Five weeks after the local community board rejected the city’s application to rezone a 56-block stretch of the two wealthy neighborhoods, Brewer said the current plan leaves many issues unresolved—though she hasn’t ruled out backing a revised plan.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is urging New York City planners to go back to the drawing board when it comes to upzoning SoHo and NoHo—though she hasn’t ruled out backing a revised land use plan for the two wealthy neighborhoods.
Five weeks after the local community board rejected the city’s application to rezone a 56-block stretch of SoHo and NoHo, Brewer said the current plan leaves many issues unresolved.
“There are too many challenges with this rezoning for me to support it outright,” she said in a statement Thursday night. “While the city’s need for affordable housing is massive and all neighborhoods should contribute to helping to increase it, we need to do better than this proposal.”
But Brewer did not provide specific recommendations to improve the project. Instead, she said she plans to continue working with planning officials and community stakeholders to protect the neighborhood’s arts scene, increase the number of affordable units and ensure long-time residents remain in place.
She described her ambivalence around the current plan and her opposition to new commercial development during a City Planning Commission public hearing earlier Thursday.
“Even those who support the project wholeheartedly feel very strongly that we should not be incentivizing anything to do with commercial,” she said, referring to criticism that the proposal could bring big box retail stores into the world-famous neighborhoods.
SoHo is already home to major retail franchises and an elite shopping district, but most of those stores were allowed through one-off zoning variances. The city’s plan would set concrete rules for the types of businesses that can operate in the rezoned region.
Brewer also listed several issues that need to be addressed to receive her support, including questions around SoHo’s unique artist live-work spaces: “The historic district must be preserved; subsidies should be provided to developers who exceed MIH guidelines; 2 Howard St. should be 100% affordable housing; and loft law tenants must be protected,” Brewer said in her statement.
Under city land use rules, borough presidents make an advisory recommendation on rezoning applications prior to a City Planning Commission vote.
Brewer has taken her time crafting a response to the contentious proposal, which the city says will add more than 3,000 apartments, including up to 900 considered affordable under Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) regulations. The plan has faced intense backlash among residents of SoHo and NoHo who say it will erode the character of the unique neighborhoods while giving too much power to developers to remake existing buildings and erect taller structures on the perimeter of the historic district.
“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, ahead of the July community board vote. Berman’s organization has led the opposition to the proposal.
But housing advocates across New York have backed the plan after long urging Mayor Bill de Blasio to increase density and diversity in wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods. All but one other neighborhood-level rezoning pursued by the de Blasio Administration have concentrated on low- and middle-income communities of color, like East New York, Far Rockaway and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx. The SoHo-NoHo Neighborhood Plan seeks to add thousands of new apartments to a neighborhood where existing units are priced in the millions of dollars.
Another ongoing plan to rezone Gowanus also targets a predominantly white neighborhood where residents tend to earn more than the city’s average income. That plan has earned the conditional support of the local Community Board 6 and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams as long as the city funds capital needs at two NYCHA campuses in the area (Brooklyn Community Board 2, which a small portion of the rezoning area falls within, voted against the rezoning in June).
Supporters of the SoHo-NoHo plan say the iconic Lower Manhattan neighborhoods are the types of places where MIH will actually work to bring in renters earning less than the local average income. De Blasio’s signature land use policy forces developers to set aside a portion of their units for people earning a percentage of Area Median Income, but has ended up attracting higher-earning newcomers to lower-income neighborhoods while fueling gentrification there, according to a recent study by the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development.
In a place like SoHo, MIH income caps would actually allow middle-income and some lower-income New Yorkers to move to a place they otherwise could not afford, proponents say.
“Over the last 40 years the area’s restrictive and exclusionary zoning has allowed it to transform from a hub of working class artists to what it is in effect today: a gated community,” said Citizens Housing and Planning Council Director Jessica Katz during the marathon CPC hearing.
Following Brewer’s statement, de Blasio spokesperson Mitch Schwartz said the city will continue working with local leaders to overhaul SoHo-NoHo zoning rules for the first time in decades.
“SoHo looks a lot different today than it did as a manufacturing and industrial hub, but its zoning laws are exactly the same,” Schwartz said. “Those laws have squeezed small businesses and excluded low-income families for too long. The public process is ongoing, and we’re proud to work with all the local elected officials to make sure the final plan reflects our shared goals.”