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Soho’s zoning is broken and needs to be fixed

BY MARGARET D. BAISLEY | Mr. Pincus, I support Mary Rolland’s talking point (“Rezone within reason: Remove Soho’s barriers to retail”). Your story of David and Goliath (“Save Soho from mad stampede of greed”) is an appealing one, but it has nothing to do with real estate in Soho.

Artists moved here to squat illegally in big cheap spaces because New York City was bankrupt in the 1970s. The Joint Live Work Quarters for Artists carve-out allowed residential occupancy by artists in old deserted buildings, because you “manufactured” art. But this zoning has no relevance today. More than 99 percent of residents here are not artists and never could be.

We don’t zone by occupation. We don’t put all the doctors on the Upper East Side, school teachers on the West Side, cops on Staten Island. This is a mixed-use community and it calls for a mixed-use occupancy. Artists are a small part of it. What about the rest of us? You lived here illegally and the laws were changed for you. Now everyone else lives in violation of J.L.W.Q.A. — why can’t the zoning be changed for us?

You want to preserve historic structures? Who’s paying for them? The majority of us owners are working stiffs who converted these buildings to co-ops. I am the treasurer of my building. When we had a problem last year with our elaborate cast-iron cornice, we wrote a check for $65,000 to put up scaffolding in 48 hours. Repairs to the iron work cost $368,000; our roof is costing us $1.2 million. We had to refinance our mortgage twice.

What artists’ building can pay for this? You want to have a union superintendent and handyman? Who’s paying their $100,000 salary? Don’t they deserve a living wage? Our taxes just went up to $1.7 million, shared by 28 unit owners. Do the math — that’s more than $60,000 per loft.  We need big retail to help us pay the bills upstairs. We need everyone to help — artists, middle-class workers, makers, professionals, yes, even a few rock stars, models and millionaires. Stop this myth of the big bad real estate wolf and look at the reality of Soho in 2021.

Soho real estate attorney Margaret D. Baisley.

Mr. Pincus, you are lucky enough to make a living from your art, but for lots of artists who live here, their lofts are their retirement fund. Mary Rolland helped many early artists buy their spaces. You should not denigrate her with personal attacks. Many artists work other jobs if they are not as fortunate as you. Why shouldn’t they have the right to sell to nonartists? Why shouldn’t Mary help them?

I am one who bought 25 years ago. I pay the outrageous tax bills, the repairs, all the other costs, but I am not allowed to live in my own space. How does this make any sense? Soho should be for everyone. The zoning is broken and needs to be fixed.

As for the destruction of Soho, this is another urban myth. No one is tearing down landmarked buildings here. Fear-mongering is self-defeating and cartoons of needle high-rises on Great Jones St. are pure fiction. The City Planning Commission and the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s regulations provide for contextual zoning approvals.

Stand on Broadway and Prince St. and compare the modern Scholastic building (constructed in 2001) with the elaborate cast-iron Singer Building (1906) at 561 Broadway next door. The Scholastic building was the site of a two-story lumber store, torn down to build a great addition to our neighborhood. It was designed by Aldo Rossi, who paid homage to Soho’s cast-iron facades with its white columns, muted colors, 13-story height and contextual bulk — a perfect example of City Planning and Landmarks’ strict oversight.

In my building, landmark regulations are so tough we cannot even put up a directory on our building’s facade — it must be mounted inside the door. Scare tactics about unregulated construction only serve to close our eyes to the need for rezoning that legalizes current uses and plans for reasonable future regulations.

If we need high-rises on the periphery of Soho to support diversity — as called for in the de Blasio’s administration’s current rezoning plan for the neighborhood— this is a reasonable compromise. Soho is not just for artists; we have a moral obligation to welcome diversity to our neighborhood. If inclusionary housing is the ticket that gets Mayor de Blasio to support the rezoning plan, I am willing to buy in.

Mr Pincus, just stop whining about the district falling apart and start thinking about how we are going to preserve and improve what we have and need for the future. I am sorry you might have to move. Not because your co-op board members are ogres, but because the economic realities of 2021 no longer make it possible for them to subsidize your low maintenance anymore. Maybe ask Mary Rolland to find you a nice co-op in Brooklyn.

