The Shadow of Rezoning Looming over SoHo and NoHo

Posted on: October 26th, 2020 at 5:00 am by

Photo: Eddie Panta

The battle lines are drawn.

As Mayor de Blasio embarks on a last-minute gambit to rezone the historic districts of SoHo and NoHo before his term ends, a coalition of community groups and activists are preparing for a battle to prevent the city from pitching the proposal in the name of affordable housing under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program. Instead, formidable opponents like Andrew Berman (Village Preservation) maintain that affordable housing can be created without upzoning the area, and fear luxury high-rises that are out of scale to the neighborhood.

A fierce debate will likely ensue tonight, as Department of City Planning (DCP) has scheduled a two-hour online, public information session and Q&A at 6:00pm. A wide array of area residents is expected to voice opposition during the virtual meeting, echoing a hype video that surfaced over the weekend.

(Other community organizations that continue to publicly protest the rezoning effort include SoHo Alliance, Broadway Residents Coalition, Youth Against Displacement, Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, NoHo Neighborhood Association, and Human Scale NYC.)

Locals who have followed this proposed rezoning plan since the infamous 2019 Envision SoHo/NoHo Process don’t expect any new details tonight. The main goal of this Info Session is to inform the public on how to participate in the first step toward a rezoning and upzoning – the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULRUP) – which could start as soon as April 2021. That said, the unspoken rule of DCP facilitators, as far as community outreach is concerned, is that an enraged resident is an engaged resident. Those in opposition are committed to saving SoHo’s cultural identity as well as prevent the historic district from becoming a mall, and are ready to be cast in the role of the stalwart, denizens of SoHo, impeding progress and blocking housing equality.

The first rezoning meeting in 2019 was chaotic, Photo: Eddie Panta

Yet, being pushed into this role of the “angry resident” is especially ironic, given the 2019 Envision SoHo/NoHo Process started with anxiety ridden tenants, fearful of displacement – whether artist in live-work spaces or retirees on fixed incomes – who were lured into a nebulous “info meeting.” The gathering proved chaotic, and appeared as though the future of SoHo and NoHo would be decided at a science fair in a Chinatown public school. Despite the visuals supplied by DCP, residents were, and still wonder whether the city will uncover the missing data from the subsequent SoHo/NoHo Report released last November. Such as Department of Transportation pedestrian traffic surveys and whether the report would be updated with 2020 Census numbers. But most importantly, whether or not city has finally found reliable information on the number of Artists In Residence, the occupancy type most susceptible to displacement if zoning rules are changed.

While the Envision SoHo/NoHo Process sponsors never actually conducted a public workshop in the affected neighborhoods, the collapse of the Amazon.com headquarters in Long Island City, just a week after that initial public meeting, appeared to inspire a reexamination of methods of public engagement. Tellingly, subsequent meetings were held in a more professional manner. And in retrospect, what transpired over five subsequent “Mixed-Use” themed workshops no longer seems like an envisioning process. Rather, a means of conditioning the public towards a preconceived idea of transforming and rebranding SoHo as a “Mixed-Use” zoned district – a generic and problematic term that has no parallel in the city.

While most residents understand some need to reform parts of the 50-year-old zoning text, it is the manufacturing designation that likely prevented SoHo’s retail industry from cannibalizing itself long ago. This special designation – across both SoHo and NoHo – is meant to prevent higher-paying retail from occupying space for residential, live-work uses, light-manufacturing of goods, including fashion production, or 3D printing. Special permits are, however, granted to commercial uses that could bring diversity to an area overly saturated by the apparel industry.

Details of the rezoning and upzoning remain unclear and do not appear to be tempered by the community voices established in the SoHo/NoHo Report. Instead, DCP and the Mayor’s office, as well as Councilmember Chin, have pivoted the rhetoric toward “affordable housing.” A clarion call that was not heard from Councilmember Chin when the Envisioning process started; nor was it heard when the MTA land on Houston and Broadway was sold to commercial office developers, despite the new rezoning plan to build housing on irregular sites in SoHo. Across the street in NoHo, a market-rate and rent-stabilized building was torn down for luxury high-rise condos.

However, it’s not just residents who are in the dark. Elected officials, including Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Carlina Rivera, still await more detail before officially taking a position on the rezoning effort. Which is great, but not a luxury that the community was afforded at the outset, and their leadership on known issues that the pandemic has exposed – the need for essential business, open space, and small business development – should already be influencing the plan. Instead, residents will sit in suspense well into the ULURP process where their decision is revealed only after it is too late for community response, assuring that any concessions they obtain from the city will already be built into the project.

For the process to be truly transparent, residents will need to get elected officials off the sidelines where they are more comfortable as referees in a battle between residents.

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