Art Versus Real Estate in SoHo

| 17 Feb 2015 | 04:32

The fight at 529 Broadway pits developers against some of the neighborhood's pioneering artists

A fight over a 77-year-old SoHo building is pitting some of the city's highest-profile real estate investors against some of the founding artists of the neighborhood. The Landmarks Preservation Commission last month unanimously approved developers' plans to demolish the building at 529 Broadway, at Spring Street, and build a new six-story commercial and retail space in its place. The developers, including Bobby Cayre of Aurora Capital Associates, Jeff Sutton of Wharton Properties, Joe Sitt of Thor Equities, and members of the Adjmi real estate family, bought the bedraggled property, which currently houses Steve Madden and Lush, from Goldstone Realty LLC for $147 million in December. All that remains before the developers can break ground is approval from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Department of Buildings-unless the neighbors are able to appeal the Landmarks Preservation Commission's decision.

Renowned feminist artist Mary Beth Edelson, 80, who has lived and worked in her studio adjoining 529 Broadway since 1975, said she was "blindsided" when she heard about the proposal four days before the originally scheduled community board meeting on Sep. 4, which had to be rescheduled due to the public outcry.

"How can somebody propose to build this huge thing and not even tell you?" asked Edelson, whose kitchen window overlooks the proposed site and whose art is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum.

Marco Romeny, 39, who in 2005 opened his lovingly curated shop Kiosk on the second floor of 529 Broadway with his wife, Alisa Grifo, said he found out that the building had been sold on Christmas Eve of last year through a FedEx letter. Although Romeny calls the proposed demolition and development "sad," he said he is not surprised. "It's the ugly building in SoHo," he said.

However, some members of the public argued at the Landmarks Preservation Commission's meeting that the building's demolition and the new construction runs against the very history and character of the neighborhood that attracted the developers in the first place, and to which the architects' design attempted to pay homage. Representatives of several historic preservation groups, including the Historic Districts Council, Society for the Architecture of the City, and the Modern Architecture Working Group, argued in favor of preserving the current two-story building. Despite that, members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission all spoke in favor of the proposed construction-some effusively. Commission chair Robert B. Tierney called the presentation by the architects of BKSK Architects LLP, whom the developers hired to design the building, "the most erudite presentation" he had heard in the five years since he joined the commission. Another commissioner noted that although "up until this moment, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has protected" the building at 529 Broadway -- which was originally built in 1853 as a six-story hotel but was cut down to two stories in 1936 -- the proposed building "will contribute to the district more than the building that currently sits there." He also noted that the "residents' issues are not within our purview."

However, several of the commissioners suggested that the developers speak with the neighbors about their concerns. They expressly named the Judd Foundation, which went before the commission over three years ago with its proposal to restore the work and living space of the artist Donald Judd, whom the New York Times called "one of the most important artists of the late 20th century." The east side of the artist's building at 101 Spring Street looks out on the proposed construction site, and representatives of the Judd Foundation, as well as the representative from the Society for the Architecture of the City, explained that the additional four stories would block the morning light and "east outlook that had a role in Donald Judd's art." Judd, who passed away in 1994, was one of the first artists to move into SoHo when he bought the cast iron building at 101 Spring Street in 1968. The restoration was completed in June and cost $23 million.

Attorney Stuart A. Klein, who is representing Edelson's co-op, said they had four months to appeal the commission's decision.

A few hours after the Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting, Christopher Nazzaro, 32, who works at Kiosk, stood on the roof of 529 Broadway. He testified at the meeting earlier to the cultural significance of the interior of the building, especially the graffiti lining the walls of the passageway, which he said tourists regularly come to photograph.