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City nixes artist-in-residence reg

Valerie Campbell

By Holly Dutton

In a rare move, the City Planning Commission allowed a developer to bypass the artist-in-residence restriction and sell residential condos to non-artists in a Soho building.

The Commission granted Mercer 111, LLC a permit that effectively modifies a 1971 zoning law that requires buildings in the neighborhood to have an artist in residence.

The zoning law has been a divisive issue for years, with developers eager to convert the spaces into luxury condos and artists in the neighborhood determined to hold their ground.

Local brokers have long criticized what they call “outdated” rules for a neighborhood that is a different place today than 40 years ago.

Now, lawyer Valerie Campbell said local residents might be more open to looking at other options for the lofts that had become difficult to sell because of renewed attention to A.I.R. – artist in residence – zoning requirements.

“I think the community board in the past would have opposed an application for straight residential use, but I think there has been some evolution in their thoughts,” said Campbell, an attorney with Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel, who represented Mercer 111, LLC in its application.

The five-story cast iron building at 111 Mercer was built in 1878 and designed by prominent architect Henry Fernbach. “It had been, for many years, in sort of disrepair,” said Campbell.

The building is part of the landmarks district, which made it available for the modifying permit, which, among other things, waives use restrictions.

It is also located in the M1B zoning district which is restrictive in terms of uses and only allows living / work orders for artists who have been certified through the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

The special permit will allow straight residential use from floors 2-5 and the penthouse. The ground floor and basement is retail space.

In exchange for the permit, the developer did a Class A restoration of the building and committed to a rigorous maintenance plan which requires the building be inspected every five years and to be kept in excellent condition, said Campbell.

The building was vacant before being purchased in 2008.

Currently, there are four units in the building listed for sale by Fredrik Eklund and John Gomes of Douglas Elliman, two of which are in contract. The penthouse is listed at $12.5 million and the other three are between $4 and $4.5 million.

The process to bypass the artist-in-residence requirement took 16 months, said Campbell. It involved going through the Landmarks Preservation Commission, The City Planning Commission, the Soho Alliance community board, Borough President Scott Stringer and sometimes the City Council — which in this case, chose not to review the permit.

There has only been one other building, also relatively small, on Greene Street, which was granted the special permit.
Though there was discussion to whether permits like this will make it harder for artists to live in the neighborhood, in this particular case, it didn’t seem to, said Campbell.

“I think in exchange for preservation work and the fact that the building was previously vacant and no artists or residents would be evicted or pressured to leave,” she said.

Campbell added that the permit was approved by a majority at the community board and borough president Scott Stringer did not object.

“I think it’s a great project,” she said. “It looks fabulous now with all of the restorative work that’s been done.”

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