SoHo Low Blow

SoHo Low Blow
Thirty years ago, SoHo became an artist preserve – by law. Now that’s beginning to change.

Thanks to a 1971 zoning law, the 45 blocks that make up SoHo and NoHo are a legally protected artist preserve. To live there, technically, you should prove that you fit the city Department of Cultural Affairs’ definition of being “regularly engaged” in the arts.

This hasn’t always been easy: As recently as the mid-eighties, Annie Lennox and several Def Jam rappers ran into trouble. “They said that Lennox was too commercial to be a ‘true artist,’ ” remembers artist-certification lawyer Margaret Baisley. “And they said rap wasn’t even art.”

So how’d it come to be home to self-tanned Wall Street lawyers and billionaires like Rupert Murdoch?

“What happened were these cases where someone just had to sell, and begged the board to allow a nonartist to buy their place,” says Susan Penzner, a SoHo broker since 1975. “And then, over time, half the building became nonartists.” Then, the mid-nineties condo boom eliminated the co-op board gatekeeper.

The law hasn’t gone away, though: “Every nonartist living in a co-op has to sign a waiver,” says Edward Ferris of William B. May. “This exempts the building from any responsibility if the city decides to enforce the law.”

Not that that’s likely: “We’re complaint-driven. If we received a complaint, we’d inspect,” says a Department of Buildings spokesman. Even then, “we wouldn’t vacate unless there was a serious safety risk.”

And while some buildings, like 31 Mercer, remain unsullied, sources say others, like 80-100 Prince, 117-121 Prince, and 451 Broome, have loosened up. Even 167-169 Spring (pictured), long considered a paragon of virtue, just started breaking down, says one person familiar with the situation.

In December, the state Court of Appeals allowed developer Bruce Eichner to do something unprecedented: He’s putting up two apartment buildings on Houston Street between Mercer and Wooster Streets that won’t require certification.

Essex It Up
Spend the Night Together

Central Park South’s Essex House, home to the ambitious sorts of weddings that make it into the “Vows” column of the Sunday Times, is losing David Bowie – but maybe gaining a Jagger. Years after their famously swingin’ tryst, Mick and David are crossing paths again. Bowie’s selling his two-bedroom pied-à-terre, which he bought in 1991 for $1.5 million and subsequently renovated. The 1,500-square-foot place has just been put on the market for $2.5 million. Meanwhile, Mick Jagger has been snooping around the Essex House for a place for his 17-year-old daughter and supermodel-to-be, Elizabeth. “There’s something going on with the Essex House right now,” says one broker. “It’s generating more attention than ever.” Maybe people are hoping for room service from Ducasse downstairs. In any case, Bowie moved on a while ago: He bought a 4,000-square-foot loft in the 285 Lafayette building for $3.8 million in 1999.

Big Deals

Upper East Side
400 East 77th Street
4-bed, 3-bath, 2,100-square-foot co-op. Ask: $1 million. Sell: $1 million. Maintenance: $2,200. Four months on market.

Family-size on the Upper East Side was never that big. “The largest apartments are three bedrooms with only 1,800 square feet,” says MLBKaye International’s Fern Hammond, whose clients had four school-age kids and couldn’t drop $4 million to live on Park Avenue (where apartments come in extra-large). So the buyers saved a few million by renovating two adjacent co-ops closer to First Avenue.

19 Beach Street
3-bed, 21/2-bath, 3,000-square-foot condo. Ask: $2.95 million. Sell: $2.095 million. Charges and taxes: $1,144. Four weeks on market.

This couple had been looking in TriBeCa for eleven months because they wanted the light and open space of a loft. But with busy professional lives and a child in tow, what they weren’t so wild about was the idea of paying millions for a converted factory or storage space and then having to hire an architect to make it livable. This building solves that lifestyle conundrum: It’s a brand-new seven-story condo in the style of the old warehouses in the area, with “all the modern conveniences,” says their broker, Douglas Elliman’s Louise Phillips. But they do have to deal with the modern inconvenience of waiting till September before the building will be completed to move in.

SoHo Low Blow