Plaza Sweet

Citizen-Warrior: West 27th Street resident Gail Dobish is leading fight against FIT's new plan.
photo: Michael Sofronski

One of the perks of the job for the president of the State University of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology is a rent-free, penthouse apartment atop a student dorm on West 27th Street.

And although neighbors say she doesn't mingle, they often spot FIT president Dr. Joyce Brown stepping into an official black limousine parked at the curb in front of her building.

Sometimes Brown is accompanied by her powerful husband, H. Carl McCall, the Democratic state comptroller who wants to be governor in 2002.

The couple also have a Central Park West apartment, but when they are around West 27th Street, there's a small thrill for some residents at having the handsome, high-flying power couple right there on the block. But any chance of Brown and McCall getting the Good Neighbor Award went out the window last year when Brown quietly obtained city and state approvals for drastic changes on the street. The changes enhance FIT, which controls most of the block, but create a traffic nightmare for private businesses and residents at the block's western end.

Using funds provided by the state's Dormitory Authority, where McCall is a member and exerts major clout, FIT is seeking to turn its portion of the block into a leafy pedestrian plaza with colored bricks and benches. Traffic, already banned from the block during weekdays since 1979, would be barred altogether.

"Craziness happens all over the city. Look at Broadway, it's a crowded, crazy street."

Instead, a two-way street would start at the Eighth Avenue end and terminate in a small, narrow, mid-block cul-de-sac, placed smack in front of a private, 17-story commercial building.

Residents of a cooperative at 250 West 27th Street and businesses located at two large commercial buildings next door would be serenaded by an endless symphony of backup beeps as delivery trucks are forced to make multiple reverses. (Only the students at a school for the deaf at 242 West 27th Street would be spared the noises. But they won't get any warning about the trucks either.) Bigger vehicles, such as fuel delivery and garbage trucks, would, according to a study, have to back out right across the pedestrian-crowded intersection at Eighth Avenue. The intersection is across the street from Penn South Houses, with one of the city's largest concentrations of senior citizens.

The proposal has left local business owners scratching their heads. Rick Katzen manages OneSuch Productions, a large television-advertising studio that has operated at 236 West 27th Street for 20 years. Katzen said his firm can't figure out how they'll get deliveries, since parking in the cul-de-sac won't be allowed. "Literally right in front of our door is where we have our vehicles bringing us equipment," he said.

To Marty Zelnik, an architect and part owner of another commercial building, FIT's current plan is "a totally flawed design and potentially very dangerous." He said he asked university officials why they couldn't move the turnaround 100 feet east onto FIT's own property, where the buildings are set further back from the street and trucks would have more room to turn. "They said the school didn't want to encroach on their portion of the campus," said Zelnik.

To help finesse city approvals, FIT hired a former city official, Raymond Levin, who was at the time a member of the influential law firm Fischbein Badillo Wagner Harding, which includes Mayor Giuliani's political mentor, Ray Harding.

While word of the changes slowly spread among the residents of the western end of the block, the plan won quick environmental approvals from both the city's Department of Transportation and the Dormitory Authority.

In the urban babble of planning talk, the agencies issued "negative declarations" on the new design's impact, meaning no independent review was required.

These are the kinds of small assaults on the quality of everyday life—imposed by politically powerful players—that turn otherwise complacent New Yorkers into outraged citizen-warriors. Alarmed neighbors besieged FIT and the city's Department of Transportation, which oversees such changes. The city bureaucrats refused to get on the phone.

Janis Shaw, a freelance graphics designer and 12-year resident of the co-op at 250 West 27th Street, teamed up with Gail Dobish, who has lived in the co-op for 21 years, to start a block association. They got the local community boards, State Senator Tom Duane, City Council member Christine Quinn, and Penn South's board to write letters opposing it. They also hired an attorney, Emily Simons, to help them do battle. And in one more effort to get the city's attention, Dobish attended one of the mayor's town hall meetings in August.

Dobish, a former opera singer, had never been to such a meeting, let alone questioned a mayor. But she talked her way into the line of questioners and, when her turn came, asked the mayor why her block association was forced to hire a lawyer to get a meeting with his transportation commissioner. That argument is a sore point with the mayor, who once vowed to ban all lobbying after he was confronted with media stories about how his mentor, Harding, was getting rich by lobbying Giuliani's appointees.

"He cut me off, and said, 'No one should ever have to hire a lawyer to get a meeting with one of my commissioners,' " said Dobish.

A few days later, Dobish, Shaw, and Simons found themselves seated in a downtown office with another powerful woman married to an even more powerful Democrat. Iris Weinshall, wife of Senator Chuck Schumer, had only been at her post as transportation commissioner a few days.

"She asked us, 'What do you want?' " said Shaw. "We said keep it the way it is, or make it a true restricted street, no cul-de-sac. Just restrict the traffic seven days a week. She said, 'That sounds like a good idea, I am going to call Joyce Brown.' "

The citizen-warriors left the meeting optimistic. "I thought she was going to help us," said Shaw. But when they sat with Weinshall and Brown together at a meeting in December, the two officials airily dismissed their complaints.

"We asked them, 'How do you know oil trucks are going to be able to turn?' " said Shaw. "But before FIT even had a chance to answer, Weinshall said, 'FIT can't answer that. Craziness happens all over the city. Look at Broadway, it's a crowded, crazy street.' We looked at her and were amazed. We said, 'So why introduce those problems on our block?' "

Weinshall's support for FIT convinced the activists to proceed with a lawsuit against DOT and the state's Dormitory Authority. Like most citizens goaded into activism, Shaw and Dobish are getting a crash course in politics. Aside from Quinn and Duane, other Democratic politicians seemed to want nothing to do with their fight. Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, a Democrat and close to the McCalls, refused to write a letter in support of the block association. A spokesperson for Fields said she declined to comment.

Brown also didn't want to talk to the Voice, although when WNBC-TV's Tim Minton recently asked her if her husband had been involved in the FIT project, Brown hesitated and then said, "The short answer is no."

FIT vice president Harvey Spector insisted the comptroller played no role. "This started long before [Brown] became president," he said. Spector said the school has made some changes in response to the block association's complaints. Fuel trucks, for instance, will now be allowed to drive across the planned plaza, guided by FIT security guards.

Spokespersons for DOT never responded to questions. That kind of behavior has been one more lesson for the citizen-warriors of West 27th Street who are pressing ahead with their suit. "As a novice, I found out the only people with power were the commissioners and the mayor. That's been the most frightening thing," said Dobish.

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