Envisioning a Future SoHo-NoHo with Mixed-Use Zoning
SoHo and NoHo residents are no doubt anxious to see if any of their input gained from four public engagements had any effect on the Department of City Planning. But those who participated shouldn’t be a surprised if tonight’s “Preliminary Presentation” of results from the Envision SoHo and NoHo Planning Process will reveal a recommendation for a special “Mixed-Use” zoning. One need only note the common theme for all four public engagement events – Defining Mixed-Use, Living in the Mix, Mixing it up, and Making Mixed-Use work.
If the city does indeed push for a “Mixed-Use” rezoning of these historic districts, Johnathan Martin, the professional planner and professor at Pratt who was hired by the city as a private contractor to oversee the public input, likely faces an uphill battle to convince residents that results of his report wasn’t predetermined.
From the initial chaotic open house for the Envision SoHo and NoHo Planning Process to the last of four public meetings, many residents feared that these public engagements were held simply for data collection. And that the sponsor, Deptartment of City Planning, Councilwoman Margaret Chin, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, were hatching a plan with a select advisory committee and political influencers, namely developers, in closed-door sessions.
That said, residents of SoHo and NoHo did indeed actively divulge their needs and desires from the first chaotic Open House meet-up in Chinatown and through four more workshops down in City Hall. Through it all, elected officials remained tight-lipped about their ideas of the neighborhoods and avoided the use of the word “rezoning,” instead opting for an “envisioning a future of SoHo.” But which, if any, residents would be left out of this vision, remained the fear of legacy tenants, namely artists who may own lofts, but live on fixed incomes. Ultimately, the fear of displacement was the prime motivator for many participants, whether renters or owners.
Now that the community’s cards are laid bare, it remains to be seen if the city will be able to maintain the same level of suspense that had kept the general public engaged in the process to date.
Residents will be looking for clarity on how any potential changes to zoning will allow retail or commercial office space to invade housing units, create increase foot traffic on already congested streets, and what will rezoning mean in terms of new hotel construction, nightclubs, and rooftop renovations. Others who are not certified artists by the city will be looking for answers to when, or if, their residency will be fully-legalized. A condition that the current manufacturing zoning creates.
As for “upzoning” or increased development, speculation in the marketplace is likely to follow any deregulation. Increases in real estate tax impact legacy residents the most. More than likely, tonight’s presentation will include some plan by the city to offer tax breaks in order to offset any potential increases in home values, at least for seniors. But whether these incentives remain ambiguous and deregulation paramount to the process, will put Councilwoman Chin’s commitment to her senior constituents to the test.
Housing versus commercial retail and office space remains the main issue as developers continue to push the city to upzone and remove restrictions on retail storefronts. DCP planners made it clear that the current manufacturing zoning of SoHo and NoHo is a contributing factor to long vacant storefronts.
But the issues surrounding rezoning overlap and involve many different city agencies. The ability for DCP and the sponsors to enact change at the Department of Buildings or the Department of Transportation remains to be seen.
As previously reported, quality-of-life issues and the extent to which the streets of SoHo can handle more pedestrian retail or commercial traffic is another key factor. To date, neither Johnathan Martin nor City Planning has released any of the new street traffic surveys as part of their data presentation.
For now, more questions than answers are likely to follow tonight’s presentation. Residents should expect the city to insist that the results are still only preliminary, and that further examination and input will be necessary. But whether this all amounts to a slow-roll towards a predetermined future will certainly be up for debate.
Tonight’s Envision SoHo and NoHo presentation is in the new auditorium of the Aldo Rossi-designed Scholastic Building (6-8pm), now only accessible at 130 Mercer Street. (The old 555 Broadway entrance that once showcased the artwork featured in many of its popular books is now a Sephora store.)