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When Broken Zoning Rules Lead to Exhumed Bones

Working in historic preservation you sometimes find yourself dealing with things you never expect.

The Trump SoHo ‘Condo-Hotel,’ built on the site of an exhumed 19th century abolitionist church graveyard.

On this date in 2006, GVSHP wrote to Mayor Bloomberg regarding a 19th century abolitionist church graveyard that had been dug up and disturbed in the process of preparing for the construction of the Trump SoHo Condo Hotel.  Sadly, the disturbance of the graveyard could have been avoided if the City had simply required the developers to follow the law, which was skirted in many respects.

Writing Mayor Bloomberg about exhumed bones.

GVSHP, like many local groups, objected strenuously to plans for the Trump SoHo Condo Hotel when they were announced on the final episode of “the Apprentice” in June 0f 2006.  While we were all unhappy about a 450 ft. tall glassy tower likely rife with tacky glitz , we all recognized that there were no laws prohibiting buildings of that height or of questionable taste at that location.

What there were, however, were zoning rules which prohibited residential construction and residential hotels in this area — exactly what a “condo-hotel” is.  Had these zoning laws been enforced, in order to move ahead with construction of the project as planned, Trump and his backers would have had to applied for a zoning change, and gone through a thorough public review and approval process.  The zoning change might have been approved or denied, it might have also resulted in a building of lower height, and some mitigations for the severe traffic problems in the area, to which the Trump SoHo contributes.

What they and the City would also have to have done was a thorough review of the history of the site, with a particular eye towards whether or not there were any significant archeological resources underground.  Of course, this is exactly what there turned out to be.

The graveyard of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church was located on this site. An early 19th century radical abolitionist church, Spring Street Presbyterian was one of the city’s few integrated churches.  So outrageous was the church’s anti-slavery work considered by some at the time that it was attacked by a mob and nearly burned to the ground in 1834.  The church’s history also gave reasonable cause to assume that it might have been involved in the Underground Railroad; had a thorough investigation found such a connection, federal law would have required significant steps be taken to preserve this history.

Instead, because there was no such review required, Trump and company simply began digging, and started to exhume human remains in the process.  Once the remains were discovered the City ordered work stopped on the site.  But instead of the full investigation of the site’s history and significance which should have taken place, the bones were simply removed from the site to a lab Upstate; their final resting place is unknown.

As readers of Off the Grid know, we recently discovered that in spite of the City’s stubborn contention that the Trump SoHo was not a residential use or a residential hotel, and therefore did not need to go through any of the sort of public review and approval we described, the City itself lists the Trump SoHo as a residential use — more evidence that if the law had been followed, this tragic episode could have been avoided.

The city’s own land use maps show the Trump SoHo as a “residential” use, in violation of the zoning they claimed it complied with.


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