CB4’s New Chair, Chelsea’s Burt Lazarin, Talks Transportation, Landmarking, Leadership

Burt Lazarin during his Feb. 6 interview with Chelsea Now, held at CB4’s W. 42nd St. offices. In the background, the emerging Hudson Yards neighborhood. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

BY WINNIE McCROY | After more than 40 years living in Chelsea, including many serving as a member of Community Board 4 (CB4), Burt Lazarin has moved to the top of the ranks. He was recently voted in as the new Chair of CB4, taking over for exiting Chair Delores Rubin.

“I don’t think of myself as a leader in the traditional sense, because we’re a board of 50 people with lots of skills and expertise,” said Lazarin humbly. “I have no problem if we’re at a meeting and the head of the housing committee — who knows a lot more about that than I do — takes the lead. My function is to make sure that person is supported, and then to speak for the whole board.”

Lazarin said he won’t be a micromanager who dictates what should happen at every meeting, noting, “that creates problems with members.” Instead, he will let people bring their own expertise to the table.

His own field of expertise lies in Urban Planning. Born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx, Lazarin did his undergraduate at The City College of New York, followed by graduate school in Seattle. He has lived in Albany, London, Chile, and Peru, working as an urban planner in South America for two and a half years while in the Peace Corps.

When he returned to New York City, he worked at a firm doing contract negotiations. Fifteen years ago, he and a business partner founded the Policy Research Group, consulting labor unions on contract negotiations. After living in Brooklyn for five years, he followed a wave of friends migrating to Chelsea, which was emerging as one of the city’s newest gayborhoods. (Lazarin and his partner, Frank Ireland, have been together for 37 years, and were married last June.)

“When I moved here in 1977, people asked me, ‘Is it safe?’ — because much of what was between 10th Ave. and the river was abandoned,” Lazarin recalled. “There were the hookers and there were the meat trucks, but that was it, because the whole area was built in the early 20th century as support for the docks. But by the early ’70s, the finger piers went away, some warehouses became taxi garages, and the whole south side of 23rd Street, which is now expensive townhouses, was abandoned.”

INVESTING IN CHELSEA | Back in the ’70s and ’80s, Chelsea was becoming known as a gay mecca. It was a time that Lazarin remembers fondly, speaking wistfully of the Meatpacking District bistro Florent, and the framed maps of different cities that lined its walls. By then, he was a fixture in the neighborhood, and ready to invest in its future.

“I’ve always been involved, always been a group person,” said Lazarin. “One thing I did when I first came back was I got involved with a group called Identity House, which at the time was fairly revolutionary.”

The group did peer counseling for the gay community. “The personal was political,” Lazarin noted, “and we knew that as we worked helping people come out or with relationship problems, we were changing things. It was a self-governing organization that started in ’71, and I served as coordinator, executive director, and clinical director, because for many years I did psychotherapy in addition to contract negotiations.”

In 1977, Lazarin banded together with his friends to form another pro-gay organization.

“That’s the time when many gays were moving into Chelsea, and we wanted to have a presence, so we started an organization called the Chelsea Gay Association,” Lazarin recalled. “It was to meet your neighbors, with small breakout groups for safety, theater, and the like. We had regular meetings and connected with block associations, to make allies. We wanted straight allies going to City Council to help pass the Gay Rights Bill, and we got people from the neighborhood to testify in favor of the bill.”

That group lasted until 1982, he said, and Identity House still offers walk-in counseling at The Center (gaycenter.org). In the late ’80s, Lazarin also joined the Chelsea Waterside Park Association; he is currently its treasurer (cwpark.org).

L to R, from their June 2017 wedding: Burt and Frank’s daughter-in-law Julie Villa, Frank Ireland, Burt Lazarin, and Ben Ireland (Frank’s son), a Universal Life minister who officiated along with Julie. | Photo by Jay Lazarin

JOINING COMMUNITY BOARD 4 | “I have always been involved, so when I saw the announcement for CB4 members, I took a deep breath, thought, ‘It’s time to shit or get off the pot,’ and sent off the application with two recommendations,” said Lazarin.

He was appointed to CB4 in 2005, and later joined its Business Diversity Task Force (BDTF). Even before he joined, they had sought to maintain diversity when granting liquor licenses. One of the first things he recalls them doing was conducting a “windshield survey” — walking block by block to tally up the number of bars and restaurants in the area.

“We wanted to get some idea of what people meant when they said the area was saturated,” said Lazarin. “Your saturation might be my fun or my opportunity.”

The Task Force came up with their own definition, to remain aware of current businesses as people applied for new liquor licenses, and to allow the community to weigh in at public hearings.

Prior to joining the BDTF, Lazarin had already been serving as co-chair of the Business Licenses & Permits (BLP) committee (see nyc.gov/html/mancb4 for more info).

“We advise, and provide opportunity for people in the community to voice objections to specific aspects of a licensee or their method of operations,” Lazarin said. “Over the years, we have developed a format of ‘deny unless’ the business meets all of our stipulations. If Albany accepts those stipulations, they become legally part of the licensees’ method of operations. Then, if they are not following those stipulations — often things like no amplified music or an earlier closing time — then they’re liable.”

