On the mild Monday afternoon of December 11, 2006, excavation was proceeding apace when one of the cats abruptly stopped digging. A small cluster of hard hats gathered. Peering into the pit, the workers could plainly see a violated grave: skulls, ribs, vertebrae, right there under the excavator’s claw. The bones were found in the northeast corner of the pit, where an African Methodist Episcopal church had stood until 1963. They could have belonged to slaves or abolitionists. Another, since discarded, theory was Mafia hit victims—there used to be mobbed-up social clubs on the block, and the church itself vanished in what came to be seen as a suspicious fire. Either way, eerie forces had manifested themselves. The police were called, and the spooked crew retired to the Starbucks across the street. The next day, the city issued the first of what would be several stop-work orders for the site. Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, quipped to the New York Sun that Trump ought to rename the project “Trump Condo Hotel and Mausoleum.”
The developers, trying to show sensitivity, hired an archaeologist to monitor the site. But a month later, the Department of Buildings sent their application back again. The bones weren’t the issue. The city still wasn’t convinced that Trump intended to use the building as a hotel and not condominiums. “They’re not fooling anybody,” Borough President Scott Stringer told the community newspaper The Villager. The real-estate blog Curbed.com started using the designation “Trump’s Hole” for the stalled project. Murky water began pooling in the pit.
“In New York,” Trump says, “I can build a box, 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.”
On May 2, Trump and his partners tried a new tactic. At the request of Stringer and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, they filed a “restrictive declaration,” promising, in writing, to use the building as a hotel and not condominiums. Under the purported guarantee, no unit would be occupied by the same person for more than 29 days in any 36-day period, or for more than 120 days a year. The project’s opponents insisted they were being fleeced. “I think there’s a wink-wink-nudge-nudge thing going on,” Sweeney says. “These types of things are routinely fudged.” Besides, Berman says, the condo-hotel rules would be impossible to enforce. “Supposedly, the developer will be telling the Sultan of Brunei or Madonna or whomever, ‘Your 29 days are up!’ It doesn’t pass the laugh test.”
The city, however, acquiesced. Late on May 7, 2007, the DOB finally approved the application. “We’re assuming the beams started rising at dawn,” deadpanned the gadflies on Curbed. They had no idea.
Trump and his partners began putting up the building with maniacal speed, determined, it seemed, to bully it into existence. The cellar-floor slab was done by the end of June. By September, the tower began to rise. The Soho Alliance filed a legal appeal trying to make the city rescind its permit, but the higher the building rose, the more quixotic the effort seemed. “In our wildest of dreams,” Berman says, sighing, “they’ll say, ‘Well, we have to tear the thing down.’ ”
On September 19, Trump held a press conference in the hastily red-carpeted, open concrete maw of Trump Soho’s ground floor, to claim that the building’s 400 units had received a staggering 3,200 applications. Sweeney and Berman organized a protest. A few funny signs (don’t comb over here) made the news, but they seemed absurd next to the building itself—obviously present, obviously there.
Trump’s view of the demonstration was clear. “I want to thank all the protesters outside for making this project so successful,” he quipped. He also announced that the building would add another floor that would house a members-only lounge called SoHi. A more gleeful fuck-you to the preservationists was hard to imagine.
The mob ties came to light on December 17, when the Times published a pointed profile of 42-year-old Felix Sater, a no-title principal in Bayrock. Like Tamir Sapir, Sater was a Russian immigrant with family and business roots in Moscow. The story outed Sater (who had added an extra “t” to his name, perhaps trying to avoid precisely this kind of disclosure, and now goes by Satter) as an ex-con with possible Mafia connections. In 1991, as a twentysomething hotshot broker at Bear Stearns, Sater had apparently gotten into an argument with a colleague at a Mexican bar. He resolved the dispute by smashing a margarita glass and using the broken stem to stab the other broker in the face. He spent a year in jail for assault. The Times article also identified Sater as a player in a pump-and-dump stock scheme, and claimed he had secured mob protection for the scam. In 1998, investigators looking into the operation had searched Sater’s locker at a Manhattan Mini Storage—across the street from the future Trump Soho site—and found three guns and offshore-bank-account papers. Sater promptly fled to Russia, eventually returning to New York, where he helped build cases against nineteen other men involved in the matter. He got off as an unindicted co-conspirator, the Times noted. The paper made a point of connecting Sater to Trump in the headline (“Real Estate Executive With Hand in Trump Projects Rose From Tangled Past”) and claimed that Sater saw Trump Soho as “an emblem of his new life.”