Amidst SoHo-NoHo Rezoning, Crosby Street Cardboard City Proves Need for City Planning Spotlight

Posted on: April 17th, 2019 at 5:08 am by

Photo: Eddie Panta

Dueling photographs of a single Crosby Street stoop reveal a tale of two perspectives of life in SoHo. A sight that exposes the real need for City Planning to obtain “a 360-degree analysis that includes all points of view,” which it hopes to gain during review of the neighborhood’s zoning regulations.

Back in February, the SoHo Broadway Initiative, the local Business Improvement District, released a series of photographs on its website as part of a “Cleanup Report” on the effectiveness of its expansion of street cleaning services to include Crosby and Mercer Streets; an effort made possible by funds from Councilmember Margaret Chin’s office.

At first glance, the before and after shots simply illustrate the removal of boxes from a nondescript stoop. But for anyone who regularly passes Prince and Crosby Streets at night, the boxes obviously double as homeless shelters for at least three men who have been camping out in the freight entrance doorways since last November.

In brief interviews, we discovered that these men – likely in their mid-forties – are day-laborers. Spending nights in makeshift cardboard shelters, before seeking work at demolition sites or on restaurant cleanup crews by 6am. None appeared intoxicated in our encounters, and all were decently dressed.

Photo: Eddie Panta

This is not to suggest that SoHo Broadway Initiative is ambivalent to the plight of the homeless.

Business or Neighborhood Improvement Districts are about the beautification and promotion of their district’s retail outlets and community events, not to highlight any homeless crisis. Like the NoHo Neighborhood Improvement District, they have their own “Clean-Team” which sweeps the sidewalks, empties receptacles, and removes graffiti. But it does speak to the need of capturing a complete picture of the neighborhood as it pertains to the city’s community engagement plan for the future of SoHo.

The SoHo Broadway Initiative is one of 18 organizations serving on the advisory board for the Envision SoHo/NoHo Plan. With the slickest website, and by far the most comprehensive online guide to the current zoning regulation, the organization is composed of residents and business owners who have begun influencing the city’s planning process at the public meetings while maintaining anonymity. However, groups on the board have faced criticism for negotiating with the city behind closed doors and not having artists represented.

Photo: Eddie Panta

To date, it remains unclear whether these advisory bodies are willing to steer the city towards confronting its own contradictory policies and regulations that govern the streets and sidewalks of the historic neighborhoods.

City Planning, Councilmember Margret Chin, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer are asking the artist-in-residence community of SoHo to accept that the current live/work manufacturing zoning no longer reflects the reality of neighborhood. But the city is not exactly averse to hypocrisy when it comes to the rules and regulations of the streets.

As two new office complexes rise astride on Crosby and East Houston, so will the demand for delivery trucks. DOT performed a pedestrian survey in January as the buildings neared completion and the main subway entrance on Houston reopened. However, results from this important study haven’t been released during the public planning sessions to envision a future for SoHo. Despite what many considered antiquated and outdated zoning rules, development of commercial office and luxury rentals show no signs of slowing down.

Photo: Eddie Panta

By all accounts, Crosby Street has been an unmitigated disaster area, even before constructing began on the two developments. Its cobblestone street has long since been considered the worst in the historic district. Currently, the street is still being torn up for new waterlines to feed the developments.

The west side of Crosby Street, the traditional start of SoHo, or more specifically, the Cast Iron District, is the commercial traffic corridor connecting SoHo to NoHo and provides freight entrances for the big-box retail storefronts off Broadway. Yet, commercial parking is not allowed.

Each day, UPS, FED EX, and other delivery vehicles are routinely ticketed. With no other option to park, the tickets are simply considered a cost of doing business. These parking regulations yield thousands of dollars a day for the city, but don’t reflect retail districts’ constant need for deliveries and do little to decrease traffic, idling, or noise.

Police officers from the 5th Precinct’s “Build-the-Block” community meeting in March confirmed homelessness remains an issue in SoHo, although Crosby Street was not mentioned specifically. Normal protocol would be to assist the homeless to city shelters. But news reports as recent as a few weeks ago, have detailed violence against homeless men on both city streets and city shelters. The homeless who braved the winter on this narrow passageway find safety in numbers.

It remains to be seen, though, if the city is willing to face the contradictions of how its current parking regulations impact quality of life for residents. As for the most vulnerable – the city’s growing homeless population – every parking ticket placed on a delivery truck that has no option for legal parking could go toward a night of shelter for someone in need. Instead, the funds disappear back into the system, which creates more tickets on commercial vehicles, and whose boxes ultimately provide shelter.

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