‘When business groups engineered the recent SoHo/NoHo ‘re-envisioning’ process, many neighbors pushed back, aware of this administration’s miserable track record on developer-driven, community-unfriendly rezonings.’
The future of New York City seems more uncertain now than perhaps any time since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, with massive unemployment, rampant homelessness, small business closures, and a mass transit disaster looming. Amidst all of this, the unaffordability of too much housing for too many New Yorkers remains a vast, unresolved problem.
But a recent op-ed by the Citizens Housing & Planning Council in City Limits and a push by aligned real estate interests in favor of a large-scale upzoning of SoHo and NoHo takes a Trump-like approach to this challenge, while hiding the vested interests of those behind the push. Dishonestly, they gloss over neighbors’ true objections to the plan’s overscaled towers of largely-luxury housing that would line the pockets of the developers behind the effort, claiming opponents are resisting affordable housing rather than new construction of a neighborhood-shattering scale.
Just before COVID hit, the city concluded a year-long process looking at a vast array of regulations governing these neighborhoods, to consider potential changes. Zoning and other rules for SoHo and NoHo are renowned for their complexity, and in many cases date back decades to when these were very different places. Those regulations were also notoriously unevenly enforced by the city, allowing those with means to sidestep the rules in various ways. No one — from long-time artist residents who built the neighborhood to newer wealthier largely non-artist residents, or from small store and property owners to the big box chains and moneyed developers increasingly eying the neighborhood, were satisfied with the status quo.
But when business groups engineered the recent SoHo/NoHo “re-envisioning” process, many neighbors, including Village Preservation, pushed back, aware of this administration’s miserable track record on developer-driven, community-unfriendly rezonings. This latest campaign to use this process as a vehicle for a large-scale upzoning in the neighborhood — which the city claimed was never its intention — confirms the worst fears about the motivations behind the process.
Groups like CHPC, whose board consists of developers such as Edison Properties, which owns two of the largest development sites in SoHo and NoHo, claim both their upzoning push, and the opposition to it, are about affordable housing (read their recent report here, which makes no mention of the vested interests and potential financial rewards which would flow to members of their board if their recommendations were carried out). Nothing could be further from the truth.
I can only speak for the group I lead. We have consistently made clear that new affordable housing is welcome in our neighborhoods, including in SoHo and NoHo, even waging a letter writing campaign to city officials indicating so. And in dozens of meetings, I have never heard a single person object to increasing affordable housing in the neighborhood; if they have, they would certainly not get support for that cause from my organization.
What I have heard, however, and what we have amplified, is objections to increasing the size of allowable new development in the neighborhood by 250 percent, as is being proposed, to allow huge towers of 70-75 percent luxury housing and 25-30 percent affordable housing. For example, current zoning rules would allow a 100,000 square feet building on CHPC board member Edison Properties’ parking lot in NoHo. With an allowance for residential use here within the size constraints currently in place for development in the area (no new residential development is allowed “as of right” in either neighborhood, but can be granted through a variety of mechanisms), that could produce 100,000 sq feet of affordable housing — a dramatic infusion for this pricey neighborhood. But Edison has expressed no interest in building affordable housing there.
What CHPC’s plan would do instead is upzone the site to allow them to construct a quarter million square foot development there — vastly larger than what’s currently allowed, and was allowed when Edison bought and paid for the property. Under their plan, utilizing the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing provisions, such a development would include 175,000-187,500 square feet of super-luxury housing, and just 62,500-75,000 square feet of affordable housing, or significantly less than a purely affordable development on the site built within the existing zoning limits on the size of new development here. And if you think these current limits don’t allow sufficiently large new buildings in SoHo and NoHo, look at recent developments built under those limits at 210 Sullivan Street, 27 Grand Street, and 9 Crosby Street. They are 210, 258, and 311 feet tall, respectively; upzoning advocates want new development two and half times that size.
SoHo and NoHo residents, especially long time ones who helped build these neighborhoods from semi-abandoned and sometimes dangerous wastelands, care deeply about the character of their neighborhoods, and want new development to match rather than overwhelm it. I would posit that a well-designed affordable housing development that fits the existing size limits for new development in our neighborhoods would be welcome at that corner. But whether it’s there, or Edison’s other lot at Centre and Hester Streets, or many other underbuilt, potential development sites in the neighborhood, residents would and do object to massive, out-of-scale and out-of-character new towers. And this is especially so when their biggest consequence would simply be adding massive amounts of previously restricted super-luxury housing to the neighborhood, and granting a dramatic windfall to developers who are in many cases behind the rezoning push.
CHPC and some advocates have bought into the false dichotomy promulgated by real estate interests and the de Blasio administration that the only way to get new affordable housing in New York City is to grant massive bonuses to luxury and market-rate housing developers, vastly increasing their profits and the size of their developments, and requiring a small payback of affordable housing in return. This is not unlike the Trump 2017 tax cut, where the price for a small amount of relief for middle and lower class Americans was massive tax cuts for the richest Americans and big corporations, who reaped by far the majority of those benefits. The New York Post editorial board recently called upon Mayor de Blasio to move ahead with this kind of upzoning in SoHo and NoHo, telling you everything you need to know about the true thinking and interests behind such an approach.
We can and should do better. As we have already pointed out, existing mechanisms would allow the city to mandate the inclusion of affordable housing when manufacturing or commercial buildings in SoHo and NoHo are converted to residential use, which is the largest source of new housing in those neighborhoods. Like our rezoning plans for other parts of our neighborhood that would introduce or encourage affordable housing, this has been roundly ignored and rejected by the administration, and by groups like CHPC. Why? Seemingly because it doesn’t rely upon the massive windfall for the big real estate interests who are Mayor de Blasio’s biggest campaign donors, and among the members of CHPC’s board.
Andrew Berman is the Executive Director of Village Preservation, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and previously served on the board of several statewide and local affordable housing and tenant advocacy groups.