Baisley is a real estate attorney practicing in Soho.

5 Comments

  1. Stephen DiLauro Stephen DiLauro March 8, 2021

    Real estate attorney Baisley starts her reply with an out and out fabrication. Artists did NOT squat buildings in Soho. The first artist there, Jeffrey Lew (referred to by New Yorker magazine as “the artist who started Soho”), bought his building at 112 Greene Street with the proceeds from the sale of his sculpture to a prominent Italian art collector, 50 years ago. He opened the building to other artists, Gordon Matta-Clarke among them, to create and display. I documented this story in an article in the Miami Herald Sunday Magazine when writing about Lew, who now lives in South Florida. It’s widely documented elsewhere, too.
    I’m not a lawyer. But isn’t there some kind of “poisoned well” legal theory that states once someone lies, everything they say should be suspect?
    Quit YOUR whining about how much it costs you to own a place in Soho, Ms. Baisley. You throw around big numbers like all big shots. But your relationship to truth and history are about as grounded in reality as Donald Trump, another real estate blowhard.

  2. JG JG March 8, 2021

    There are so so many lies and falsehoods in this story.
    This real estate lawyer does not live in SoHo, but lives in Brooklyn. No one is asking to retain artist-only resident requirements, which she falsely claims. We don’t want skyscrapers, which the zoning would bring into the middle of Soho and Noho — although this real estate lawyer tries to kid us that it is only the neighborhood’s periphery that would get the skyscrapers and office buildings and luxury housing Gentrification.

  3. Harry Pincus Harry Pincus Post author | March 8, 2021

    Thank you, Ms. Baisley.

    I am sure that the non-certified artists and the lawyers who control my building, who do not live here, and have been holding a Notice to Cure with an eviction threat over my head for the past three years, will also thank you.

    As I have said in previous articles, an Artist Certification should no longer be required today, because artists can no longer afford to live here, anyway. I am only asking for real estate operators like you and Ms. Rolland to honor the Artist Certifications that were issued decades ago to the pioneers who saved this area from destruction, and gave rise to what is now called Soho. I am also asking for the powers that be to cease and desist from demolishing some of the nearby buildings, where people are still living, in order to build huge, out-of-scale condos. These Trojan horses will not provide anything helpful for working people, beyond throwing yet more shade on our neighborhood, and on our lives.

    In my building, the lawyers, and the wealthy non-certified artists who came here with millions of dollars in recent years, were never asked to provide the co-op with a “Soho Letter” or with the Artist Certification which is required on the building’s Certificate of Occupancy. Perhaps that was a mistake, as three full floors of our six-story building, with a commercial space at the base, are now owned by wealthy absentees who live elsewhere. Another unit, deemed an “illegal occupancy” by the Dept. of Buildings, is being dangerously sublet, in spite of 15 open violations, including Aggravated Class 1.

    So you see, Ms. Baisley, the non-certified artists and the lawyers who own the majority shares of my co-op building have the same problem that you do. They don’t live here, and they just can’t make enough money!

    These wealthy and entitled folks, who served me with the Notice to Cure, know that I am the the son of a Brooklyn subway conductor, who was living in a car when I arrived here, and slept in a sleeping bag on the greasy floor of a deserted harpsichord factory. They knew that, when I was 14 years old, I was evicted from an apartment in Brooklyn with my mother and my semi-comatose grandmother, who died in my arms just a few days later. It seems like these folks want to hurt me as much as they can, and drain me of my life’s saving, until I give up the only real home I have ever had, which also happens to be my legal and legitimate apartment. This would allow one of them to add to his or her real estate holdings.

    Our new co-op board president, the “Executive Director” of an Arts organization, which is supposed to help artists, arrived here just a few years ago with millions of dollars from her wealthy husband, and refused our invitation to just come up for a visit. Before long, she was on board to serve us with the Notice to Cure, and for that little bit of work, she was rewarded with the presidency of the co-op.

