Despite DOB’s OK, Film Shoot Flap Not in the Can
BY SAM SPOKONY | Neighbors say the owners of a lavish Chelsea home host film and photo shoots for television shows, fashion designers and other high-profile clients — but on this block, the real drama takes place off-camera.
After over four years of alleged shoots, as well as emotionally charged disputes over their legality (along with this newspaper’s article documenting the tensions last summer), residents of West 21st Street, between Ninth and 10th Avenues, are still sharply divided over the issue. And on a larger scale, this battle has grown to pit several Chelsea community organizations, which condemn the shoots, against the city agencies that continue to accept the shoots as legal activity.
Some residents of the block claim that Betsy Morgan, an interior designer who owns and lives at 441 West 21st Street along with her husband and kids, is creating an unacceptable disturbance on the surrounding streets and sidewalks, as trucks and vans come through to load and unload studio equipment — and they still claim that she’s actually violating city zoning regulations by repeatedly renting out her five-story townhouse for the film and photo shoots.
“[Morgan] obviously has no consideration for her neighbors, and she’s being completely thoughtless by continuing to use her home for commercial use in a historic, residential area,” said one 21st Street resident, who, like many others directly involved in this issue asked to remain anonymous because they feared “retribution” from Morgan and her supporters.
Jean Blair, a nearby resident who also serves as co-president of Chelsea’s West 400 Block Association (which represents the blocks between Ninth and 10th Avenues on West 21st 22nd and 23rd Streets), explained that she has received a recent flurry of complaints after an allegedly busy month of film and photo shoots at 441 West 21st Street. According to her, heavy activity at that address was reported on July 11, 12, 13, 19, 23, 24 and 25, as well as on August 6 and 9.
“Sometimes [the shoots] involve numerous commercial trucks parked on the block, with sidewalks congested with equipment and furniture,” said Blair. “Lately, there have also been large trucks parked on 10th Avenue, with equipment transported up the sidewalk to 441.”
Blair added that several West 21st Street residents have reported “harassment” from crew members and drivers working on the alleged film shoots, in addition to the “obvious quality of life issues” that are raised by the commercial traffic.
But others who live on the block think that anyone who complains about Morgan’s actions should butt out, and accept that film and photo shoots in residential areas are simply a part of life in New York.
“What Betsy is doing isn’t illegal, and there’s nothing wrong with it,” said another West 21st Street resident, who was walking their dog down the block last week while an alleged film shoot was taking place in Morgan’s home, and who also asked to remain anonymous. “The people who are against the film shoots are only trying to stop them because they don’t like Betsy.”
That resident also stated that they had once rented out their own home for a 30-day shoot for a Woody Allen movie, declining to say which one, but adding that it was “a long time ago.”
Morgan declined to be interviewed about this issue, and instead sent a one-sentence statement via email.
“I haven’t rented my house for a film shoot in over three years,” she said.
In May 2012, the Council of Chelsea Block Associations (CCBA), in a joint effort with the community group Save Chelsea, compiled a detailed report that documented film and photo shoots on West 21st Street from 2009 to mid-2012, while also railing against the practice.
The report lists 57 dates on which alleged shoots took place at 441 West 21st Street, and argues that the activity is illegal because it does not conform to the definition of a “home occupation” as stated in New York City’s current zoning regulations. Since Morgan continues to advertise the use of virtually her entire townhouse for shoots on various industry web databases, as well as her own professional website (betsy.com), CCBA claimed that she was violating a clause in the zoning text stating that a home occupation must not occupy more than 25 percent of the total floor area of a residential unit.
Immediately after publishing it, the CCBA sent that report to the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) and the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting (MOFTB) — which approves permits for film and photo shoots on city streets and city-owned property — in hopes of convincing those agencies to begin investigating and curtailing the activity at 441 West 21st Street.
But now, over a year later, CCBA President Bill Borock has declared that he’s extremely unhappy with the reactions of both agencies, saying that no steps have been taken in that direction.
“The responses have been vague, unconvincing and unacceptable in light of the continuing negative impact on the quality of life [on West 21st Street],” said Borock.
And there’s a reason why DOB hasn’t taken action to investigate or shut down residential film and photo shoots on that block — the agency says the activity isn’t illegal.
DOB has officially ruled that film and photo shoots are permitted in residences as an accessory use to an apartment’s primary residential use, according to a department spokesperson.
Residents with complaints about street or sidewalk disruptions caused by shoots are instructed by DOB to call 311 — although this is a form of recourse that many residents claim is not effective.
“In New York City, it is customary to have occasional/incidental commercial film/photography shoots inside residences,” said DOB spokesperson Kelly Magee. “Occasional commercial film/photography shoots are allowed in residences as ancillary or incidental to the principal residential use.”
After Borock made inquiries into what is actually meant by occasional and incidental, he is challenging the language of the DOB ruling, claiming that it presents an unclear picture of what is or isn’t allowed.
“We never got an answer to as to what number is reasonable and how such a number is determined, and the recent surge of film shoots on the block were certainly not ‘occasional,’ ” Borock said, while pointing that DOB declined to send a representative after being invited to attend a recent CCBA meeting.
Meanwhile, the MOFTB further distanced itself from the West 21st Street situation by once again pointing out that it only deals with permits for film or photo shoots on city streets or city-owned property, while declining to comment specifically on any shoots that may have taken place with 441 West 21st Street. “When a production uses a private location, the arrangement is a private negotiation that takes place between the owners and the production,” said an MOFTB spokesperson. “Productions may request a permit to film on the sidewalk outside a private location or request parking on the street as they film inside a private location, but the filming of the interior of a private location is not permitted [issued a permit] by our office.”
The agency spokesperson added that MOFTB “strives to keep film and television productions running smoothly” for the productions and the local community, and “routinely evaluates” the frequency and size of production activity within neighborhoods — again, declining to comment specifically on West 21st Street. MOFTB also instructs residents with complaints to call 311.
West 21st Street residents — or, at least, those who are against film and photo shoots — were further dismayed earlier this month when they learned that, on the evening of August 7, the major fashion company Yves Saint Laurent would be having a house party right on their block.
But the fashion executives and associates weren’t coming to pay their respects to Betsy Morgan and her family. Instead they held court at 425 West 21st Street — a location that some neighbors also claim has played a part in disrupting community life and violating the law by serving as a rented space for other high-profile shoots.
CCBA’s aforementioned May 2012 report alleged that 22 days of film and photo shoots had taken place at 425 West 21st Street in 2010 and 2011.
The anti-shoot residents learned about the Yves Saint Laurent bash from police officer Michael Petrillo, who works in community affairs at the NYPD’s 10th Precinct, after he reached out several days before the party to keep them informed.
Officer Petrillo told this newspaper that he first heard about the party when he received a call from the Mayor’s Office of Street Activity, which was seeking a recommendation regarding a request for a parking permit on West 21st Street for the evening of August 7. Apparently, Yves Saint Laurent representatives had sought to secure parking space for multiple limousines on the block, which would drop off and pick up company executives and guests.
“We made the recommendation that it wasn’t feasible to permit that much space for limo parking,” said Petrillo, adding that it is the Mayor’s Office, and not the police precinct, that makes the final call on permits of this nature.
The police recommendation was partially heeded by the Mayor’s Office. A permit was eventually granted for space to park a single town car, Petrillo noted, rather than the multiple limos that had originally been requested.