Equinox Billboards Draw A Crowd
Tom Acitelli Jan. 8, 2010, 10:56 p.m.
In the first full week of the new year, the real estate story that encouraged the greatest flurry of angry letters, intervention from elected officials, and building violations was not Stuyvesant Town’s impending default, nor Atlantic Yards. It was, in essence, two sheets of cloth draped over a building in Greenwich Village.
The Equinox Fitness Center at 97 Greenwich Avenue, near 12th Street, covered its façade almost entirely with two billboards as part of a new advertising campaign, without seeking permits or gaining approval from the city. A bandwagon of residents, city agencies and elected officials attacked the gym, with each day of the week bringing another voice in opposition, covered in large part on the blog Curbed.
Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Preservation Society, alerted the city’s Department of Buildings and the Landmarks Preservation Commission about the violation on Jan. 4.
“The billboards are blatantly illegal — they put them up without even applying for any of the required permits, presumably because they knew they could not get them,” said Mr. Berman by email. “This is a landmark district and a residential neighborhood; historic district and zoning regulations prohibit these kind of Times Square-sized billboards in this area.”
The GVSHP has been fighting what it calls “illegal billboards” for years, succeeding in removing some, but not all signs – the Hotel Gansevoort’s controversial billboard remains, for example. But in the case of Equinox, it appears that the city government, elected officials and many residents are united in their opposition. But even so, the billboards are still on display as of Jan. 8, said Mr. Berman.
On Jan. 5, the LPC issued a warning letter to Edmond Schwartz of Almi Greenwich, the landlord of 97 Greenwich. Since the gym is within the Greenwich Village Historic District, all construction or development must be approved by the LPC. But the letter allows for a “grace period” of 20 working days until a Notice of Violation is served, which has a fine of up to $5,000 — a pittance for Equinox and its huge parent, the Related Companies, compared with the cost of renting prominent billboards.
On Jan. 6, State Senator Thomas Duane, who represents Greenwich Village, wrote a letter to Equinox CEO Harvey Spevak, urging the gym to take down the billboards.
“I’m assuming this was an aberration on the part of Equinox,” said Mr. Duane in a telephone interview. “Our goal is not to catch people and punish them. Our goal is to maintain the integrity of our neighborhoods. There is an issue of visual pollution in general, not just in historic districts.”
From Equinox’s point of view, however, the billboard campaign may have paid off tremendously. Instead of simply catching the eyes of passersby at 12th Street and Greenwich Avenue, the billboards have become the stars of a controversial drama, and perhaps encouraged a few new members.
But Mr. Duane disparages the idea of a publicity conspiracy, or at least not an intentionally illegal one. “If this is the only way Equinox can get attention, they must be in sad shape,” he said, but adds that he has not yet received a response to his letter.
On Jan. 7, Community Board 2 circulated another letter denouncing the billboards, joining what was becoming a crowd of opposition. The city’s Department of Buildings later sent an inspector to the gym, who found many violations.
“The Department is in the process of issuing 15 violations to the building owner for related to the signs, including failing to obtain a permit, posting advertising signs in areas where advertising is not permitted, and failing to comply with size and height requirements,” said Carly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for DOB, in an e-mail.
Mr. Berman sent two more letters on Jan. 8, including an appeal to Equinox CEO Harvey Spevak and Related Chairman Stephen Ross, after he noticed the billboards were still up. In a follow-up to the LPC and the DOB, he applauded the agencies’ swift responses, but noted “fines for violating the law are small, slow to accrue, and often pale by comparison to the direct or indirect profit that those responsible reap from the signage.”
A call to the Equinox front desk of 97 Greenwich Avenue was directed to the gym’s corporate headquarters. The company’s press office did not return requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for Related Companies also declined to comment, but as part of a statement posted on Curbed, Equinox said, “With this campaign, we have taken the power of the Equinox community and extended it outside of the gym with the hope of inspiring others. We chose our location in Greenwich Village to proudly launch and display this campaign because the history of the neighborhood is steeped in community, triumph over adversity, tradition, and honoring diversity.”
Alas, the only thing the billboards seem to have inspired so far is anger, at least among the preservationist set. But, for now, they remain.