    Like you, Ms. Baisely, they just don’t seem to earn enough money from their real estate speculations. The lawyer, who is our former co-op board president, told me that his family owns “180,000 sq. feet of loft space in Brooklyn and collects millions a month in rent,” but I suppose he doesn’t earn enough money either. His childhood friend, the co-op’s attorney, advocated for the co-op board to serve me with the Notice to Cure, which demands that I “cure” the above-mentioned open violations — in someone else’s illegally occupied apartment!

    This attorney and “investor,” our David, currently lives in a nearby townhouse which he gutted, and he is actually our Goliath, owing to his family wealth. Somehow, he managed to appear on our street on the day following the Kristallnacht that looted Soho. He walked up to me without a mask, and told me that I would “soon be out on the street.” I might add that our neighborhood was not targeted because of the artists like me, who used to live here; it was targeted because it has become synonymous with obscene wealth, greed and consumption. I would also add corruption to that growing list.

    Perhaps I ought to be thankful to this wealthy lawyer and real estate “investor.” At least he has offered to buy me out, and proudly told the owners of our now-shuttered ground-floor restaurant that he intends to “buy out the poorer ones and take over the building.” In fact, he and his childhood friend, the co-op’s attorney, have already marketed our building for sale, without the approval of the co-op board. Yet, compared to the others, who are not offering me anything other than eviction, perhaps he is my friend, just as you and Ms. Rolland are my friends.

    Or perhaps I will be wise enough to buy an apartment that I cannot live in, like you did, Ms. Baisley! Now you want everyone else to pay for your mistake, much like the absentee owner of the uninhabitable unit that is being sublet in our building.

    That woman “founded” our co-op in 1975, and had first choice of any apartment, on any floor. She chose a unit with only lot-line windows and no fire escape, and after 46 years, she has never legalized it. When her husband, a renowned Downtown bohemian who publicly railed against greed and “Soho real estate killings,” passed away more than 10 years ago, she could have continued to live peacefully and inexpensively in her uninhabitable apartment, and no one would have interfered. Alas, she instead decided to monetize her unit, and enlisted her son, a Westchester attorney with Harvard and Columbia Law degrees, to illegally sublet it, and try to sell the illegal unit for $2.4 million, “cash only”!

    The uninhabitable unit in question happens to be next door to my apartment, and during the six months in 1976 when I was living and working in Paris, the owner of that apartment pre-filed for a Certificate of Occupancy at the Dept. of Buildings as a JLWQA building. Aside from being our co-op’s “founder,” she was also the long-standing president of its board, and in a position to dole out favors to the other board members. This woman did not have a certification as an Artist, which is required on our building’s Certificate of Occupancy. Nor did she have an inhabitable apartment, due to its lot-line windows, lack of permitted work and lack of a required second means of egress. Her solution? She, and her allies on the co-op board, filed her illegal occupancy as a “Studio/No Sleeping” attached to my legal JLWQA “living/work” space, while I was in Paris.

    After the co-op was unsuccessful in their 2015 attempt to evict her and her illegal sublet tenants, they turned their ire on me, the only certified Artist still in residence, and the original inhabitant. They served me with a Notice to Cure demanding that I “cure” the 15 open violations which emanate from her illegal apartment, even though I cannot access that apartment, do not own that apartment, am not receiving any of the sublet rent from that apartment, and have a separate lease and stock certificate, dating to 1975, and in my name only.

    The violations in the illegal apartment include Aggravated Class 1, the most serious, which is considered to be a “threat to human life … and property,” and have cost the co-op hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, as well as legal and professional fees. Yet, that apartment continues to be illegally occupied by sublet tenants.

    On the other hand, I scraped, painted and sanded every square inch of my apartment, and spent weeks removing rust from the beams with a three-dollar roto-stripper from Canal Street. My wife and I sanded and refinished the floor ourselves, and spent many years and thousands of dollars obtaining all of the stamped construction permits which resulted in my Letter of Completion and passed audit from the DOB. The DOB considers my occupancy to be legal, and I am not asking anyone for anything, other than for the lawyers to allow us to “age in place,” as they say.

