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SoHo and NoHo might see First Major Neighborhood Change since 1971

Edison Park Fast is located at 174 Centre St. in the SoHo/NoHo neighborhood. (Photo: Sofia Saric)

Under the proposed SoHo/NoHo rezoning plan, New Yorkers might see major changes to areas considered “new high-density mixed-use” including Canal Street and 6th Avenue looking east, Centre Street and Hester Street looking north, and Bowery Street looking south.

New York City Planning Commissioners are proposing to add approximately 900 units of affordable housing in two of its wealthiest neighborhoods. But some residents are worried rezoning will force them out because the plan also includes more access for large commercial development.

The City Planning Commission voted unanimously last month to approve the controversial plan to upzone SoHo and NoHo. The City Council held a public hearing on Tuesday, Nov. 9, which lasted nearly seven hours. Now, the council has until Dec. 13 to vote before the plan reaches the mayor’s desk. 

SoHo and NoHo are significantly constrained and hampered by the “outdated 50-year-old zoning created in 1971” which does not allow for new housing without special permission, has no affordable housing requirement and restricts the use of ground floors for industrial purposes, Anita Laremont, executive director of the Department of City Planning, said during the council hearing. 

During the hearing, opponents of the plan included Assemblymember Deborah Glick, incoming Councilmember Christopher Marte, and State Senator Brad Hoylman along with dozens of local activists. 

“The issue for artists is that they cannot live in residential zones because of the processes and materials that they use to create their art,” Glick said during the meeting. “This is a plan for thousands of luxury units, an audacious giveaway to luxury development, guaranteeing a less diverse and more wealthy enclave while undermining an important and existing arts community.”

The core of the plan is to introduce lower-income housing to SoHo and NoHo, which is a 56-block area bordered by Sixth Avenue on the west and Bowery Street on the east. Housing is considered affordable if it costs about one-third or less of what the people living there earn. The plan would also expand commercial development, allowing for retail stores of over 25,000 square feet with city approval, up from 10,000 square feet currently.

Ara Fitzgerald, a dancer and choreographer, was active in community meetings during the plan’s development. “The hope had been that there could be some kind of inventive co-mingling of needs which is obviously, desperately, more affordable housing, but not displacing artists and people in Chinatown,” she said.

The Department of City Planning recently noted that 41% of SoHo and NoHo residents have an income of $200,000 or more, compared to 11% across the entire city. The neighborhoods are 78% white, while the city is 33% white.

Currently, SoHo and NoHo have no affordable-housing requirement, which puts pressure on surrounding communities that do, the commissioners said.

“The real-estate interests were incredible in terms of simply hammering this idea that the people living in SoHo and NoHo are white racists who don’t want affordable housing, and that is simply not true,” Fitzgerald said. “It outraged me.”

The process was rushed during COVID-19, she said.

“At the same time, I understand the incredible challenge facing everyone right now, which is, how do we do that?” Fitzgerald said. “It seems to be the only way we can build affordable housing is if the developers build luxury housing and make a bunch of money in the name of that affordable housing.”

The plan is the first proposed overhaul of zoning regulations in SoHo and NoHo since these communities served as a manufacturing hub half a century ago, according to city planners.

When manufacturing moved away, many of these buildings were abandoned, said Margo Margolis, an artist and member of the Broadway Residents Coalition. The group consists of artists, activists, essential workers, and families.

During the 1960s, artists became aware of cheap, empty warehouse spaces in SoHo and NoHo that offered space to create large-scale work. It was illegal to live in most of these spaces at that time.

In 1972, Margolis moved into one of those “lofts” with her then-partner, she said. She remembers paying about $300 a month for a 2,500-square-feet space, which is equivalent to about $2,000 today.

“We had to put up the walls. We put in plumbing. We put in the electricity,” Margolis said. “Because it was still somewhat illegal, you didn’t have buzzers. When people came to visit, I would drop keys out the window in a sock.”

The neighborhoods became populated by artists who were willing to live and create in “derelict, abandoned” buildings, she said. In 1982, the city introduced the Multiple Dwelling Law, which turned these lofts into a new class of buildings, where tenants were generally protected from eviction, according to the New York City Loft Board.

The city’s plan raises concerns that it will eliminate “the things that are really authentic about New York,” Margolis said. “Otherwise, the city will just become another mall, and you can go to that mall anywhere.”

Artists worry the city’s plan to allow for larger buildings will incentivize landlords and developers to demolish a lot of four-to-five-story buildings, which would displace rent-regulated tenants, Margolis said. Landlords who own cast iron buildings would also be permitted to build upwards, adding new units on top of existing residences, she said.

Many historic buildings in SoHo and NoHo were built to accommodate large commercial and retail establishments, the Department of City Planning said in an email.

“The Department has heard and understands concerns regarding quality of life issues that may come with the operation of larger retail stores and is working with sister agencies and local stakeholders to address these concerns,” they said.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said the proposed increase in commercial zoning could bring in big-box chain stores.

For example, there are two large parking lots, one each in SoHo and NoHo, operated by Edison Properties, which stands to profit from the proposed upzoning because the land could be used for new retail or residential spaces, Berman said. Anthony Borelli, senior vice president of Planning & Development at Edison Properties, sits on the board of the Citizens Housing Planning Council, which has been one of the most vocal supporters of the plan.

In response, the Citizens Housing Planning Council, said in an email that “our 80-year history of advocating for affordable housing speaks for itself.”

“New Yorkers of all incomes should be able to access the excellent schools, transportation, and jobs that SoHo has to offer,” Jessica Katz, executive director of the Council, said in an email. “SoHo loft owners don’t get to lock up the neighborhood and keep those amenities for themselves.”

Edison Properties does operate parking lots at 375 Lafayette St. and 174 Centre St., according to the company’s website. Borelli and Edison Properties did not respond to requests for comment.

“If you were Edison Properties, you would suddenly be able to make tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars off those two parking lots where you currently cannot,” Berman said. ‘There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors here.”

The original rezoning plan started off as a retail plan, said Will Thomas, executive director of Open New York, a grassroots organization that advocates for abundant homes and lower rent. Community pressure got an affordable-housing element introduced, he said.

Open New York supports the plan because members believe the benefits of affordable housing outweigh the risks of commercial development, Thomas said. The rezoning should not result in demolition of any rent-regulated housing, he said.

“I understand why many might be afraid,” Thomas said. “SoHo is an important first step in saying wealthy neighborhoods all across the city have to be doing their fair share of housing construction.”

Written by

Sofia Saric, of Los Angeles, is pursuing a master's degree at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, with work previously featured in the Boston Globe, Lincoln Journal Star, Brookline TAB and Spindle Magazine.