Trump Soho would be the first new five-star hotel downtown since the Ritz-Carlton opened near Battery Park in 2002, and the first one ever in Soho. In some ways, the project would be vintage Trump. For one, it would be tall. Very tall. Taller, notes Trump’s daughter and business partner Ivanka, “than everything else in the area by a factor of four.” The neighborhood’s zoning rules allow a building’s total floor area to be up to ten times its lot area. Taking advantage of various loopholes (buying the air rights to a neighboring building, earning a bonus for adding a public plaza), Trump and his partners jacked up that ratio to 1:12—and managed to squeeze 42, 45, and finally 46 stories, or 405,000 square feet of floor space, out of a 34,000-square-foot lot. There would be no architecturally forward design: It would be a simple, approval-friendly box, the way Trump likes it. “In New York,” he says, “I can build a box as-of-right [within existing regulations]. Or I can get a creative design, go through ten years of community boards, and still get refused 32 to zero. Given that choice, I’ll build a box.”
In other respects, however, the usual gold-plated, logo-besotted Trump template would have to be tweaked. This was, after all, Soho. And so Ivanka and Trump’s son Don Jr. were brought on to act as liaisons to the “younger, hipper,” in their words, demographic. The lobby would be designed by David Rockwell, the restaurant run by Laurent Tourondel (when Tourondel pulled out, Alex Sapir signed a deal with Quattro, the South Beach Italian hot spot). Trump Soho’s magazine ads would feature Ivanka elegantly falling out of a cocktail dress, under the tagline “Possess Your Own Soho.”
Not that the world knew anything about any of that for some time. Trump and his partners initially guarded the project closely, presumably for fear of raising opposition. Then came the final installment of the fifth season of Trump’s reality series, The Apprentice. After a bloated setup larded with cameos by Michael J. Fox, Jaime Pressly, and the Barenaked Ladies, the contestants were herded onto the stage of the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles for a live broadcast of the final judgment. As the main prize, finalists Sean Yazbeck and Lee Bienstock were given a choice between working under Trump on “a hotel project in Hawaii and a hotel project in New York.” The episode aired on June 5, 2006. It was the first public reference to Trump Soho.
“We went for the permits in a very low-key fashion,” Donald Trump told me when I asked him how he managed to smuggle a skyscraper. “Once we got them, we announced.”
That’s not exactly the way it happened. The Department of Buildings granted the first permit for the lot three and a half months after the broadcast, and wouldn’t fully approve the building for nearly a year. At issue was not the blueprint but the purpose. Apparently thrown by the condo-hotel concept, the DOB required Trump and his partners to revise their application eleven times. Finally, the city granted them a limited permission to excavate the lot and put in the foundation—but nothing more—in late September 2006. The Apprentice tie-in appears to have had two goals: to generate free publicity for the building, and to make it appear inevitable.
Once he grasped the scope of the project, no one was more outraged by the news than Sean Sweeney, the director of the Soho Alliance. Sweeney’s group arguably created Soho as we know it, by pushing for “artist zoning” in the seventies and coining the very name “Soho” at its inaugural meeting. A slight and excitable man in wire-frame glasses, Sweeney occupies a Greene Street penthouse crammed with custom contemporary furniture and leads a life seemingly devoted to squashing out-of-context construction. “In 1990,” he says, pointing out the window and across West Broadway, “they wanted to build a hotel there. I said, ‘Hey, you’ll ruin my view!’ We fought, and it stayed an empty lot for twelve years.” The building that finally did go up is a modest-size condo, with a politely recessed top story. Trump Soho stands a few blocks beyond, splitting the sky in two.
Sweeney rallied other downtown groups, got the zoning-committee chairman at Community Board 2 to pledge support to the cause, and launched an aggressive campaign against the invader. He likes to frame his opposition to Trump Soho in vintage class-warfare terms. “We didn’t fall off the pumpkin truck. He moved into the wrong neighborhood. We’re a phoenix, and Trump is a vulture,” he told me. Sometimes, though, his civic outrage crosses over into a more particular anti-Trump animus. Never mind that a number of other large-scale projects are already under way or being planned nearby. (The “manufacturing” designation, which allows hotels but not condos, has done precisely the opposite of what it was supposed to do. Within blocks, five hotels are being built right now, and six more are being talked about.) Sweeney seems more intensely alarmed by the brand, and the people it attracts, than anything else. “We don’t want airline hostesses here,” he says, “or people coming from Europe or Asia for a couple of weeks. Who was the first buyer in that building—a Croatian-Swedish soccer player? Trump represents everything we hate. Bad taste. Déclassé. He’s uptown, we’re downtown, and never the two shall meet.”