    In our Supreme Court case, we simply asked for the Notice to Cure to be removed, but the co-op’s insurance lawyer falsely claimed that our floor is one unit, based upon the defective, or I would say fraudulent, C of O. The DOB inspected in 2019, and “observed two apartments” on our floor. They determined that the other, illegally sublet apartment next door was “created and added … contrary to the Certificate of Occupancy” and the “remedy” is to “discontinue illegal occupancy or amend C of O.” Suffice it to say, amending the C of O is a major operation, which I certainly cannot accomplish on my own, and the illegal occupancy continues to be sublet by the Plaintiff in a new Federal case!

    Not long ago, in the middle of the pandemic, on the first night of Chanukah, and the anniversary of the assassination of John Lennon, I was served with an additional lawsuit, by the owner of the illegal apartment. She is being represented by her son the Westchester attorney, and he is claiming that our floor, and the separate apartment that he grew up in, is one apartment. Although every conceivable bit of evidence points to the existence of two separate apartments, he is basing his case upon the defective C of O that his mother and the co-op board filed when I was out of the country. The DOB has already stated that the C of O is incorrect and must be “amended,” and the judge in this case has already denied the Motion for Judicial Notice regarding that C of O. It’s also a good thing that I still have my passport, as well as the illustrations I published in Libération, while l was living in Paris, and all of this skullduggery was being done.

    So this is now a Federal case, as well as a State case, and the Ivy League Westchester attorney, and son of the man who wrote “1001 Ways To Live Without Working,” is demanding in the Southern District of New York that I be forced to sell and leave our only home, where I have lived since 1975.

    The lawyer son complains that I must be put out of my house, or his mother “will be left without remedy, and forced to live out the remainder of her life at Mr. Pincus’ mercy, a man content to hold her hostage to his own self-interest.”

    So am I overly self-interested for simply hoping to remain in the only home I have, where I have scraped, sanded and painted every square inch, and fought for through three lawsuits? I am a lifelong New Yorker, and if am forced to to sell this place, my wife and I will be banished to some unknown and random hinterland for our old age.

    The Plaintiff complains that I am standing in the way of his mother’s “independence and financial security” because he wants “$2 million” for his mother’s uninhabitable apartment, which he cannot sell unless my home is thrown into the bargain! He speaks of her “45-year real estate investment” in his complaint, but does not mention that her actual investment, which he now expects to sell for $2 million, was $4,080.

    Funny thing is, I never asked him to support my mother, but he is asking me to give up my home to support his. It also so happens that, according to his complaint, his mother is a citizen of another country, who lost her green card, and cannot even live in this country. You needn’t worry about her, though, because she and her son own millions of dollars’ worth of other real estate properties.

    So here is an attorney with the same problem as you have, Ms. Baisley! He can not make enough money off the apartment which he does not, and cannot, live in.

    I understand that you, too, are an attorney, Ms. Baisley, and so I beg to inquire: How much do you charge per hour, and who is paying you for the time you spent answering me? You note with confidence that I am fortunate to “earn a living”; but in fact, I am more like the old man who got hit by a garbage truck while crossing the street. When people came running over with a pillow, and asked the old man, “Are you comfortable?” he said, “I earn a living!” In my case, I did earn a living for thirty or forty years, but no one needs deadline artists, freelance all-night pen-and-ink illustrators, or etchers, anymore. Nor can I, at my age, compete with people who are the same age as my children, and go for days without sleep, in order to meet newspaper deadlines and earn a meager living.

    I am actually one of those artists you speak of who was depending upon my apartment as a home for my retirement.

    As I am now close to seventy years old, the Notice to Cure and the lawsuit from the lawyers in my building has hit me like the proverbial garbage truck. That said, it is my hope that right makes might. We have no intention of allowing these attacks to ruin our lives, and push us out of our home.

    Harry Pincus

  4. dan schneider dan schneider March 8, 2021

    Right on Harry Pincus!!! Save SoHo from developers and gentrification. #ArtsWorkersUnite

  5. Daniel Shier Daniel Shier March 9, 2021

    Shame on you & your greedy ilk, Ms. Baisley

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