Rezone Soho/Noho, or just enforce current laws?

Local politicians and residents chanted demonstrated outside the Department of Buildings at 280 Broadway in November 2016, calling on D.O.B. and Mayor de Blasio to properly interpret and enforce Soho/Noho’s retail restrictions under the area’s manufacturing zoning. File photo

BY GABE HERMAN | The first meeting in the public-engagement process being held to explore possible rezoning efforts in Soho and Noho will be held on Wed., Feb. 6.

The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. at P.S. 130, at 143 Baxter St., between Hester and Grand Sts.

The process was launched by the Department of City Planning, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin. The six-month effort will include a number of “public sessions to hear from the local community on topics including housing, jobs, retail and creative industries,” according to a statement.

“The unique nature and vital role which the Soho/Noho neighborhoods play in our city’s economy and daily life necessitate a close examination,” Chin said in a statement to The Villager. “In particular, my office will want to look at the complex interplay between retail and housing interests in Soho and Noho. I look forward to engaging with community activists, business leaders and residents as we build a bold vision.”

Zoning was specifically mentioned in statements by Brewer and City Planning Director Marisa Lago.

Lago said, in part, “Like all neighborhoods, Soho and Noho face unique challenges, not the least of which is outdated zoning.”

Brewer said the area’s zoning definitely is need of a “fix.”

“The Soho/Noho area has a rich, vibrant history, but we need to fix its zoning to lay the foundation for its future,” she said. “As the old rules have stopped working, the area has seen a steady march of special exemptions, one-off variances and inappropriately large retail uses.”

But Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, said it wasn’t a matter of the old rules not working — but the city failing to enforce the existing laws.

He cited the Bloomingdale’s at 504 Broadway, which opened in 2004 with six floors. When Sweeney contacted City Planning about the store exceeding the neighborhood’s 10,000-square-foot maximum for retail, he said he was told, “Forget about it. You can’t fight Bloomingdale’s.”

Sweeney said local zoning infractions over the years have included two developers being allowed by the Board of Standards and Appeals to overbuild on parking lots by 50 percent. He said the developers were each granted a “hardship variance,” after claiming they had made a bad real estate deal in buying the lots.

And he said Soho was designated for wholesale uses in the 1970s and ’80s before the Department of Buildings allowed retail stores to be grandfathered in based on businesses submitting “bogus evidence” of past retail existing at those locations.

“When they say it’s broken, it’s because the city broke it purposely by design and by negligence over the last 30 years,” said Sweeney, who has lived in Soho since 1977.

The Soho Alliance is one of the local groups consulting on the project, which will culminate in a report expected this summer. Sweeney said there is concern that the current way in which big retail stores are allowed to slip in will be formalized and legalized by the current process.

“We don’t want the zoning to change, we want enforcement,” Sweeney said.

There is also worry that artist-resident protections enacted in 1971 may be removed. Sweeney said that City Planning in 1983 tried to remove the joint living-working quarters for artists (J.L.W.Q.A.) law that requires every unit to have at least one resident who has been certified as an artist by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

Community pushback defeated that 1983 effort, yet the law is not enforced. However, Sweeney said he is O.K. with that situation because at least have the regulation on the books, legally prevents artists from being kicked out of the neighborhood.

Yukie Ohta, of the Soho Memory Project, said she is not part of the advisory group on the rezoning initiative but has spoken with many locals and heard conflicting opinions of whether rezoning is needed or just some smaller tweaks.

“We need to create a more workable mixed-use neighborhood with fewer conflicting uses,” she said. “From a resident’s perspective, this means reasonable restrictions for retail establishments.

“This also means enforcement of protections to ensure current residents are not priced out of their homes through rising maintenance costs and taxes.”

Ohta said longtime Soho residents need to be considered, including those who were involved in helping create the 1971 artist protections.

“They have the long view of the evolution of Soho and should have a place at the table in this go-around,” she said of the neighborhood veterans. “In short, the needs of all stakeholders need to be equally considered and protected.”

SoHo/NoHo Zoning Update

– If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!– February 6th Public Meeting Still in Limbo
Two weeks ago we notified you of the SoHo/NoHo Advisory Group, an initiative formed by the Department of City Planning, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin. Ostensibly the group’s purpose was to study whether our zoning and land-use policies are working, and, if not, what should be done — if anything.  
Public records reveal that a mere “study” is not really the intended scenario. 
A June 20, 2018 press release quotes City Planning Chair Marissa Lago, “If there is one thing that everybody agrees on, it’s that the current zoning in SoHo, NoHo is broken. It just doesn’t work.”  That doesn’t sound like a study, does it?  It sounds like a declaration of intent, besides begging the question: is our zoning actually broken in the first place? 
Let’s look at the record. At one time SoHo was a derelict slum, slated to be bulldozed by Robert Moses to make way for a massive expressway. SoHo activists helped stop that plan and in 1971 persuaded the city to amend the zoning law to permit artists to live/work in their lofts, to allow retail use in much of the district, and to permit exceptions to retail restrictions via Special Permits that allow for public review of what uses should be granted developers.  Subsequent amendments have only improved upon that.  
As a result, SoHo has blossomed into a world-class residential and retail neighborhood, attracting millions of people worldwide and bringing countless millions, if not billions, in real-estate and retail tax dollars to the city coffers.

