The Past Still Very Present in SoHo as Planning Process Seeks a Future

Posted on: March 4th, 2019 at 5:08 am by

Photo: Eddie Panta

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer opened the second public meeting for the SoHo NoHo Plan with this brutally honest admission, setting a new tone for the participatory workshops: “I do think that the first public event sucked and we learned many lessons.” 

Motivated largely by fear of displacement, residents from the affected areas returned for a second round of battle. Some hung around the sidelines, still trepidatious about participating, while others sat in randomly assigned seats at large tables equipped with two color-coded street maps; one for the present, one for the future of SoHo and NoHo. For many life-long residents, community leaders, activists, and those who simply took pride in their neighborhood, a forum to the relay their expertise, was, well, irresistible. But even those anxious to participate remained skeptical of the process.

Sponsors of the Department of City Planning’s process, including Councilwoman Margaret Chin, continued to instill hope that zoning status quo remains a potential outcome. Yet the threat of change was indeed the elephant in the room.

For a public workshop billed as “Defining Mixed-Use,” the location (1 Centre Street) had inadvertently provided participants with a perfect example of an area that is the opposite. Much like SoHo in the early 1970s, City Hall is empty at night, distinctly lacking diversity of employment. This part of the city is solely dedicated to office work and politics. The convener, Jonathan Martin, explained to Bowery Boogie that every place they tried to reserve in SoHo or NoHo, including NYU, had already been booked.

DCP and retailer Michele Varian, Photo: Eddie Panta

DCP rep, Sylvia Li, kicked off the presentation segment of the meeting with info on the businesses that make SoHo and NoHo the economic hub it is today. But she met immediate, loud criticism after her open admission that the stats on the number of artists in the area didn’t include freelance artists or independent workers.

“What are we even doing here then?” One attendee who has rented a loft on West Broadway and Canal since 1979 yelled out from the sidelines. “You don’t even have the facts. Do you know what you’re doing?”

“This is just a primer for discussion,” Sylvia Li countered, citing that the only stats they had were from the New York State Department of Labor Statistics.

As Li attempted to plow through the remainder of DCP’s presentation, the riled-up crowd couldn’t get past the glaring omission. Folks hurled comments that contested the data and the validity of the entire planning process.

Unable to conclude her presentation, Jonathan Martin rescued the workshop from devolving into chaos again. He gave an impassioned plea, reassuring the crowd that not only was the future of SoHo and NoHo not predetermined, but that the process itself would evolve with the new data garnered at the meeting. And that, moving forward, this would be an “Ad-Hoc” planning process that is adjustable to the community’s feedback.

Village Voice clipping, circa 1980

Still, for many, the city’s lack of an accurate accounting of live/work artists, most of whom are freelancers, begged the obvious question: If it’s the public that are the experts with the data DCP needed, why weren’t DCP planners seated at the activity tables and the public participants taking turns at the podium instructing and educating them?

Skipping the remainder of the slide show, Martin moved on to the communal table activities, hoping participants would engage with anointing the maps with icon stickers that denoted types of labor.

But the anger didn’t subside until Martin conducted an impromptu census. “How many people here considered themselves artists?” Martin asked the raucous crowd. A show-of-hands revealed that over 80-percent of the participants were artists or makers.

Michael Levine, Photo: Eddie Panta

One person in the room understood the difficulties in collecting real, street-level data relating to artists in a dense area. Michael Levine, the DCP planner who wrote the original text of the SoHo rezoning nearly 50 years ago, was actually a spectator. When SoHo was last rezoned, it was Levine who tallied the artist population illegally living in lofts designated as light-manufacturing.   

Michael Levine and his small crew of interns employed sly methods to gain an accurate count of the artist contingent between 1969 and 1971. “We looked for names, not businesses on mailboxes, counted lights on in windows on at night, and even looked for potted plants on fire escapes.” Levine explained. In pounding pavement themselves, the team got to know every nook and cranny of the neighborhood. “It took us two years to count all the illegal residents in lofts back then.”

At that time, the FDNY referred to SoHo as Hell’s One-Hundred Acres. The fire department wanted the tenants legalized so that emergencies could be reported before it was too late. Without the diversity of usage mixed-use zoning provides, SoHo was as vacant as City Hall at night. “It was the whole Jane Jacobs thing,” (eyes and ears on the street) Levine added.  

But Levine’s contribution at the time was twofold – in order to net landmark status for the “Cast Iron District” of SoHo, Levine needed to show the city that lofts provided a unique housing opportunity. The preservation of SoHo might never have occurred unless a viable alternative to manufacturing – another use that could sustain safety and economic viability – was found. “It was always about housing.” Levine proudly declared. Eventually, Levine ended up meeting with a large group of artists who hand organized for the rezoning in order to obtain Artist In Residence status at Judson’s Memorial Church.

(The applause for Levine during the Q&A segment proved that his presence lent the room some much needed authenticity.)

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