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Developer Blames Homeless in Bid to Replace Public Space With Retail

By Emily Frost | October 20, 2014 7:24am
 The public space used to house Ollie's Noodle Shop and offered public space for sitting. 
Lincoln Square Public Space Owner Wants to Privatize It
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LINCOLN SQUARE — The owner of an indoor public space on Broadway wants to convert it back to private use because he said it's become overrun with homeless people, according to Community Board 7 members. 

Developer Ashkenazy Acquisitions told CB7 that it wants to shut down the roughly 1,600-square-foot atrium at the base of the 75-unit Bel-Canto condo, between West 67th and 68th streets, and convert it to retail space after promising to maintain it as public space in perpetuity, officials said.

"The owner complains the public space is largely inhabited by homeless people," CB7 member Richard Asche said last week at a meeting to discuss the proposal. Representatives from Ashkenazy Acquisition were not present at the meeting, and the company did not return multiple requests for comment.

Even if homeless people do use the space, "homeless people actually inhabit the earth and they have to be somewhere," Asche said. "We didn’t view that as a reason for eliminating the space."

In exchange for taking back the public space, Ashkenazy Acquisitions promised to make a donation to beautifying the Broadway malls, CB7 members said. But the developer wouldn't specify how much they'd donate, Asche said. The developer also did not specify how many of the malls, which run from West 70th to 110th streets, would be beneficiaries. 

Community Board members said it's not a fair trade, adding that the fact that some homeless people use the public venue is not cause for shutting down a well-used community space. Ashkenazy Acquisitions agreed to donate the public space to the community in perpetuity as a compromise that allowed the developer to gain more square footage when the building was constructed in 1985, members explained. 

On a recent visit, the atrium was filled with people reading newspapers, grabbing a bite to eat or just putting their feet up. There were three men sleeping in chairs, surrounded by bags and suitcases.

For Geoffrey Horlick, who said he's lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, the atrium is a refuge when he wants to eat a sandwich bought from a takeaway counter. But he said the space isn't in the best condition.

"It's good that it's available," he said, noting, however, that "it's a little run-down. It needs a little cleanup."

His companion, Sally Sherwood, another longtime resident, agreed.

"It's clean, but it needs a paint job," she said.

The public space, which houses a dozen or so small tables and chairs, needs some attention, noted CB7 board member Roberta Semer.

"That space is often not well-maintained," she noted.

The atrium formerly housed Ollie's Noodle Shop at the rear, but that eatery closed its doors after a 2013 fire. Ashkenazy Acquisitions is now looking for a new tenant for that retail space, according to a sign on the building.  

Having a restaurant at the back with a takeout counter added vibrancy to the space, Horlick said, but now "it's a little barren."

Under a 2007 amendment to the city's zoning regulations, a special permit from the Department of City Planning is needed in order to eliminate or reduce any privately owned public space.

"In order to eliminate a privatized space, [the applicant] would have to substitute [it] with a public amenity or improvement on the same zoning lot," said Peter Schottenfels, a spokesman with DCP.

As of Friday the department had not received any permit applications from 1991 Broadway, he said.

CB7 members said they're not sure the developer's alternative offer to clean up the street malls would be a valid tradeoff because they're not part of the city street and outside of the zoning lot. Under the current zoning code, they would not qualify as a substitution. In addition, board members pointed out that the malls are already cared for by the Broadway Mall Association

"It is simply not a trade-off to trade public space for a slightly better mall," Asche said. 

Board member Howard Yaruss said the board shouldn't be so quick to shoot down the idea until hearing how much money the developer proposed to put toward the mall improvements.

"If it’s a token payment for some plantings on the mall, then I wouldn’t consider it," Yaruss said.

The board hopes reps from Ashkenazy will attend CB7's Land Use committee meeting next month, Asche said.