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Manhattan: The Suburb


While community boards may sound like democracy in action, they're not quite that. They're actually patronage institutions, with the approximately 50 people on each of the 59 boards across the city appointed by City Council members and borough presidents. And while some 150,000 people live in an average Manhattan board district, perhaps 100 residents show up at the average monthly meeting -- 200 to 300 if a community is really angry.

On paper, community boards still serve only an advisory role to city and state agencies, who frequently choose to ignore their recommendations. The five members of the State Liquor Authority (SLA) -- all appointed by Governor Pataki -- customarily disregard community-board advice, even though they are forbidden to issue licenses until the boards have their say.

But the boards' sophistication has been growing exponentially in recent years. They have learned to play city and state agencies off against one another, and have started recruiting agencies to act as fellow plaintiffs when they take businesses to court for violating obscure statutes. The threat of negative press is potent to these agencies, who don't want to be accused of not enforcing the law.

There are now several thousand pages of laws and codes and addenda governing who can build what and where in New York -- the first city in America to be formally zoned, in 1916. Some of the rules are extremely specific: The western side of West Broadway, for example, can have large buildings, whereas the eastern side, on the edge of the historic district of SoHo, has to meet landmark-commission requirements limiting buildings to six stories.

Not surprisingly, the agencies responsible for meting out permits and licenses are themselves not familiar with every law. And that has opened the door to an increasing number of challenges by activist groups and community boards, who have made these laws their business. When a space is vacated, the battle that ensues over its future use often turns on familiarity with the tangled web of regulations.

Mayor Giuliani, fluent in quality-of-life rhetoric but also eager to appear business-friendly, has often expressed his frustration with the boards; he tried to cut their funding when he was first elected mayor. Superstores are one example of something the mayor wants and SoHo residents don't. "A proposal in 1994 would have allowed megastores in SoHo to take up as much as 20,000 square feet at ground-floor level," says City Councilwoman Kathryn Freed, who got supporters to write the mayor and mustered crowds to protest at hearings and council meetings. "You can imagine the horror." The proposal was eventually scrapped.

Ironically, in reorienting city politics around quality of life, Giuliani and his appointees have found it increasingly impolitic to ignore these boards. State authorities like the SLA may dismiss community concerns, but more and more, the courts are then requiring that these situations be redressed.

And who represents this aggrieved citizenry in these clashes? More often than not, they call attorney Jack Lester.

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