Opponents argued to councilmembers that the plan to add about 3,000 new units and change land use rules in a 56-block swath of Lower Manhattan would incentivize demolition to make way for luxury housing, usher in big box retail and forever alter the artistic character of the iconic SoHo and NoHo neighborhoods.
Defenders and detractors of a plan to rezone a swath of SoHo collided once more Tuesday, reciting familiar arguments and trading barbs during the final public hearing before a City Council vote.
The remote hearing, hosted by the Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning, featured testimony from dozens of opponents who told councilmembers that the plan to add about 3,000 new units and change land use rules in a 56-block span of Lower Manhattan would incentivize demolition to make way for luxury housing, usher in big box retail and forever alter the artistic character of the SoHo and NoHo neighborhoods. They received support from two state lawmakers, Assemblymember Deborah Glick and State Sen. Brad Hoylman, who also testified against the proposal.
Plan supporters pushed back against that resistance, urging the Council to vote in favor of an upzoning that would add much-needed housing—including about 900 units reserved for middle-income and some lower-income renters—to one of New York City’s whitest and wealthiest communities. Made famous by artists who took over lofts in the manufacturing zone in the 1960s and 70s, SoHo and NoHo have become among the city’s priciest areas and the home of an elite shopping district.
The proposed rezoning, along with a concurrent land use proposal for a portion of Brooklyn’s Gowanus, mark the first time Mayor Bill de Blasio has sought to upzone predominantly white neighborhoods with household incomes well over the city average. Both proposals have earned support from housing groups who say the changes will foster diversity, unlike past rezonings in lower-income neighborhoods like East New York and the Jerome Avenue corridor, which fueled displacement.
But even staunch supporters, like members of the pro-density group Open New York, acknowledged that the current plan has flaws—including what they consider an overemphasis on commercial floor-area ratio (FAR), which they worry could fuel office development rather than add more housing. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has also criticized the commercial FAR allowances in the plan.
“The answer is clear: build more housing,” said Andy Zhang, a rezoning supporter who testified Tuesday. “Lower office and commercial densities in order to build more housing instead.”
In his comments to the Committee, Zhang called opponents of the rezoning “aesthetic snobs” more concerned with preserving the historic character of SoHo and NoHo than alleviating the city’s housing crisis. The comment was one example of the escalating tensions between plan supporters and opponents.
Queens College student Zeke Luger, an outspoken rezoning opponent, accused Open New York of “bullying” New Yorkers who do not support the plan.
The two camps have continued to make their cases in a series of public hearings, planning sessions and community board meetings well before the city submitted its land use application in May and kicked off the official review process.
Manhattan’s Community Board 2, which overlaps with the proposed rezoning area, voted 37 to 1 against the plan in July. Councilmember Margaret Chin, who represents most of the proposed rezoning area, has expressed her support for the proposal, though she and Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who represents a piece of the area, have urged the city’s Planning Department to “guarantee” affordable housing in the rezoned region.
“The city needs more housing that people can afford to live in—working families, immigrants, seniors. That’s a great need and in this neighborhood there really hasn’t been any new affordable housing created,” Chin told Politico in July. “For me, this is the right thing to do.”
Chin’s position could be key to the final outcome, since the Council historically votes in conjunction with the local member on land use decisions—a tradition of “member deference.”
Opponents have sought to delay the rezoning’s approval process into the next mayoral administration. Chin’s successor, Councilmember-elect Christopher Marte, is an ardent opponent of the plan.
The proposal, known as the SoHo/NoHo Neighborhood 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. It would allow for 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, and codify commercial use rather than force property owners to seek variances in an area zoned for manufacturing.
The plan would also allow residents living in unique Joint Living Work Quarters for Artists (JLWQA) to convert their homes to residential zoning by paying into an artists fund. JLWQA is a SoHo-specific designation that permits artists to live in an otherwise manufacturing-only zone. The artist’s fund proposal is among the targets of plan critics.
“The city aims to hit early SoHo settlers who built this neighborhood with a penalty tax on the fruits of their labor,” said Jane Fisher, a local resident. The Department of City Planning (DCP) says the conversion fee is “completely optional,” adding that the “JLWQA program will also remain an option for certified artists in perpetuity.”
On Monday, ahead of the hearing, Chin introduced legislation that would increase penalties on non-artists living in the JLWQAs—an attempt to mitigate concerns over the displacement of artists.
DCP Director Anita Laremont testified that the plan updates land use rules for an area that has not been rezoned since 1971, and which limits new housing development and forces businesses to seek variances to operate in a manufacturing district.
“As such, this restrictive regime has resulted in extremely limited housing options that exclude moderate- and low-income New Yorkers, increases pressure on surrounding neighborhoods and less protected areas, contributes to storefront vacancies, and disproportionately burdens smaller business owners, who often lack the resources and capacity to navigate land use and environmental review processes, leaving them therefore at a disadvantage,” Laremont said.