‘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.’

soho noho map

Office of the MBP

A map of the SoHo/NoHo study area produced by the ‘envisioning’ process.

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.

15 thoughts on “Opinion: SoHo/NoHo Zoning Debate is Over Builders’ Windfall, Not Affordable Housing

  1. There are a number of fallacies in this “opinion” piece, but what tells you all you need to know is that it dismisses reform to simply “build more” with conflict-of-interest allegations against a handful of individuals when numerous groups, reformers, and notably the grassroots pro-housing organization of which I am a member, Open New York, have all advocated for an upzoning in Soho/Noho.

    Why have VP’s alternative proposals “been roundly ignored and rejected by the administration”? Because they do not build more. They look to impose a height limit on new construction and limit uses to *maybe* squeeze out some new residential construction.

    Open New York’s plan, on the other hand, provides a detailed approach that lays out real potential for 3,400 new units, 700 of which would be affordable. Not only does this mean having a positive impact on thousands of people’s lives, but it also means that we may finally have momentum to build more housing in well-to-do places that can most accommodate it.

    • Many of the opponents of this are probably NIMBYS, but Eli’s group, Open New York has serious conflicts of interest. The group was founded by real estate speculators who run a firm called Quantierra. They stand to make a lot of money from this rezoning.

  2. Berman nails it.

    And besides Edison, there are lawyers on CHPC’s board who have done their best over the years to subvert our communities’ height, bulk and use restrictions to benefit the interests of their developer clients.

  3. This seems like a distraction. We can legitimately argue about whether new housing should be 200 feet tall or 400 feet tall, but it seems to me that the NIMBYs of Soho want the status quo (which, in Berman’s own words, mean no by-right residential development at all).

    Berman writes that he is “for 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.” But this almost never happens. In zip code 10012, which includes part of Soho, only 0.4 percent of housing units were built after 2010. In zip code 10013, which also includes part of Soho, only 2 percent were. Even by the dismally low standards of Manhattan this is a low amount of housing. (The comparable number for Manhattan as a whole is 3.6 percent). And these statistics includes ALLO housing, not just affordable housing.

    And as a matter of broad principle, the assumption that only “affordable” housing is desirable makes no sense in affluent Manhattan neighborhoods like Soho. I can understand the fear of gentrification that drives opposition to market-rate housing in low-income areas. But in Soho there is no danger of gentrification, because Soho is already a rich area. And if there’s not enough housing to go around there, people priced out of Soho will move to poorer areas and gentrify them. So if you are really worried about gentrification you should want lots and lots of market-rate housing in rich areas like Soho.

  4. “Long-time artist residents” didn’t build SoHo and NoHo. Those neighborhoods were built by workers in the 19th and early 20th century, funded by developers and various garment and dry goods firms. The artists came a century later, and their contribution to the built environment was to install kitchens and showers and put up walls, and then fight any and all change thereafter, going so far as to even excluding residents from other professions from moving in.

    It’s also interesting that Andrew Berman doesn’t once mention in the op-ed Open New York, the all-volunteer group that put housing on the agenda and proposed the rezoning that he’s so upset about. I guess it’s harder to smear an all-volunteer housing advocacy group when you’re a registered lobbyist earning a six-figure salary paid for by owners of multimillion-dollar homes to fight housing in lower Manhattan, so better to erase Open New York from the history of this proposal.

    And Berman must have a very selective memory if he truly believes that “I have never heard a single person object to increasing affordable housing in the neighborhood.” He’s been paying a lot of attention to this housing proposal, so surely he read in the news that a local community board member was caught on a hot mic saying, “I don’t feel that we should be responsible for producing as much affordable housing as other neighborhoods,” to the agreement of others on the board.

    • Stephen Smith aka “Market Urbanist,” aren’t you one of the authors of the Open New York report? Aren’t you also a founder of a real estate speculator firm, Quantierra? What mechanism exists to prevent your firm from cashing in on this rezoning?

    • Their contribution not only meant that SoHo from Spring to Canal wouldn’t be urned into an expressway, it also saved SoHo from burning down to the ground in the late 60’s to early 1970’s. It was, in fact, advocacy from the FDNY that helped create the loft live/work zoning in SoHo, and those Artists In Residence prevented SoHo from burning down like the South Bronx. It’s not about who built it, it’s about who abandoned it, and it this case, that’s the city. Everything in SoHo now is built on the cultural capital created by artists in the 1970’s.

  5. Andrew Berman nailed it!!

    As we in SoHo/NoHo have long suspected. the push to upzone our low-rise neighborhood has always been propelled by real estate interests.

    BREAKING NEWS: On September 17, REBNY, the Real Estate Board of NY, has just nominated one of CHPC’s board members, mega-developer, Douglas Durst, as its chair.
    REBNY last year announced that it wanted UNLIMITED bulk and height allowances for SoHo/NoHo.

    It’s sad that an 80-year old housing advocacy group like CHPC is now a Trojan Horse for the city’s wealthiest real-estate developers.

  6. I agree luxury towers with a small proportion of income-targeted housing will cause more problems than it will solve. On the sites you mentioned it would be great if we could get permanent housing with deep affordability requirements. Problem is that won’t happen without massive subsidies. There’s only so many LIHTCs to go around.

  7. My husband and I came to Soho as young artists before it was Soho — in 1968 — and helped to establish it, and I continue to work to preserve it. Its endangerment as a unique “valley” of low buildings and sun-filled streets started as soon as Soho became a special district. The consequences of manipulating the zoning limitations are evident in the cookie-cutter building at Grand St and Broadway. Even though much of Soho has become very commercial and gentrified, its unique architecture and spaciousness, as well as its historical character, make its status quo well worth defending against the developers who would turn it into another anonymous enclave of tall buildings.

  8. As a former chair of Artists Against the Expressway I agree with Andrew Berman, and thank him for writing this OpEd. I also support Ingrid Wiegand, former co-op Soho Playgroup parent. This is an abominable plan. Leave Soho and Noho alone. Soho has beautiful cast-iron buildings and is an Historic District.
    Julie M. (Judd) Finch

  9. Village Preservation is a white grievance organization. Politicians should ignore Village Preservation and all other rich white NIMBY’s and build many thousands of housing units in rich white neighborhoods.

  10. Can someone explain why soho/noho versus the numerous other adjacent neighborhoods that are almost equally affluent, equally accessible with subway but have MANY MORE opportunities for development?

    Soho/noho is 95% landmark for good reason – most of the buildings need to be preserved for future generations. So all this effort for a tiny slice of a mostly landmarked neighborhood??? Hudson Square (or “west soho”) on the other hand is full of ugly buildings and warehouses that could be a great fit for more affordable housing. This is just an example.

    It’s really hard to see this as little more than (a) real estate interests, (b) political showmanship intent to appease frustrated voters but offering little actual results.

    What we should be doing in soho is the opposite – reduce the amount and visibility of retail to bring the neighborhood closer to its original character for all NYers to experience and enjoy.

  11. SoHo has never been livelier than at this very moment. That said, citywide, we are under siege by overdevelopment. As a real estate broker working in the TriBeCa office of Douglas Elliman, you might think I want to see more development. The truth is none of us do. There is a 10 year glut of unsold luxury inventory in Manhattan. The market is stagnant. Stores are empty. It’s cognitive dissonance to ignore the obvious scourge of vacancy. The government should be working on filling empty existing homes and helping the aging housing stock be redeveloped, not raising cranes and building empty condos.

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