’s something you have to solve,” she said. “And, especially, if you do a big development, you can comply with A.D.A. inside the building. A big project like this is perfect for it — build the ramps inside. This is an ideal project for smaller stores.”

Some people told Meringoff they didn’t think a large-scale retail space would be in his best interests right now, anyway. Soho is ground zero for a citywide retail-market slump, they noted. The price per square foot of retail space in Soho along Broadway dropped from $824 last spring to $755 this past fall, according to figures collected by the Real Estate Board of New York and referenced in a recent New York Times article.

Robin Abrams, vice chairperson of real estate firm The Lansco Corporation, said that the retail boom in Soho “is softening partly because rents became overly aggressive and inappropriate.” Retailers are also realizing they can do the same business with less-expensive, smaller spaces, she said.

Abrams offered that community sentiment would mainly depend on what sort of tenant Meringoff wanted to bring into such a large space at 462 Broadway. A retailer similar to Bloomingdale’s, for example, could be better received than a discount big-box store, she noted.

“It’s a question of what that use is and why that landlord wants to create a big space, when there’s large retail spaces sitting vacant,” she said. She added that if the space could be divided up in compliance with A.D.A. and L.P.C. rules, then she would market it as flexible —  she would offer a variety of options to tenants and fit them in like pieces of a puzzle.

“You could have a retailer that takes a portion of  the ground floor combined with the upper floor, and another retailer that leases a portion of the ground floor with some of the lower level, with separate individual stores for the remaining ground floor,” she explained. “I would go out to the market on a flexible basis. But if someone came to me and wanted to lease the entire space, then I would present that, as well, and the landlord would compare each scenario in order to choose how to proceed.”

One resident who lives across Grand St. from 462 Broadway and wished not to be named told Meringoff maybe it’s time to sell the property or lower his asking rent price to attract a conforming-use tenant. The resident said he bought his loft knowing that “a Best Buy or Bloomingdale’s” wasn’t allowed across the street, and that Meringoff made his purchase knowing the same, so he has to live with it.

“Unfortunately, like everyone who makes investments, we are governed by what’s allowed in our spaces,” he said. “So, perhaps you made a poor investment. I think not. I’m sure it’s paid dividends for years, so it’s been a terrific investment. But maybe it won’t be as good as an investment going forward.”

SoHo Ain’t Herald Square

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– Permit Sought for 4 Floors of Oversized 45,201sf Department Store at 462 Broadway
– Attend Community Board Meeting Wednesday to Speak Out Against the Plan
Under SoHo’s unique and successful zoning, retail stores greater than 10,000 sq ft require a Special Permit from the City Planning Commission to operate.  This is to encourage smaller, independent, creative retailers and to prevent large flagship stores from overwhelming our community.
It worked well at first.  However, in the past decade or two, the Department of Buildings has basically turned its back on enforcing these zoning laws.  Oversized stores have sprung up along Broadway, like Bloomingdale’s, Old Navy, Zara, Hollister, Nike, American Eagle and UNIQLO –  to the detriment of SoHo.  Residents complain of swarms of shoppers, increasingly congested sidewalks, crowded subway platforms, noise and disturbance from late-night construction and deliveries, and oppressive illumination.
Lately SoHo activists have been putting pressure on the Buildings Department, City Planning, our elected officials and the community board to curtail this abuse.  As a result, we now see developers applying for the Special Permit.  This permit process mandates community review and input, giving us an opportunity to amend and even reject the proposal if it causes negative impacts on the neighborhood.
462 Broadway is the block-long building on the northeast corner with Grand that stretches to Crosby, former home of the French Culinary Institute. The owner has applied for a Special Permit to use four floors of the building as a 45,201 sq ft department store. See the rendering at the bottom of this email.

The community board has scheduled a meeting to hear the presentation and to give us an opportunity to voice our opinion on whether SoHo needs yet another megastore.  If this Special Permit is granted, expect other developers to follow suit and have these stores spring up not only on Broadway, but the side streets as well.  Who wants to live in Herald Square?

WHAT: Land Use & Business Development Committee, Community Board 2
WHEN: Wednesday, March 8, 6:30 pm
WHERE: NYU Building, 194 Mercer Street (Houston/Bleecker), Room 306 (ID Required)
Sean Sweeney
Director, SoHo Alliance
PO Box 429
New York, NY 10012