Chaotic SoHo/NoHo Rezoning Meeting Leaves Locals Guessing
Department of City Planning, Councilwoman Chin, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer together just launched a plan to examine the unique zoning of SoHo and NoHo neighborhoods. Be afraid; real estate speculation can’t be too far behind.
The official mission statement of this politically-charged endeavor expresses how the process is meant to “examine key land use and zoning issues in the two neighborhoods and seek community input to develop strategies to both honor SoHo/NoHo’s history and ensure the continued vitality of the neighborhoods.”
Regarding the latter, a public engagement process is currently underway to glean hyperlocal data from the community regarding housing, jobs, retail, and creative industries. The first such session was an “open house” in Chinatown two nights ago (143 Baxter Street). Promised as a forum for sharing, the Wednesday evening meeting instead devolved into chaos.
The room was packed, hot, and facilitators were quickly overwhelmed with questions. Looking for real civic engagement, locals found themselves unwitting participants in what seemed a planning process without speakers or a clear agenda. The hand-out sheet from DCP, Chin, and Brewer’s office defined this “plan” in only the vaguest and broadest terms, and didn’t contain the word “zoning” or “rezoning.” Ironically, stakeholders were implored to divulge opinions or suggestions, yet had no idea what was really at stake.
So what was this plan? And who was in charge here?
An unknown moderator, Jonathan Martin, a Professor of Planning at Pratt, took to the center of the room and attempted to gain control of the crowd. Martin would later reveal that he was hired as a private contractor to help coordinate the lengthy and complicated planning process. Councilwoman Chin remained a face in the crowd as her constituents demanded to know if she was even present or whether she would speak.
Himself unsure if Chin was present, Martin continued to reassure the community that “the planning process did not have any predetermined outcome.” The skeptical crowd didn’t appear reassured. Finally, the councilwoman stepped into the circle of confusion: “We want to know what changes YOU want,” Chin yelled without a mic.
“We don’t want any changes!” one life-long resident shouted back.
“But we’re all sick and tired of reviewing Special Permits, this is only the first step,” Chin reassured the crowded room.
But a first step toward what?
Late to the party, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, walked into the room and quickly realized a mutiny was afoot. Soon enough, she shouted from a tabletop to help assuage fears with a direct message: Brewer insisted that much of the “plan” was also in large part to preserve the neighborhoods’ historic integrity and community of artists.
Yet, her direct plea did little to quell the confusion.
Sensing an overwhelming distrust in the process, former City Council Candidate and current State Committeeman, Chris Marte, stood up on a table, introduced himself, and addressed the room directly. Holding up a sheet, he suggested that people sign-up to convene their own meeting – without outside influence or private contractors – something that would run concurrent with the City’s Planning Process so as to assure that the community voice or brain trust wouldn’t be co-opted or misrepresented.
In the end, the planners regained control of the room and attendees began to post notes to the boards, but by then, many had already left.