On Thursday afternoon last week, a line of about 50 people snaked out the door of the new Nike retail store and onto Broadway near Spring Street.
Further down Broadway, in front of the Department of Buildings at Chambers Street, about 30 elected officials and SoHo residents gathered that same afternoon to protest the store’s opening earlier this month.
The officials, among them Councilwoman Margaret Chin, state Senator Daniel Squadron, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick and Community Board 2 Chairman Tobi Bergman, contend that only a legal loophole allowed the five-story, 55,000-square-foot store to be built — despite significant community opposition.
The store, which features a mini soccer field and a half-size basketball court with a 23-foot ceiling, was built on the footprint of a demolished two-story building. But the so-called “party wall” standing between what the Nike store and that of its neighboring building was left intact, which allowed representatives from developer Aurora Capital Associates to claim they were altering existing property. That in turn allowed Aurora to avoid a more onerous permit application process for stores exceeding 10,000 square feet.
Skipping that permit process allowed the project to move forward with relatively little review, which angered community members. Residents of the neighboring building to the Nike store have sued Aurora Capital, alleging their building was damaged during construction.
The protesters called on the department to properly enforce existing zoning laws. But a spokesperson for the DOB said the development was thoroughly reviewed “as well as audited in April 2015 “and it was determined that the plans submitted complied with the NYC Construction Codes and Zoning Resolution.”
But the group chanting “enforce the law!” outside Department of Buildings offices last week were not satisfied with the response to their nearly two years of opposition. “This neighborhood has residents,” Brewer said. “It has local businesses, it has narrow sidewalks. [The Nike store] is not just misclassified, it is illegal, period.”
Her colleagues echoed the sentiment, calling the DOB’s policies “broken,” with Bergman calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to “rescue this city” from the department he described as impenetrable.
Martin Hason, who has lived on the same SoHo block as the Nike store for 40 years, lamented the loss of what decades ago was a much more residential area. “[It’s] basically hanging on by its fingernails right now,” he said, predicting that one or two more big-box retailers like Nike’s would be the neighborhood’s downfall. While Hason said SoHo used to be comfortable, he described it now as an “outdoor shopping mall.”
“It seems really unfair that commercial interests have so much sway,” he said. “Sometimes if I’m getting out of my building I have to knock on the door in order to keep the crowds that are congregating away.”
Glick acknowledged that zoning and special permits have contributed to SoHo’s economic success, and argued that this was all the more reason to continue enforcing those laws. “Why we want to undermine that, I don’t know,” she said. “It is [the building department’s] obligation to respond to the tax-paying public. If we homogenize ourselves so that we look like a mall anywhere else in the country, there’s no reason to be here.”
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org