BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Thurs., Dec. 16, 1:30 p.m.: Local residents didn’t think it could be done. They prayed it wouldn’t be done. But mayor de Blasio got his upzoning for Soho, Noho and “Soho East”…er, part of Chinatown…in under the wire, though barely.
On Wednesday afternoon, the full City Council overwhelmingly approved the contentious scheme by a vote of 43 to 5, with just two weeks left in the mayor’s final term in office.
Two years ago, de Blasio had seemingly shelved the ambitious rezoning for the highly coveted neighborhoods, saying there wasn’t enough time left to push the plan through before he was term-limited out of City Hall. But then in October 2020 he suddenly revived the effort.
The councilmembers who voted no on Wednesday were Ben Kallos, Carlos Menchaca, Robert Holden, Inez Barron and Kalman Yeager.
De Blasio still has to sign off on the rezoning, though it’s obviously a foregone conclusion that he will.
In a joint press release after the conclusive vote, Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Carlina Rivera hailed it as a major victory for housing, and called it “a housing-first rezoning.”
“This historic rezoning will create a rational framework for equitable housing generation and retail operation — one that I hope we will see replicated in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs in the years to come,” Rivera said. “Through hard work and rigorous process, made possible only by the unwavering dedication of our teams and advocates to building a better future for all New Yorkers, we were able to balance the concerns of community stakeholders while centering our main goal: to incentivize the creation of affordable housing in a transit- and resource-rich neighborhood.”
“The final zoning map and text are a product of countless hours of negotiation with the administration and in-depth discussion with community stakeholders,” Chin said. “As a city councilmember, I believe it is my responsibility to create equal housing opportunities in high-opportunity neighborhoods for low-income New Yorkers, and I am confident that this rezoning accomplishes that goal. This historic rezoning will create thousands of new homes and it is my hope that the city’s fair housing plan is implemented in a similar fashion across the entire city to ease New York City’s housing crisis.”
Affordable housing — or loopholes?
The city estimates the rezoning will create about 3,000 new homes, 900 of which would be affordable at an average of 60 percent of area median income, with 10 percent of the total new units at or below 40 percent A.M.I. Opponents, though, counter that under the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, there are Mack truck-sized loopholes that developers can exploit to avoid creating affordable units, such as if they build less than 25,000 square feet per lot.
In what Chin and Rivera touted as responses to local stakeholders’ concerns, the final agreement reduced the commercial bulk allowance (F.A.R.) throughout the rezoning district to encourage residential construction; eliminated dorm, college and university use; requires a special permit for eating and drinking establishments larger than 8,500 square feet and also for retail stores larger than 10,000 square feet on narrow streets and 25,000 square feet on wide streets. (However, opponents charged that the “special permit” claim for large retail is misleading, and that all that actually will be required is a “sign-off” by the chairperson of the City Planning Commission, as opposed to real community input and review.)
In advocating for rezoning the majority-white district, supporters pointed out that previous rezonings were mostly focused in communities of color.
Chin and Rivera’s press release, however, pointedly noted that the rezoning effort had to overcome “several roadblocks…from private interests, political pressure, scare tactics and misinformation.”
Chin’s Council district includes most of the rezoning area while Rivera’s includes a small part of it in Noho.
‘Part of pandemic recovery’
Meanwhile, the de Blasio administration spun the rezoning as critical to the city’s recovery from the pandemic
“As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, equity must be at the forefront of our work to increase affordable housing and economic opportunities,”Anita Laremont, the director of the Department of City Planning, said. “Today’s approval of the Soho/Noho Neighborhood Plan stands for the idea that all neighborhoods can and should play a part in solving the planning challenges we, as New Yorkers, share. Through permanently affordable housing requirements, support for the arts and a balance between historic preservation and continued growth, this initiative is a much-needed step toward a fairer, more livable city.”
Supporters of the rezoning hailed its passage. Will Thomas, executive director of Open New York, was given ink in the official press release. The rezoning’s opponents, though, deride Open New York as a phony “astroturf” organization — a front for Big Real Estate.
“This historic rezoning process has revealed that there is a broad coalition of New Yorkers who share a commitment to abundant, affordable and equitable housing — and we’re proud to have leaders like Councilmembers Chin and Rivera fighting with us,” Thomas said. “Thanks to them, thousands of New Yorkers will soon be able to call Soho and Noho home.”
Noho leader fine with fines
Zella Jones, president of Noho-Bowery Stakeholders, Inc., also praised the plan.
“Noho is proud to contribute and welcome affordability and we appreciate that affordable credits we may not be able to realize in our antique buildings will help fund units in lots close to our resource-rich neighborhood,” she said. “And we appreciate the most recent modifications…regarding fine imposition for illegal J.L.W.Q.A. [Joint Live Work Quarters for Artists] units.”
The fines Jones referred to are in a separate bill by Chin — which also passed — to increase penalties for nonartist residents in Soho and Noho’s J.L.Q.W.A. units. In addition, the rezoning plan itself includes a “flip tax” for selling J.L.Q.W.A.-zoned units to nonartists, the revenue from which will, in turn, finance a Downtown-wide “arts fund.” Opponents, including Assemblymember Deborah Glick, have criticized this fund for being poorly defined.
Upzoning a historic district
Meanwhile, after Wednesday’s conclusive vote, leading opponents of the rezoning once again hammered it as developer-driven and said it would radically transform the neighborhoods — for the worse. Notably, it’s the first time an official New York City-designated historic district has ever been upzoned — a very dangerous precedent, preservationists warn.