But City Planning and real-estate interests claim our zoning is broken.  Really?
 Today SoHo has – a retail real-estate market with an average asking rent of $595/sq.ft. the second highest in the city & tenth in the nation
– an average homes sales price of $2,374/sq.ft. — more than double the Manhattan average– among the highest home prices in the country with a median residential sales price of $2.995 million – a four-bedroom apartment at 150 Wooster selling for $32.584 million
Does that sound broken to you — or does that sound like an extraordinary success story? 
Is City Planning conducting a “study” as we were told, or is rezoning a fait accompli?  The truth has come out.  Councilmember Chin in a January 18 constituent newsletter headlined what we had suspected, “We begin the SoHo/NoHo rezoning.”  So the city has been disingenuous with us, not a good way to foster trust in this important arena. 
Who has been pushing this rezoning?  Not us or any other community group.  Quite the contrary.  All we have asked is that the current successful zoning be enforced, particularly the 10,000 square-feet limit for retail use that is blatantly violated by several stores along Broadway. 
For example, when Bloomingdale’s opened its 50,000 square-feet, five-story emporium in clear violation of the 10,000 square-feet retail limit, we complained to City Planning. Its representative’s verbatim response was, “You can’t fight Bloomingdale’s.”  If City Planning believes that our zoning is not working, it has only itself to blame.
It appears that a main push to rezone comes from REBNY, the Real Estate Board of New York, a trade association that lobbies on behalf of the real estate industry and whose leadership includes some of the biggest developers in the city.  
On page 56 of its 2018 Annual Report, REBNY reveals that it has “worked with the SoHo Broadway Business Improvement District {BID} on forward-thinking solutions for the area…and has met with city officials on this issue.” 
It is not reassuring that city officials have met in 2018 with REBNY lobbyists, but not with a single SoHo/NoHo resident or small business.
What would REBNY want?  For starters, how about: – an increase in bulk and height for new and existing buildings – oversized big-box stores, unbridled retail uses, more annoying pop-up store events- higher rents  – erosion of landmarks protection- removal of protection for loft tenants and artist residents, many of whom still reside here despite ill-informed media reports to the contrary- introduction of pieds-à-terre and small studio apartments which would deflate our existing co-op and condo values
 In fact, a pro-development group at last week’s Community Board 2 meeting had the audacity to propose, “Build on top of all those 5-story buildings in SoHo.” So this is what we are up against.   
If you cherish our community, if you do not want more shoppers congesting our neighborhood, if owners want to maintain their property values and renters to maintain their tenants’ rights, we strongly urge you to attend the first public meeting on February 6.
The city is not making the community’s job easy.  Its website to educate us on its plans Is still “Under Construction” although this initiative has been talked about for years. Why is the public being left in the dark?
Furthermore, although the first public meeting is scheduled for February 6, so far City Planning has sent out no public notices of the event, no agenda has been set, no format established, nor even a location and time announced, although it will likely be in the evening.  As soon as we get more information, we shall notify you, since obviously you cannot rely on City Planning to keep you in the loop.

Sean SweeneyDirector

SoHo AlliancePO Box 429New York, NY 10012

Advisory Board Meetings

Last month the City signaled the formation of an Advisory Board to examine our neighborhood’s current zoning and land-use policies.  
Its first meeting was held last Thursday at the office of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.  She, along with Councilmember Margaret Chin and Department of City Planning Chair Marisa Lago, are the initiators of this study.  At first we were unsure who was pushing it.
City Planning over several mayoral administrations has sought to amend our zoning. Some proposals we have embraced; others we have rejected (successfully).  
Borough President Brewer has a record of sensitivity toward community concerns.  And although we have had issues with Councilmember Chin’s land-use policies in the past, of late she has been more supportive. So we are going into this with a constructive attitude.
There will be several more Advisory Board meetings throughout the winter and spring, as well as several Public Meetings and Topical Workshops open to everyone.  We strongly urge you to attend these public meetings and workshops. Your opinions and suggestions are paramount.
There will be two of these public events in February: a Public Meeting – Open House on the evening of February 6 and a Topical Workshop on February 28 evening.  Please reserve the dates. The exact time and location will be announced shortly.  
Below are the participants of the Advisory Board, representing a broad spectrum of stakeholders, several of whom are very sympathetic to community concerns.
  • Broadway Residents Coalition 
  • Cooper Square Committee 
  • Cooper Union
  • Council Speaker Corey Johnson
  • Council Member Carlina Rivera
  • Landmarks Conservancy
  • Lower Manhattan Cultural Council
  • Manhattan Chamber of Commerce
  • Manhattan Community Board 2
  • New York University 
  • NoHo Business Improvement District 
  • NoHo-Bowery Stakeholders 
  • NoHo Neighborhood Association
  • NYC Loft Tenants 
  • Real Estate Board of New York 
  • SoHo Alliance
  • SoHo Broadway Initiative (BID)
  • SoHo Design District
Sean Sweeney
SoHo Alliance
PO Box 429
New York, NY 10012