Yesterday, my BrickUnderground blog became the Achilles heel of a story about a more recent neighborhood nuisance that I (a freelance contributor to the Times' real estate section for the past five years) began reporting for the paper shortly afterward.
That story concerns a neighborhood outcry over after-hours activity at the newly redeveloped Jane Hotel. It was scheduled to run on the cover of the real estate section this weekend, until one of the hotel's owners, Richard Born, protested to the paper that the blog put my objectivity in doubt.
My editors elected to pull the story to avoid any appearance of bias.
I understand the point of view of my editors, for whom I have a great deal of respect. I also stand by my story.
Nightmare on Jane Street
by Teri Karush Rogers
As the neighbors recall it, the nightmare on Jane Street began with the arrival of a giant mirrored disco ball late last spring.
“You could see it from the street when you looked through the windows,” said Steven Maslow, a 48-year-old investment banker who owns a loft in a six-story prewar condo at 111 Jane Street, adjacent to the newly redeveloped Jane Hotel. “I was like, wait a minute, this is supposed to be a hotel. Then we started to notice there was a lot of traffic building up in front — lines of taxis started to appear.”
By mid-July, the quiet cobblestoned cul-de-sac between Washington Street and the West Side Highway had succumbed to schizophrenia: Virtually overnight, the new 3,000-square-foot lounge straddling the Jane Hotel’s first two floors had become one of the hottest after-party spots in Manhattan, eliciting breathless comparisons to defunct predecessors like the Beatrice Inn, Bungalow 8, and the granddaddy of late-night debauchery, Studio 54.
There are people “coming and going from a residential street six nights a week, and they’re all drunk and making noise and urinating and smoking dope on our doorstep,” said Stephen Hickson, a 44-year-old pastor who lives with his wife and three children in a ground-floor duplex at 111 Jane, where apartments sold for several million dollars before the recession.
Mr. Hickson’s four-bedroom apartment not only fronts the street, but also shares a wall with the nightspot, officially known as the Ballroom at the Jane Hotel and frequented by fashion, music and media insiders along with a smorgasbord A-to-C-list celebrities.
“Every night, it’s very loud dance music and we’ve got the bass coming through,” said Mr. Hickson, who has come to dread going to bed, despite efforts by the hotel to soundproof the lounge.Worried about property values, the indefinite loss of a good night’s sleep, and the rending of the block’s tranquil ecosystem, residents of 111 Jane swiftly formed an alliance this summer with two neighboring buildings: Nos. 99 and 130.
Calling themselves Jane Street United, they began what appears to be a new chapter in the playbook of how to fight a neighborhood nuisance. In addition to hiring a lawyer and following the usual administrative channels of complaint, they’ve signed up a political consultant, started a Twitter feed (www.twitter.com/nightmareonjane), posted a YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaDpshp7cI0) and set up a blog (http://nightmareonjane.wordpress.com/) to turn up the political pressure on the operators of the hotel.
So far, they’ve invested around $10,000 from their buildings’ reserve funds and considerable elbow grease in an effort to force the hotel owners to revert to their original plan for the property — the one that had earned the blessing of both the community board and the state liquor licensing authority.
“What was presented to the community board — a nice, pleasant restaurant and bar with background music only — is not what is being developed,” said Salvatore Rasa, the president of the board of 99 Jane, an 82-unit condo, whose own apartment is currently on the market for $2.2 million.
Jane Street’s owners — Sean MacPherson, Richard Born, Eric Goode and Ira Drukier — are four deep-pocketed boutique-hotel impresarios whose combined interests include stakes in the Maritime Hotel, the Bowery Hotel, the Mercer Hotel and the Greenwich Hotel. They paid $27 million for the Jane Hotel (neé the Hotel Riverview) in January 2008 and have spent an additional $10 million into transforming the 196-room former SRO residence into a trendy destination just south of the Meatpacking District.
Richard Born, one of the owners, said that although the partners have and will continue to address some of the neighbors’ concerns, the low-key sophisticated lounge they planned has unexpectedly morphed into a cash cow.
“We are successful beyond our wildest dreams,” Mr. Born said. “From the moment we opened our doors we were slammed with hundreds and hundreds of people over a week or 10-day period.” He said about 500 people turn up each night and collectively spend about $15,000-$20,000.
