BIG-BUCKS REAL ESTATE PLAN WILL STOP THE CHELSEA PRESSES

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On Wednesday, the City Planning Commission is expected to approve a controversial plan that could deal a nasty blow to Manhattan’s beleaguered printing industry. The proposal, which rezones East Chelsea’s manufacturing areas, will demolish the last bulwark against the neighborhood’s skyrocketing commercial rents–meaning that more than two dozen printing firms, employing more than 700 people, will probably soon be forced out.

The proposal, known as the Chelsea Rezoning Plan, was first conceived by the community board to preserve the neighborhood’s residential character and spur new low-cost housing. But while the Planning Department’s version left much of the community’s plan intact, it also rezones manufacturing areas between 6th and 7th Avenues for market-rate housing and commercial development. At least 26 commercial printers, bookbinders and other graphic companies are currently located in buildings that would be hit by the change.

Printers complain that they were entirely left out of the planning process and that the change is a gift to the real estate industry, which stands to make substantial profits from the shift.

“I’m at the stage where if I get kicked out of my building, I think I will have to close my business,” said Elliot Weinstein, who owns Hanover Lithographing Co. His 10-person firm, which has been in Manhattan since 1967, would be directly affected by the plan.

Many printers simply see it yet as another disastrous jolt to their trade. It is still the city’s second largest industry, employing 27,000 people, 65 percent of them minorities. Last year, more than 100 printers were sent packing when Trinity Church and other landlords in Lower Manhattan informed them that they were converting their buildings to more profitable office uses.

Printers need to be in close proximity to the financial industry, ad agencies and other clients who often need to make late-night press checks. So far, however, a 18-month long search by the industry has produced no suitable buildings in Manhattan.

While some printers have reluctantly begun to consider relocating to Long Island City, rising rents and a limited supply of space prevents a large number of firms from moving there. Industry officials predict that many printers will either have to relocate to New Jersey or go out of business. Two weeks ago, one Brooklyn-based bookbinding firm signed a lease in Jersey City because it couldn’t find affordable space in New York.

The planning commission defends the scheme, saying that since current zoning law already allow landlords to convert manufacturing buildings for office use, the Chelsea plan won’t make a big difference. But Adam Friedman, director of the New York Industrial Retention Network, points out that the zoning changes will simply make the conversion process easier, fueling the overheated real estate market.

“The city is hurting itself by pushing business out of New York,” said Thomas Archi, vice president of D&B Reproductions, a commercial plan. “The city is going to be all residential–a city of shoppers.”