Yesterday’s City Council SoHo/NoHo Upzoning Meeting

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Window with SoHo NoHo sign
Window with SoHo NoHo sign

We missed the first few hours of yesterday’s seven hour long City Council hearing on the proposed SoHo/NoHo upcoming plan but managed to sit through the last half, which was all testimony from members of the community and beyond. We reached out to many of the speakers to ask if we could run some of their comments here for those of you who were unable to attend and will update this post as we hear from more.

Vittoria Fariello, Democratic District Leader in Lower Manhattan:

We need to be clear that this is NOT about affordable housing.  There is a much greater likelihood that this will generate displacement rather than create affordable housing.

Instead, we should be focusing our efforts on sites such as 5 World Trade Center where we could have up to 1300 affordable units in a truly resource-rich neighborhood that would not displace a single person. Or 2 Howard Street in SOHO that could provide around 300 units of affordable housing in SOHO.

Emily Hellstrom, artist, SoHo resident and VP of the SoHo Broadway BID:

Our community and many organizations I sit on have come to the table with real compromises yet ALMOST NO changes to this plan have been made throughout this ENTIRE process.

No, the only voice that matters here today is money. At the root of this rotten rezoning is money: a commercial real estate bail-out cloaked in virtue signaling. Trickle-down housing DOES NOT WORK where market forces do not follow the normal paths, and huge Real Estate interests have millions of dollars to spend exploiting loopholes. During Envision SoHo/NoHo, I sat next to someone high up in Vornado Realty Trust who openly advocated for allowances for rooftop penthouses. One of the loopholes? Rooftop penthouses.

Michele Varian, SoHo resident and small business owner:

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.

(Read her full statement in Varian’s Op-Ed, This Zoning Plan Is Not For Residents.)

Jean Standish, VP of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors:

If the SoHo/NoHo upzoning is implemented, it would actually make these neighborhoods richer, less diverse, and more expensive, and likely destroy much of the affordable housing and push out longtime tenants and businesses, all the while allowing grossly out-of-scale new construction and big-box chain stores. It provides multiple incentives and loopholes for developers to avoid building any affordable housing at all, but would enable and encourage huge commercial structures, luxury condo construction, and hotels. 

Anita Jorgensen, SoHo resident and local small business owner:

Our community is starved for parks and starved for schools. The plan does not address any quality of life issues.

The plan includes no protections for small businesses, like mine. Instead they will be pushed out by the high rents that only big box and luxury retail can afford.

This plan will result in the destruction of SoHo. It will become vastly more expensive and become another bland glass box neighborhood filled with “airport” shops. Village Preservation has proposed an alternative rezoning plan, which I support.

Lorna Nowvé, Interim Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council:

Over the past 55 years, many historic districts have been rezoned after landmarking, in order to bring the underlying zoning into better compliance with the LPC’s regulatory standards. It is sound urban planning to do so.

If adopted, the SoHo NoHo Rezoning Plan will be the first time that HDC is aware of where the underlying zoning of a historic district is deliberately adjusted to be less aligned with the existing built environment. This disjunction preplans a conflict between city regulations and undermines the preservation purpose explicitly put forward by landmark designation. It sets a terrible and damaging precedent.

Adam Brodheim, historic preservation student at Columbia University:

The only threat to Soho is to think that 200 years of development was the perfect amount.  That somehow we, as humans, have found the precise and perfect moment to stop the clock and keep Soho preserved in amber forever.  That in the midst of a historic housing crisis this neighborhood filled statistically with whiter and wealthier residents should stagnate and not do its part to help.

I am a preservationist who believes that in New York preservation and development work best together.  I look forward to seeing a Soho with affordable housing and the diversity of residents that come with that.  I know that this rezoning plan will make Soho a better reflection of the equitable world that we all seek to live in.  I can’t wait to walk through a Soho with new buildings that pay homage to the past while looking boldly into a more egalitarian future.

To make sure that happens I have two comments: 1) we should lower the commercial densities to encourage residential development and 2) we should expand community preference beyond CB2 to target a more diverse set of New Yorkers.

Yukie Ohta, SoHo resident, and Founder and Director of the SoHo Memory Project:

The plan is opposed by leading citywide housing and tenant groups and city, state, and national preservation organizations. Over a dozen community and tenant groups have offered a community alternative rezoning plan which would allow construction of true affordable housing, without tenant displacement, out-of-scale development, and without big box chain stores forcing out local businesses.

Approving this sweeping proposal would not only greatly impair our community’s quality of life while providing no community benefits, it would provide little if any affordable housing, AND it would also destroy the qualities that draw people to SoHo, to the detriment of ALL stakeholders.

Stephen Wanta, architect, SoHo resident and local small business owner:

That this plan has been proposed after effectively abandoning what had indeed been a “robust stakeholder engagement” is insulting to the many residents here who participated in the many Envision meetings. Based on the proposed rezoning, the supporting stakeholders referred to by City Planning appear to be overleveraged developers and commercial landlords that do not live in this neighborhood. Add to that an up-zoning in a historic district is in itself a terrible precedent that should not be the result of plan railroaded through this process.

Equally, if there is a desire to resolve the JLWQA issue—than spend the time with the real stakeholders to create a plan that fully addresses this quite difficult issue.

If you are indeed letting the community speak, we just have in the form of the new officials we have elected, in particular Chris Marte. Please vote no on this proposal and work on this in the next term in a more considered way instead of ruining this iconic neighborhood just so that the mayor has a nice parting gift to real estate interests.

Margaret Baisley, attorney, SoHo resident and small business owner:

What we want to see is a compromise. We are willing to trade some upcoming and increased construction for new housing here, and inclusionary housing. But paying for the right to live here, when people have already lived here and paid dearly to do so, is simply unacceptable.

I first came to SoHo in 1977. I know people who bought lofts years ago. Many here are older and their lofts are their nest eggs—their retirement investments. Don’t make seniors pay $250,000 for the privilege of living in the lofts they have owned for 30 years. Or for the privilege of selling those lofts in retirements.

Todd Fine, historical preservation advocate and PhD candidate in History at the CUNY-Graduate Center:

People say that Lower Manhattan residents don’t want affordable housing, but the truth is that for the last year the local community has been desperately appealing to maximize affordability at 5 World Trade Center, a public site where government is allowing Larry Silverstein to build a luxury tower. The Mayor’s Office holds half of the seats on the board of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and if they were serious they could work toward more affordable units at this one site than the entire rezoning would produce.

Sorry for the link to the NY Post, but they did cover the earlier half of the meeting, with testimony from local politicians mostly opposed to the rezoning, like Assemblywoman Deborah Glick and State Senator Brad Hoylman.

If you were unable to attend the meeting and would like to give your testimony to the City Council, please email them what you have say by Friday, November 13 at landusetestimony@council.nyc.gov.

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