As for two important conditions the owners agreed to abide by in their liquor license application—the ones specifying “background-music only” and no dancing — Mr. Born denied that the partners had misrepresented their intentions.
“That application was made about two and a half years ago,” said Mr. Born. “Whatever we wrote on the application was the intention at the time. Are we operating legally within what we’re permitted to do? I think the answer is yes.”
He acknowledged that the music had been turned up but he said that dancing in the Ballroom was not allowed.
“I don’t know how you define dancing. Is it swaying?” he asked. “There is no dance floor. There is no space for dancing, and we don’t permit it.”
On a recent visit to the Ballroom — a Tuesday that regulars described as much slower than usual — dancing, not swaying, was much in evidence.
It started around 12:30 in a well-lit corner of the main floor: A lithe dark-haired young woman appeared to be pole-dancing around her husky companion.
By 2 a.m., the thonking music had long since ruled out casual conversation, and as many as 50 people gyrated under the dormant but suggestive disco ball in full view of what Mr. Born called the club’s “smoking and dancing police,” who doused neither the dancing nor the dozens of cigarettes being smoked in violation of local health department laws.
Outside, the hotel’s detail of a half-dozen or so neon-orange jacketed security workers was more actively deployed. They swept up and down the block with flashlights—a measure recently instituted by the hotel at what Mr. Born estimated was a cost of around $1,000 per night to address neighbors’ complaints of drunk and disorderly streetside behavior.
But efforts like these have not appeased the Jane Street neighbors, who demand that the hotel revert to the original plan presented to the community and abandon preparations to open bars on the back terrace and the rooftop.
Aiming for the Ballroom’s jugular — its liquor license — the lawyer hired by the residents, Barry Mallin, lodged a formal complaint with the New York State Liquor Authority in August calling for an investigation into whether the hotel’s operators misrepresented their intentions and are operating outside the scope of their license.
Bill Crowley, a spokesman for the authority, would not confirm whether an investigation was ongoing but said such allegations were grave indeed.
“If we received complaints like that, we would definitely open an investigation,” he said. And whether or not misrepresentation is intentional, he explained, licensees may not operate beyond the terms of their liquor license without formally submitting an alteration application and entering a new community review process.
The hotel has no plans to apply for an alteration, or for a cabaret license, Mr. Born said.
The Jane Street Hotel is also enmeshed in conflict with some of the remaining 52 SRO tenants who have lived through extensive construction for more than a year and are now contending with the raging party downstairs.
“There are several lawsuits ongoing against the property owners—everything from harassment suits to personal injury actions,” said Edward Mermelstein, who is representing the tenants’ association.
Residents’ security concerns have increased with the opening of the Ballroom.
“I’ve had people ask me where to find drugs, I’ve had people asking me if I wanted company,” said David Drumgold, a 47-year-old SRO resident who runs a party-staffing business from the room he rents for $1,026 a month.
Mr. Drumgold has filed numerous complaints with city officials about smoking in the Ballroom, illegal construction around his room, and harassment. He said that he would be happy to leave with a $75,000 buyout check in hand.
In an e-mail message from vacation in Bhutan, Mr. MacPherson noted that “the overwhelming majority of the permanent tenants are happy to enjoy the improvements to the hotel, which include new communal bathrooms, new lobby, new corridors, free wireless Internet, increased hotel staff, etc.”
Mr. Born said the tenants’ biggest frustration is the hotel’s refusal to buy most of them out, and that the hotel refused to negotiate on an unsolicited $7.345 million buyout proposal from the tenants’ lawyer. He also pointed to the certificate of nonharassment awarded to the hotel by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
(Mr. Mermelstein said the certificate was issued without a proper hearing and the tenants are litigating its validity.)
Meanwhile, neighbors down the street are strategizing their next move and keeping each other updated on Basecamp, the project management software they use to communicate more efficiently.
And the neighbors continue to communicate their concerns to Mr. MacPherson, the hotel’s most public and affable face, who has given the Jane Street United members his cell phone number.
The local community board, meanwhile, is working with both sides to come up with a solution.
“People move to the Village for a reason, so if anything comes up that threatens that,” said Jo Hamilton, the chair of Community Board 2, “we’re on the side of trying to preserve our neighborhoods.”