The board’s resolution rejects the rezoning proposal for the wealthy neighborhoods outright, rather than submit suggestions for improvement, arguing the plan would fail to achieve the city’s affordable housing goals.
A Manhattan community board overwhelmingly rejected Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to upzone a swath of SoHo and NoHo on Monday, asserting that the city’s land use proposal would permanently alter the character of the neighborhoods while failing to add much affordable housing.
Community Board 2 voted 37 to 1 to adopt an advisory resolution condemning the plan to add more than 3,000 apartments, including up to 900 considered affordable under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing rules, to a 56-block chunk of the famous Lower Manhattan neighborhoods, following hours of in-person testimony and months of debate.
The board’s resolution—which amounts only to a recommendation under the city’s land use review process—was crafted by an eight-member committee known as the SoHo NoHo Working Group, and rejected the rezoning proposal outright, rather than submit suggestions for an improved plan.
“The proposed SoHo, NoHo and Chinatown rezoning fails to achieve affordable housing goals and instead incentivizes office, dormitory and large retail development and will displace existing rent-protected and low-income residents,” the resolution reads, adding that CB2 “rejects the mayor’s plan because it fails to meet its stated goals” of creating affordable housing, allow a wide range of commercial and residential uses and support the creative community.
The lone board member to oppose the resolution—and thus support the upzoning—argued that the board was voting to block hundreds of affordable units from being built in the wealthy enclave during a deep citywide housing crisis.
“Thirty-three percent of people experiencing homelessness [in New York City] are children and children need housing,” member Chris Dignes told City Limits following the vote.
His fellow board members, and dozens of local residents testifying at the meeting, sought to diminish the city’s affordable housing claims while depicting the rezoning plan as a give-away to developers that would erode SoHo’s historic arts and culture identity. Artists who rented loft spaces and small factories throughout the neighborhood during the 1970s transformed SoHo into an international destination, and some still remain in their unique live-work spaces.
But the plan would allow for taller buildings on the perimeter of the SoHo Historic District while attracting big box retailers, opponents say. The wealthy neighborhood is home to an elite shopping district, with many of the stores allowed through one-off variances, but the city’s plan would set concrete rules for the types of business that could move in, including, critics warn, stores like Target.
“I’ve called this before a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I think that’s insulting to wolves,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, a group that has led the opposition to the proposal. “This rezoning is not about affordable housing. There are so many loopholes in here.”
The land use plan would cover the blocks bound by Astor Place and Houston Street to the north; Bowery, Lafayette and Baxter streets to the east; Canal Street to the south, and Sixth Avenue, West Broadway and Broadway to the west. The proposal, known as the SoHo/NoHo Neighborhood Plan, would increase density by allowing buildings to reach as high as 275 feet outside the historic district (which makes up 85 percent of the proposed rezoning area) and along Canal Street and the Bowery.
The plan would also allow residents living in Joint Living Work Quarters for Artists (JLWQA) to convert their homes to residential zoning by paying into an artists fund. JLWQA is a neighborhood-specific designation that permits artists to live in an otherwise manufacturing-only zone. Opponents Monday said many JLWQA-dwellers cannot afford to make those payments and may be forced to sell out to major developers (the city has said the decision to convert is “completely optional” and that the JLWQA program “will also remain an option for certified artists in perpetuity.”)
The plan’s critics include former SoHo Councilmember Alan Gerson and the neighborhood’s presumptive next councilmember, Chris Marte, who won the Democratic primary for Council District 1 last month. Both criticized the proposal at the hearing Monday.
“Everyone in this room that lives in this community opposes this plan,” Marte said after reading a list of organizations that have condemned the proposal. “Preservationists, climate justice activists, tenants rights groups, former councilmembers … they all oppose this plan. Only our councilmember and mayor does not.”
Marte was referring to term-limited Councilmember Margaret Chin, who has supported the plan, though she and Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who also represents a piece of the proposed rezoning area, issued a statement earlier this month urging the city to mandate that more newly constructed units are priced at below market rates so that lower income New Yorkers can move into the wealthy neighborhood.
Unlike other rezonings pursued by de Blasio, which concentrated on low- and middle-income communities of color, the SoHo-NoHo Neighborhood Plan seeks to upzone a predominantly white neighborhood where units are priced in the millions of dollars.
Many of the meeting attendees who spoke in support of the rezoning plan referenced the demographics of the region, and said the rezoning was necessary to allow more people of color and lower-income residents to move in.
“Saying ‘no’ literally means telling 900 families to look for affordable housing elsewhere,” said attorney Ankur Dalal. “We are a city with a statue in its harbor proclaiming that anyone can make a home here.”
The auditorium at St. Anthony of Padua Church on Sullivan Street was filled with opponents of the city’s proposal, who grumbled and jeered at some supporters’ depictions of SoHo and NoHo residents as white and wealthy obstructionists attempting to lock lower-income people of color out of their neighborhoods.
“Fake news,” one attendee shouted as a rezoning supporter cited the district demographics: About 72 percent white, according to the Department of City Planning’s (DCP) community profile. New York City’s overall population is about 32 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Todd Fine, president of the Washington St. Advocacy Group, urged board members to disregard accusations of racism and to concentrate on preserving the existing character of the world-famous neighborhood.
“There may be a thousand people on Twitter who want to call you racist, but there are millions of people, hundreds of millions of people, who come to SoHo and admire what you’ve built,” Fine said.
Nevertheless, a handful of board members said they were concerned that simply rejecting the proposal without offering concrete adjustments would make them easy to dismiss as stubborn reactionaries.
“My concern is that the city can say, ‘These are a bunch of NIMBYs. We’re going to disregard what’s coming out of [the] community board and do this anyway,’” said member Adam Zeldin.
Working Group Chairperson Anita Brandt told members that they rejected the proposal, rather than make recommendations, because the plan was flawed from the start. The city never sought to increase the truly affordable housing stock in SoHo, she said.
“I kept an open mind as long as I could, then I realized the premise, the starting point of the plan was incorrect,” Brandt said. “Stating a problem and solving it would have pleased me… but solving it in a way that would do incredible damage to a very valuable, successful neighborhood and not solving the problem is not the way to go.”
The community board vote is merely advisory and the land use proposal next goes before Borough President Gale Brewer for her recommendation, which is also advisory. Brewer addressed the board Monday and said she would hold another public hearing next month. The City Planning Commission could vote on the proposal as early as Sept. 1.
In a statement, DCP spokesperson Joe Marvilli said the de Blasio administration remains committed to the plan and will review the testimony submitted by community members.
“This proposal will finally bring affordable housing and economic opportunities for all New Yorkers to two of the wealthiest and most desirable communities in the country,” Marvilli said. “DCP will review the Community Board’s recommendation and is committed to working with all stakeholders to advance this plan for a more affordable and equitable SoHo and NoHo.”