Residents, joined by leading housing organizations, like Met Council on Housing and Tenants PAC, have slammed the plan as a blatant giveaway to developers, albeit swathed in what they call an illusory hype of potential affordable housing.
Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, accused Chin of catering to Big Real Estate’s wishes to open the floodgates wide for developers in Soho and Noho.
‘REBNY got what it wanted’
“The Real Estate Board of New York’s investment in Margaret Chin’s reelection was wise and has paid off in spades,” he fumed. “REBNY got all it wanted: legalization of big-box retail, increased height and bulk, evisceration of the 56-year-old Landmarks Law, and introduction of thousands of units of luxury housing, with not a scintilla of a guarantee that a single unit of affordable housing will ever be built, due to the various loopholes provided by the de Blasio administration.
“However, residents — both artists and nonartists — have been hit with draconian penalties starting at $40,000 and reaching into the hundreds of thousands to force them to convert to the new zoning requirements, while retail businesses that operated illegally for years can now operate legally without having to pay a dime.
“Clearly,” Sweeney said, “this is a punitive rezoning, punishment for resident activists who stood up to de Blasio’s flimflam finale, and spiteful revenge by Margaret Chin for our support of her poltiical opponents.”
As for legal recourse, the Soho Alliance, which previously sued over the rezoning but did not prevail, is throwing in the towel for now. However, Sweeney said, “a new group in Noho” is currently doing legal fundraising and has retained a lawyer.
Andrew Berman, the executive director of Village Preservation, scoffed that, at best, the amount of affordable housing created under the plan would be “a tiny percentage.”
‘A flood of luxury condos’
“In spite of all the smoke and mirrors, let’s be clear: This plan is a giant giveaway to real estate interests, with the promise that a tiny percentage of that enormous gift will be returned to the public in the form of new affordable housing,” he said. “The reality is, in by far the majority of cases, it won’t.
“What it will do is prompt a flood of luxury condos, giant big-box chain stores and high-priced corporate offices and hotels, and generate enormous pressure and incentive to demolish hundreds of units of affordable, rent-regulated housing in the area, displacing lower-income residents who are disproportionately seniors, artists and Asian Americans,” Berman said.
“The changes wrought by the City Council are lipstick on the proverbial pig. The ‘points of agreement’ between the Council and the administration are a laughable mix of hollow gestures, recycled prior agreements and promises that neither this Council nor mayor are obligated to keep. Everything about this process has been built on deception and sleight of hand — labeling a plan built by and for real estate interests as social justice; greenlighting mega-chain retail proliferation and calling it helping small businesses; shoehorning massive new development into one of the most traffic-clogged and flood-prone parts of New York City and claiming it’s responsible development.
“Both the mayor and the city councilmembers who voted in favor of this sham plan were more interested in the big-money real estate donors and what they had to say than the housing and tenant advocates, environmental groups, Chinatown leaders, anti-displacement advocates, local community boards, national preservation organizations and tens of thousands of New Yorkers who urged them to reject this plan. The lack of backbone or integrity displayed by our elected leaders is sad and disappointing.”
To illustrate its critique, Village Preservation created an image showing the size and scale of a building — at 46 Cooper Square North in Noho — that developers could construct under the rezoning without including any affordable housing.
Plan’s ‘points of agreement’
As Berman referred to, Chin and Rivera’s press release also notes “points of agreement,” which the two politicians claim will “undoubtedly benefit both districts for generations to come” — even though many of them are not located in Soho or Noho.
Among these is affordable housing to be created on two city-owned sites, both of them outside of the rezoning district. Last week, Chin announced that 100 units of affordable housing would be built at 388 Hudson St., at Clarkson Street, in Hudson Square above a watershaft site overseen by the Department of Environmental Protection. In addition, the pols said, 75 units of senior housing will be built in the East Village at 324 E. Fifth St., beween First and Second Aves., on a lot that Ninth Precinct police use for parking.
Perhaps alluding to 2 Howard St., the current site of an F.B.I. garage, where Community Board 2 and others have pushed for affordable housing to be built, the release states: “Coordinate with partners in the federal government to explore the feasibility of developing affordable housing on federally owned land.”
The press release also notes, among other beneficial “agreement points,” an $8.8 million capital plan to reconstruct and expand the Pike/Allen Street Malls; $15 million in capital funds for park improvements and programming at Sara D. Roosevelt Park; $500,000 for the “study and reimagination” of Petrosino Square in Nolita; $500,000 for the study of the Broadway and Canal Street corridor for comprehensive transportation and “public realm” improvements; and $150,000 to enhance “nearby” Open Streets on Avenue B, St. Mark’s Place and E. Seventh Street. Some of these, as Berman notes, are transparently “recycled prior agreements.”
Also, again, most of the projects listed above are not actually in Soho and Noho.
In one agreement point that does directly relate to the rezoning district, the city is supposed to move ahead ASAP on implementing “commercial waste zones” in C.B. 2.
Just do it — Nike Store started it
The sweeping rezoning plan sprung from residents’ concerns a few years about illegally large retail in Soho, like the Nike Store. This led, in January 2019, to a seemingly innocuous “envisioning” process spearheaded by Manhattan Gale Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin. But, in the view of residents and preservationists, the effort morphed into a monster. “Gale’s Frankenstein” is how Sweeney describes it.
In September, at a City Planning Commission hearing, Brewer publicly stated she was uncomfortable with the plan that had emerged and that it needed changes. But then in November, she was conspicuously absent from the City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises’ marathon, seven-hour hearing on the rezoning. Also, she apparently never issued a formal written opinion on the rezoning, either, as is generally done under the ULURP public-review process.