‘I believe if we want to preserve SoHo, we must rezone within reason. To address the disjointed policies and permits that currently cause headaches, but also to save the stunning landmarked buildings at the heart of this debate.’

Adi Talwar

Built in 1857, architecturally historic E.V. Haughwout building stands with its two cast-iron facades on the corner of Broome Street and Broadway in SoHo, Manhattan.

The ongoing discussion around the SoHo rezoning continues to come back to the frustrating quality of life issues that have arisen over the years, including at a city-sponsored meeting last week. Those making the most noise against the rezoning seem to be missing the obvious — our hodgepodge of special permits, residential amnesties, grandfather rules and more are the reason this neighborhood is so disjointed.

Right now, we have an exciting opportunity to address some very real concerns about rezoning SoHo to allow for retail and open up this neighborhood beyond the outdated idea that the community should be exclusively reserved for artists, which should be modified to provide and include new affordable housing. While we need to be measured and careful in the way we approach this, the proposed rezoning is an opportunity to holistically plan for the future of SoHo.

Beyond quality of life issues, people who are very vocally opposing the rezoning seem to focus on a SoHo that doesn’t exist anymore. We constantly hear the disingenuous claim that retail would destroy the neighborhood, as though this is not a globally iconic shopping area already.

This refusal to accept reality aligns with the ongoing debate about artist protections. I am a certified artist — the very person that many who oppose rezoning say they’re trying to protect. I have lived in Soho for 40 years and loved watching this neighborhood change. But there are very few of us certified artists left. Over the years I’ve seen my artist friends start to leave for whatever reasons. While there are a few artists who can meet the antiquated application for artist certification, they are not willing or able to pay the cost of living to reside in SoHo. The fact of the matter is, if I were to apply for certification today, I may not be approved to live here.

Instead, I believe if we want to preserve SoHo, we must rezone within reason. To address the disjointed policies and permits that currently cause headaches, but also to save the stunning landmarked buildings at the heart of this debate. The only way to ensure that these buildings have the revenue to cover the high cost of maintaining buildings that have to go through the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s review process, is to legalize retail. The cost of upkeep is astronomical, and if we do not rezone for ground floor retail to support this upkeep, these buildings will start to fall into disrepair, and residents will be hit with impossible assessments.

While the existing retail has been a lifesaver for co-ops to preserve their buildings, the special permit process is really only available to large retailers and wealthy, established brands. The unpredictable process can take up to two years, and small mom and pop shops or entrepreneurs starting out can ill afford the cost and uncertainty. As we look to clean up the mess that SoHo has gotten itself into, we must also ensure an equitable approach, which means removing costly barriers to access that only the privileged can afford.

We must not get caught up in the hubbub of what people say the residents of Soho want and center ourselves in the reality of our neighborhood. Opponents of the rezoning are simply making false claims that are decades outdated because we think we have some exclusionary right to dictate this community and want to keep it that way, or in fact turn back time. We don’t own SoHo.

It’s time for a new progressive era of Soho to begin. Let’s gracefully usher it in.

Mary Rolland is a certified artist, former real estate sales agent and SoHo resident since 1980.

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6 thoughts on “Opinion: Rezoning is an Opportunity to Plan SoHo’s Future, For Artists and Beyond

  1. ” Opponents of the rezoning are simply making false claims”

    Ms. Rolland should be the last person to talk about “making false claims”.

    She claims to be “a certified artist”. In fact, she works as a certified real-estate broker and has done so for decades. Perhaps she was a working artist when she moved into SoHo, but she no longer is. This mendacity and breach of journalistic ethics belie any other arguments she puts forth.

    Were she honest, she would tell you that the opponents of de Blasio’s scheme do not oppose retail in SoHo or do we oppose opening up the zoning to allow non-artists. We just don’t want big box stores dominating our community and we welcome everyone to live here.

    Were she honest, she would tell you that de Blasio’s upzoning scheme would be the first upzoning in an Historic District in the 55 years since the Landmarks Preservation Commission was created. It would introduce 20-story buildings into a neighborhood whose buildings’ median height is six stories. This upzoning would be a great financial boon to Rolland’s cohorts in real-estate and possibly Ms. Rolland herself – but to no one else..

    Were she more honest, she would tell you that de Blasio’s proposal would introduce big-box stores of unlimited square footage, where currently the limit is set at 10,000 sq. ft. Ms. Rolland wants to turn her iconic neighborhood into Herald Square South. This would be a terrible thing for the residents and small businesses, but a windfall for Ms. Rolland and her real-estate colleagues.

    Were she honest, she would tell you that vast majority of the retail stores are not owned by the co-op or condo buildings in which the stores are located, but by absentee landlords, hedge-fund realty corporations or owners with immense portfolios, some worldwide. So she is disingenuous when she says large retail will defray the cost of repairs for residents of the building.

    I could go on, but you get the picture. This wolf in sheep’s clothing is not advocating for the artists, beleaguered residents or small businesses of SoHo; she is advocating for her own real-estate listings and her friends in the real-estate interest.

  2. The author who wrote this article may have her artist certification but has been a working as a real estate agent for years..her article demonstrates how little she understands how DCP’s plan will destroy the world renowned historical character of the neighborhood. ( possibly the only concentration of cast iron buildings in the world)
    Residents and small business owners want affordable housing but not in exchange for building more luxury housing and the allowance of as of right oversized retail and restaurants. Additionally, the article was not totally accurate nor did it address concerns for demolition of shorter buildings and how increasing FAR at those sites will diminish air quality and sun presence and cause extreme harm to vulnerable adjacent buildings.

  3. The credibility of City Limits has continued to go down for many years, with Alyssa Katz, Jonathan Bowles (a big Bloomberg fan) and Jarrett Murphy. Back in the 70’s and 80’s it was a credible publication. Now it doesn’t even know who is writing in its pages. Just look at City Limits’ fund raising from 2016 at https://www.scribd.com/document/326757063/City-Limits-40th-Anniversary-Gala-Journal … to see how much real estate and big business has been its main source of influence.

  4. What about the rent stabilized units in some of the buildings that no doubt would be demolished to make way for mostly 80% pricey condos. there must be hundreds of such apartments. They would be destroyed and replaced by a paltry percentage of that number by “affordable” apartments. Seems a scam. Just make residential allowed and no need to have such a massive upzone. End of story.

  5. What is a certified artist? Lets talk about the SOHO Bid? What do they do? The retail is obnoxious chain stores, housing for nobody, high rents where they don’t advocate for the business owners, street vendors all over the place. We are not addressing how we don’t need a residential up zone. You have empty stores, empty residential all over the city. This is greed by REBNY. Zoning is for little people

  6. A soho resident since 1979, I’ve seen it all change. All there is now is retail on the ground floors….. not many AIR left. Giuliani ushered in the MALLing of Soho.
    The small business owner has a hard time in this neighborhood. That’s what should be focused on – helping them stay in business.

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