A story of rezoning told through chocolate

Jacques Torres, known as Mr. Chocolate, said he believes rezoning will bring more local vendors, safer streets, and a sense of community to Hudson Square.

Jacques Torres owns six chocolate shops across New York City and said business is booming at his Brooklyn location. However, quite the opposite is true for his storefront across town on Hudson Street.

Torres attributes the success of his Brooklyn shop in DUMBO to the area’s recent rezoning, which brought an influx of new residents. He’s hoping the same will happen in Hudson Square, which is considering a rezoning project that would add more residential housing.

“If you want a neighborhood,” he said, “you have to bring character to the neighborhood. A small bar. Someone who can make bread. People selling books, a small grocery store. All of those things make a neighborhood.”

Torres and other Hudson Square business owners said they would welcome the boost of rezoning. If approved, the pending mixed-use neighborhood proposal could begin as early as next year, said David Gruber, president of Community Board 2.

But, some neighborhood preservationists oppose the change, fearing it would alter the area’s character and put developmental pressure on the adjacent historic South District.

“Our very strong position is that the Hudson Square rezoning must not be approved unless it is paired with the preservation of the Historic South Village,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

A rezoning recommendation was issued by the Department of City Planning in October 2002. In late August, the department certified property owner Trinity Real to continue their rezoning project. The zoning would affect a 34-block radius bound by the West Side Highway, Morton and Barrow Streets, Sixth Avenue and Hudson Streets, and Canal Street from a manufacturing district to a mixed-use neighborhood.

Torres said he has first-hand knowledge of the effects of rezoning, and believes it can only make the area safer, cleaner, and more community driven.

“We have locals and tourists in the DUMBO store,” Torres said. “People are concerned about the character of the Hudson Square neighborhood and I’m telling you DUMBO is still DUMBO.”

Currently, only four percent of the area is designated as residential, according to Lloyd Kaplan, chairman of the law firm that represents Trinity. But, Kaplan said the proposed rezoning allots 25 percent of Hudson Square’s total square footage to be residential.

“It’s a significant gain, but hardly an overwhelming one,” Kaplan said. “It seems like the right kind of balance that would produce around the clock 24/7 activity that supports retail development that are so important to the future of any area.”

Local businesses like upscale furniture showroom George Smith already have a strong cliental, according to director of design Peter Howlett. He said rezoning will only enhance business.

He’s not shocked about the move towards residential buildings, as he believes change is a natural progression in New York City.

“There’s more of a premium in apartments than in the businesses that were here before,” Howlett said. “It’s just the evolution of the city and it happens all the time.”

Torres said he thinks Trinity has listened to the community and proposed a fair plan. While it may need some tinkering, he said it is something that can be worked out once the rezoning is approved.

However, community members like Berman disagree. Berman is a well-known preservation Crusader who said he believes if the current rezoning package is approved, it will put too much developmental pressure on the adjacent South District.

”They come too close to allowing the mistakes that have already happened like the Trump SoHo building,” Berman said.

Gruber said in the board’s recommendation due at the end of October to borough president Scott Stringer, they will urge the South Village’s landmarking to be packaged with Hudson Square rezoning.

“It’s a cat and mouse game,” Gruber said. “We have to save it from getting knocked down because if it lags too much behind, we’ll lose a lot of buildings.”

Some people like Nicholas Balint, manager of the Hudson Square Pharmacy, think it’s inevitable that big-named stores will be next to historic buildings.

“You’re gong to get a Jamba Juice and a J. Crew next to 200-year-old buildings,” he said.

Balint and Torres both referred to Hudson Square as a “ghost town” at nights and on the weekends and are hopeful the rezoning will bring new life to their businesses.

But, putting his business thoughts aside, Torres still said he believes rezoning is the best thing for the area.

“How can this neighborhood live like this?” he asked. “We need people to come to this neighborhood to make it alive.”

[Published in Manhattan Media's Our Town Downtown on November 14, 2012.]