During his time as co-chair of the BLP committee, there have been several businesses the community has voiced opposition to. Lazarin recalls a fight over the gay sports bar Boxers attempting to move into a stand-alone building on 10th Ave., near a school.

“The whole thing was about the 200-foot rule, which means no bars within 200 feet of a school building’s entrance,” Lazarin noted. “The school was set far back, but people were measuring from door to door, questioning if the emergency exit counted. It became like ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.’  The full board in October 2011 voted to deny Boxer’s application because of ‘proximity’ to the school, which was the real issue (not the exact footage), though we did list stips to be incorporated in a license just in case State Liquor Authority approved it. Boxers litigated the 200′ rule and subsequently lost and gave up the site.” They eventually moved near Ninth Ave, also in Hell’s Kitchen. A year ago, Lazarin recalled, Boxer’s withdrew an application for another location, Ninth Ave. in Chelsea, “where during a site visit I and another BLP member described to them problems they would have in getting community approval.”

More recently, the BLP committee has come up against issues like the drunken brunch crowds at Il Bastardo (whose Seventh Ave. and W. 21st St. location has since closed), and a proposed two-level, 20,000-square-foot Starbucks Reserve Roastery, which Lazarin said disregarded CB4’s list of stipulations, choosing instead to go directly to the State Liquor Authority. To him, it’s a balancing act.

“We want to make sure [new businesses] are compatible with existing businesses,” said Lazarin. “We are trying to find balance between both the residents and the people who come in for ‘regional recreation.’ You have to balance it out, so people who live there are not crazed and abused by the people who come to recreate.”

At the June 1, 2016 full board meeting of CB4, Burt Lazarin, in background, made sure speakers in the public comment session adhered to their allotted two-minute slot. | File photo by Winnie McCroy

LOOKING OUT FOR LOCAL CONCERNS | As Chair of CB4, it will be Lazarin’s duty to make sure things remain balanced and fair for Chelsea residents. He was nonplussed by the recent announcement that Google would purchase the Chelsea Market building, saying that were he a businessman, he too would favor purchasing the property, as the rezoning battle was waged four years ago. He added that he “would hope they honor Jamestown’s promised community commitments,” and would assume that Google would keep the retail portion intact, saying, “it would be a pretty stupid public relations move to eliminate the Chelsea Market.”

Lazarin looks forward to working well with new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who also served as Chair of CB4, from 2011­–2013. During that time, Lazarin was Second Vice Chair under Johnson, with Christine Berthet as First Vice Chair.

“This is [Johnson’s] district, where his feet are and where he lives, where his New York roots are,” said Lazarin. “We have our priorities, most of which are probably aligned with his, so I don’t see any problems. Not that he isn’t going to be Speaker for the whole City Council — but he may have a softer spot for Chelsea.”

Bringing a low-key style of leadership to the table, Burt Lazarin says he won’t micromanage — but will defer to other board members whose experience eclipses his own. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

He is encouraged by Johnson’s promised changes to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), hoping that there are ways to peel some of the layers off. He also applauded that City Planning will now manage ULURP electronically, which may speed up that process.

Lazarin is also in favor of extending the Special West Chelsea District when necessary to protect historic buildings. He will spearhead efforts to landmark or otherwise acknowledge these buildings, like the Federal Houses and the brownstone in the West 20s where GMHC was founded.

As Hudson Yards continues to grow, Lazarin will make sure that CB4 gets its promised seat on the board of The Culture Shed, the large performance space in the middle of this new neighborhood, saying, “We were supposed to get a seat on the board, which we have not gotten yet. And they specifically wrote into the agreement that they would limit the amount of private events held there, and add some public space to offset that.”

In his eyes, Hudson Yards has already transformed Manhattan, just because of the extension of the 7 Subway line. Eventually, he would like to see that line extended south down 11th Ave.

“The tunnel already goes down to 25th Street, so it’s just a matter of extending it down and bumping it up next to 14th Street and Eighth Ave., and having a cross-platform exchange,” Lazarin said. “It’s time to start thinking and planning for that, as we have that new community integrate with existing neighborhoods.”

Lazarin is also a fan of proposed crosstown bike paths on 26th and 29th Sts., and he’s not saying “no” to the controversial congestion pricing, either.

“Bike paths are very controversial, because it takes space from one and gives it to another. It changes patterns, and people often don’t like changes,” he noted. “We need to make arrangements to make deliveries, because that is important, but ultimately this makes it safer for both bike riders and for pedestrians.”

And when it comes to proposed congestion pricing, Lazarin said he’s seen it work in cities like London, Stockholm and Singapore, so why not New York?

“There are costs of driving a car into Manhattan — not only individual costs but costs to the community,” Lazarin said. “We often quote that CB4 has one of the highest asthma rates in the city, because of the traffic, the tunnels, the backups, and the tour buses. So, it’s something that could be useful, something that could benefit our district.”

At the Nov. 4, 2015 full board meeting, Burt Lazarin (standing) leads comments on CB4’s Fiscal Year 2017 Capital and Expense Budget Requests. | File photo by Winnie McCroy

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