(NEW YORK) Living in New York’s Soho neighbourhood for decades has taught Sean Sweeney how to urge people to hurry up in several languages, though not without his blood pressure shooting up.
|Crowd control: Soho has in the last four decades transformed from a hard-bitten haven for artists into a magnet for luxury retailers
‘Rapido! Vite! Mach schnell!’ he hisses as visiting crowds of shoppers shuffle along at a crawl. On weekends he sometimes barrels through packs of dawdlers like a bowling ball through pins. Once, when a group of Italians, coffees in hand, refused to move off his building’s stoop, the ensuing stand-off nearly escalated into a fist fight.
Now, there are plans to bring in a business improvement district – a public-private partnership that collects assessments to pay for local improvements such as better sanitation, marketing and beautification – and Mr Sweeney and many of his neighbours are not pleased.
‘We don’t need a business improvement district; we need a resident improvement district,’ said Mr Sweeney, who moved into a loft on Greene Street in the early 1980s, during the hard-to-imagine days when Soho’s soaring factory spaces were vacant and its streets desolate. ‘We’re packed.’
Soho, the Lower Manhattan neighbourhood so named because it is south of Houston Street, has in the last four decades transformed from a hard-bitten haven for artists into a magnet for such luxury retailers as Prada and Chanel.
Partly as a result, the neighbourhood’s residents are in the unusual position of fighting a plan designed to improve conditions in their area, despite the fact that the method has been widely embraced throughout the city and is overwhelmingly viewed as helpful, and benign.
The controversy is in its second year and nearing a likely climax this March with a public hearing before City Council. Not only has it tapped a primal fear among some in Soho, it has also laid bare a neighbourhood schism.
The artists who colonised the neighbourhood decades ago may have secured castles in the sky, but they also find themselves surrounded by streets that are clogged by tourists and lined with giant retailers and luxury stores.
For them, having a business improvement district formed with the help of property giants means ceding more ground to the invaders who, they believe, want to increase pedestrian flow so they can charge more for retail space.
But those who support the district say that Mr Sweeney, who himself leads a neighbourhood activist group called the SoHo Alliance, and other opponents are fear-mongering and have got it all wrong.
The district, they say, would be formed largely to deal with the aftermath of the masses that fuel Soho’s runaway retail success.
Every weekend, the garbage cans on Broadway overflow to the point where people resort to laying trash around them in rings, in what one local politician calls ‘a sort of tribute to the garbage pail’.
The sanitation department cannot keep up. Retailers have repeatedly been fined for messypavements out front. Meanwhile, street vendors gobble up precious pavement space, choking pedestrian traffic.
Supporters of the district said that a full-time staff could force illegal vendors and food trucks to leave or could alert the police. The first stirrings of a proposal for the district came three or four years ago.
For nearly two decades, the non-profit group ACE had supplied the area with street cleaners through a vocational programme that provides transitional work experience for formerly homeless men and women.
But in the last five years, the group, which was founded by the philanthropist Henry Buhl, received fewer and fewer donations from residents and retailers along Broadway between Houston and Canal.
Sometimes the budget shortfalls exceeded US$100,000, and the group found itself diverting money from other programmes.
‘We were doing this for multinational corporations making billions, and this tiny non-profit is shouldering this load for nothing,’ said Jim Martin, ACE’s executive director.
So last summer, ACE stopped cleaning the Broadway stretch, and the garbage began piling up.
Mr Buhl and some property owners had been floating the idea of creating the business improvement district by collecting regular assessments from property owners along Broadway to fund an agency that would have an executive director, organise regular street cleanings and tackle longtime thorny issues such as illegal vending and food cart jams.
After the organisers’ initial plan met community outcry, they rejiggered some aspects, including decreasing the district’s proposed budget to US$550,000 and ensuring that owners of residential co-ops and condos would pay only nominal assessment fees.
But many residents remain dug in in their opposition. They fear the district would give the upper hand to property titans that own properties in the neighbourhood – among them Vornado Realty Trust and the Gural family – and that it would eventually be expanded.
They also believe the proposed budget, now set at roughly US$550,000, remains excessive, and they worry that Soho would find itself festooned with holiday lights and signs that would drive in yet more tourists.
A critic, Jamie Johnson, said that the plan was an overly expensive solution to a terrible trash problem. ‘It’s, ‘Let’s put in a chandelier when we only need a light bulb’,’ she said. — NYT
Source: Business Times 31 Jan 2012