SoHo Suffers Identity Crisis as City Planners Push for Rebranding over Rezoning

Posted on: January 15th, 2020 at 5:06 am by

The Scholastic Building’s auditorium in SoHo was packed to capacity with local residents, stakeholders, press, and members of city agencies last week for another public forum on the long-awaited Envision SoHo/NoHo Report Summary. The report, released to the public online just before the Thanksgiving holiday, outlines three guiding principles for any potential rezoning in the two historic districts: “Improve quality of life,” “Encourage Neighborhood Diversity,” and “Promote Economic Vitality.”

While many in attendance were anxious to hear more details about these recommendations, what commenced was anything but. It became yet another venting session where the community provided feedback to ambiguities.

Photo: Eddie Panta

“I know there are big questions and one of the biggest questions is what the next steps are? The truth is, we don’t know,” said Deputy Borough President Matthew Washington.

The Envision SoHo/NoHo Plan started almost a year ago with an initial “open house” that quickly descended into chaos from a lack of organization and leadership. In attempt to quell the anxiety of residents fearing displacement, Councilmember Margaret Chin, one of the process co-sponsors, explained at the time that “this was just the first step.”

But now, almost year later, and after six months of public engagements, the next step is as unclear as the city’s vision for the neighborhood itself. And the community remains just as divided over many key issues.

Community Board 2, and SoHo Alliance member, Bo Riccobono, managed to score an answer to the most obvious question.  “What is next … And are there plans now to go forward with a ULURP?” (Uniform Land-Use Review Process)

“Right now, there is no plan for a ULURP anytime in the near future,” replied Tara Duvivier, an urban planner for Borough President Gale Brewer’s office. The room fell silent. Then, City Planner, Sylvia Li, took the mic and asked that there be “no more questions.”

These comments were surprising to many in attendance. Especially considering the eloquent way Councilmember Chin had, at the second meeting, expounded on the importance of ULURP in achieving transparency in the city’s land-use decisions. Chin’s comments also led many to believe that the report itself could trigger the ULURP or at least explain why one was or was not necessary.

Report Co-Sponsors Councilmember Margaret Chin, BP Gale Brewer, and Director of City Planning Marisa Lago

For now, the only known next step is for the sponsors to workshop the report’s recommendations at the Community Board level. The CB2 Land-Use Committee, chaired by Anita Brandt, will take up the Envision SoHo/NoHo Report tonight (6:30pm) at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street in NoHo.

But as with the initial public forum, it appears that residents on both sides are participating blindly in a rezoning process different from what local news headlines had touted.

A full rezoning of SoHo and NoHo would trigger a ULURP – a seven-month-long public review process that would deliver a report on economic and environmental impacts to the neighborhoods, and require a full vote from City Council. The 1971 zoning amendment in SoHo that allowed artists to live-work in buildings zoned solely for manufacturing use didn’t require a ULURP because the process hadn’t begun until 1975.

(In 2018, the Garment District underwent a ULURP for the rezoning process that stripped the district of regulations protecting manufacturing.)

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