Op-Ed: This Zoning Plan is Not For Residents

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Michele Varian
Michele Varian's former SoHo location
Michele Varian's former SoHo location
Michele Varian’s former SoHo location

by Michele Varian

My name is Michele Varian, and I am a 25 year residential tenant and small business owner here in SoHo. I share a rent-stabilized JLWQA loft with my artist certified husband, where we both live and work. We have heard nothing from HPD, who were incapable of helping us when we were horribly harassed by the most recent owners of our building!

Our affordable loft created the opportunity for me to start my design and manufacturing business and eventually, open a retail store in SoHo. My store grew to showcase not only my own work, but that of over 100 other mostly local and locally manufactured design brands, a contributing economic driver for many other small businesses. It became an international destination visited annually by business delegations from around the world – Germany, Brazil, Japan and even Beverly Hills. Businesses like mine were what they wanted to emulate in their own cities.

Unfortunately, I was forced to move my shop and manufacturing out of SoHo due to the increasingly burdensome high rent. I moved my shop to an area in Brooklyn with lower rents, and now my store, business and the block I moved to are flourishing as the new “it” place to visit for cool retail. Because I now have the profits to re-invest in my employees and business, versus owing every last cent of potential profit to my landlord, I can now consider scaling my business to additional locations,

As a small business rep at the dozens of the SoHo NoHo Advisory Group meetings, I was “in the room” where many, many great ideas were put forth regarding the future of SoHo by residents and small business owners, while commercial real estate reps contributed few new ideas or suggestions.

What I am now aware of is that I was in the wrong room. Commercial and real estate power brokers were busy making lucrative back room deals that did not reflect any of the hours and hours and hours of “community input” that the ULURP process requires.

Unlike big real estate, we do not have the ears of elected officials. DCP has made clear their vision for the future of SoHo: It does not include residents – AFFORDABLE or otherwise.

Many officials know this proposal will not create affordable housing, but a carefully crafted PR campaign by real estate lobbyists and gas lighting by DCP has made any opposition to up-zoning for supposed affordable housing political Kryptonite.

I look forward to accountability in a few years, when very few if any affordable homes have been created due to the endless loopholes in DCP’s plan, and those affordable homes that currently exist disappear, including mine as we are pushed out to make way for empty luxury residential and more offices.

Additional points:

The city’s resistance to acknowledging Chinatown’s inclusion in the up-zoning is truly hypocritical considering that my “SoHo” shop’s rent was increased to cover the fees charged for its being a part of the CHINATOWN BID.

Whether this terrible zoning plan is implemented, much damage has already been done by just the PROSPECT of an up-zoning so favorable to real estate interests. These same players who overpromised the potential income to banks based on a manipulated and inflated “market” value, proceeded to snub offers by banks to refinance during the pandemic, which would have allowed the asking rents on spaces to be reduced. Instead they continue to leave many storefronts empty versus lowering the rents to levels that would attract tenants, creating and continuing our current high-rent blight.

I could not afford to start my business in today’s SoHo. NYC no longer provides opportunity to scrappy, young dreamers, only venture funded Frankenstein “museums” and “experiential retail”. The reason for this is the greed and lack of vision for the future of officials in the pockets of real estate interests.

Michele Varian is a designer, micro-manufacturer and entrepreneur; she is also a buyer, curator, retailer and shop owner, a tenants’ rights advocate, a small business and community activist, a proudly native Detroiter, and a passionately longtime New Yorker.

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