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With customary bravado, Donald Trump unveiled his new plan for Soho on national TV. He was sitting onstage before a live audience, filming the final episode of his hit reality show The Apprentice on June 5. Cameras zoomed in on the real estate magnate, his trademark squint set beneath his trademark hairstyle, as he announced the big prize for the show's winner: managing construction of a megacondominium-hotel on Spring Street.
"Located in the center of Manhattan's chic artist enclave, the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Soho is the site of my latest development," he trumpeted, as scenes from the trendy neighborhood flashed by. "This 50-story building is the first condominium-hotel in the city, with world-class accommodations and panoramic views."
The next Manhattan behemoth to bear Trump's name looked good on-screen, a computer-generated skyscraper rising up out of the vacant lot where Trump expects the real one to stand by 2009. The project looks even better on Trump's websiteyes, trump.com which pans from the top to the bottom of a tall, glittery tower, as smooth jazz plays in the background.
But in real life, things don't seem quite so smooth. Over the past two months, a ground war has begun against Trump and his developer partners, with preservationists, residents, and business advocates saying the proposal amounts to an apartment tower that merely masquerades as a hotel. They're convinced it violates the area's zoning code, which allows industrial and commercial outlets, not residences. Trump may rule on television, but in Gotham he's fighting a grassroots campaign of letter writing and phone calls to city officials. And he may be losing. On July 13, the resisters won backing from a Community Board 2 subcommittee, which rejected the plan unanimously.
"He is using this as a Trojan horse to build residences," charges Sean Sweeney, of the Soho Alliance, referring to the Donald, of course. "He's going around the zoning here. It's typical Trump arrogance."
Trump and his partners insist the Soho tower is a hotel, and of the five-star variety, to boot; it will offer 24-hour room service and housekeeping, a rooftop pool, and a day spa. Julius Schwarz, of the Bayrock Group, the project's managing partner, says the only difference between this place and any other "ultra-luxury" hotel is that people will be able to buy one of the 415 units. Geared to the wealthy thirtysomething crowd, the suites will be sold individually as pieds-à-terre. The usually absent owners will rent out their units as hotel rooms and pocket the money. "There is no residential use involved in this project," Schwarz says.
His famous partner didn't get ahead of himself by announcing the project on TV, Schwarz says. He says they can build the condo-hotel under the zoning code, "as of right."
The winning apprentice will have for a boss Donald Trump Jr., who's managing the overall project with his father and sister, Ivanka. "We knew back on June 5 that we had the right to build Trump Soho," Trump Jr. tells the Voice in a brief e-mail. "There was no community reaction to the hotel at the time, so we were not cautious about announcing this exciting project."
Trump has never been known for caution. Brash, ambitious, filthy rich: These words define the 60-year-old property mogul. In 2001, he faced down the fury of luminaries like Walter Cronkite and Kofi Annan, who happened to live near his planned 90-story Trump World Towerthe tallest residential tower on earth.
No celebrities are lending their names to this latest fight, at least not yet. Contrary to Trump's dramatic description on The Apprentice, 246 Spring is a parking lot on the outskirts of Soho, at the corner of Varick Street, just blocks from the Holland Tunnel, in an outpost of old factory buildings turned design offices, printing firms, and storage facilities.
"This area has always housed classic light industry," says Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and leading fly in Trump's ointment. Now, he says, the neighborhood is undergoing a classic phenomenonthe one of "the big-name developer bending the rules to get what he wants."
Berman says his first reaction to the Trump project was to be horrified at the scale, which will rival that of skyscrapers on Wall Street. (The building will actually stand 42 stories tall, according to Schwarz.) He reached out to the manufacturers, who saw their own interests at stake. Adam Friedman, of the New York Industrial Retention Network, which represents 400 or so manufacturers citywide, says the building would have a ripple effect. Whenever the city has OK'd residential uses in industrial zones, Friedman says, manufacturers have been forced out. If the city grants Trump his permits, he argues, it'll pave the way for high-rise residential buildings in industrial zones citywide, from Red Hook to Long Island City. "This hotel really isn't a hotel," he says. "It's camouflage or subterfuge for residential development."
Trump and company deny bending any zoning rules. They insist their condo-hotel is designed solely for short-term stays. Sure, people will buy units to live in. No matter. "We are absolutely complying with the building regulations," Schwarz says. Condo owners won't be allowed to remain in their places for more than 29 consecutive days, for instance, as is the case in standard hotels. To satisfy zoning, he says, they've eliminated some original amenities, such as stovetops in the kitchenettes.
For Schwarz, the opposition comes down to what he calls "a fundamental misunderstanding of what we're creating." These "condotels," as they're dubbed in industry circles, have been sprouting up around the country. Trump is already building condotels in Chicago, Las Vegas, and Florida. His people point to the Trump International Hotel and Tower, on Columbus Circle, as a similar enterprise. Trump's website muddies that argument: It bills the 52-story structure as "a super-luxury hotel and residential building."
Zoning rules against residential hotels in that part of Soho may provide the only means of blocking Trump. Evidently, a lot is riding on interpretation of those rules. At the city's zoning agencies, no one is offering any yet. City planning commission spokesperson Rachaele Raynoff punts the issue. "It is the buildings department that will determine what is residential and what is not," she says. Her counterpart at Buildings, Jennifer Givner, says officials haven't made any decisions about the plan. "It depends on what is being proposed, and we don't have a proposal in front of us," she explains. On May 16, the department sent back the initial application on various technical grounds. Now, she adds, it's all "in the hands of the developers."
That's exactly what worries opponents. Queens city councilman Tony Avella, who heads the zoning subcommittee and opposes the Soho project, argues that the real estate industry has always had too much power at City Hall. As for Trump's obvious fortune and fame, he says, "It doesn't help us, dare I say."
Already, the buildings department has issued a permit for excavation work on the site, which Schwarz says will begin soon. "We see no reason for this project to be stalled," he reports.
Well, maybe there's one. Opponents readily admit they have a visceral reaction to the proposed height, not to mention the traffic it might bring. Some, like the Soho Alliance's Sweeney, admit a visceral reaction to the Donald himself. "The guy repulses me," the activist confides. With his flamboyance, his glitziness, Trump is totally out of keeping with what Sweeney calls the "downtown aesthetic." "Trump must think he's going to transform this neighborhood," he says, walking past the Spring Street lot. Sweeney expects the tycoon would make the area so glitzy, so tacky, it'll be like Atlantic City. He invokes the spirit of Jane Jacobs, who proved that enough small people, sufficiently mad, can stymie a big developer.
"It would be hilarious if this project doesn't get done," he says devilishly. "It would be like egg on his face."