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Judge reaffirms Soho/Noho a no-go for N.Y.U. dorms, classrooms

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated May 18, 1 p.m.: Soho and Noho are still off limits for classrooms and dorms for New York University students.

On Tues., May 16, a state Supreme Court justice ruled against a lawsuit by N.Y.U. that argued the university should have free rein to expand such uses into the area under the new Soho/Noho rezoning. Basically, Justice Gerald Lebovits said the neighborhoods’ preexisting ban on college and university uses should continue.

Under Soho and Noho’s long-standing manufacturing zoning, student classroom and dormitory uses had always been prohibited, requiring a zoning variance. The judge found that there is no new “injury” inflicted on N.Y.U. by the 2021 rezoning.

“As a result, [the] rezoning did not adversely affect N.Y.U.’s right to use its property in rezoned Soho/Noho,” Lebovits wrote. “N.Y.U. could not use that property without obtaining a zoning variance before, and it may not use that property without obtaining a zoning variance now. Absent some identifiable, current injury, and N.Y.U. points to none, N.Y.U. lacks standing to bring its current challenge to the city’s prohibition on college/university uses in the rezoned neighborhoods. N.Y.U.’s action must be dismissed.”

According to Lebovits, in a nutshell, N.Y.U.’s main argument in the lawsuit was: “were it not for [the rezoning] N.Y.U. would be free to immediately co-locate instructional facilities” — i.e., classrooms — in buildings in the rezoned area that N.Y.U. must instead “use solely for faculty and administrative offices and other non-instructional operations.”

The “no university expansion” rule also applied to student dormitories.

Following a rezoning in 2005, new residential development in Soho and Noho previously required a special permit, which is easier to obtain than a zoning variance.

A judge has ruled that the area in the Soho/Noho 2021 rezoning — seen in the map above — should not be open to college and university classrooms and dorms as of right.

Under the Soho/Noho rezoning, though, residential development — and also ground-floor commercial uses, like bars and restaurants — are now allowed as of right. (Commerical uses and bars and restaurants actually were previously allowed in most of Soho north of Broome Street and west of Mercer Street, but not in the other parts of Soho or all of Noho.) The rezoning also upzoned the entire area, allowing for larger residential and commercial developments.

In fact, when the City Planning Commission approved the Soho/Noho rezoning, its version of the scheme did allow college and university uses in the area. However, after a furious pushback by community groups and preservationists, the City Council, in December 2021, agreed to include a prohibition on “college and university uses and student residence halls.” Shortly afterward, the rezoning — championed by former Mayor de Blasio, as well as Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Carlina Rivera — was approved.

N.Y.U. filed suit in April 2022. In response, Village Preservation immediately launched a campaign to oppose any weakening of the anti-university use rule. Village Preservation also joined with the residents group Coalition for Fairness in Soho and Noho and Councilmember Christopher Marte in filing “a motion to intervene” in the case — as Village Preservation put it, “to ensure [that] the provision received the robust defense it warranted.”

Andrew Berman, the executive director of Village Preservation, praised the judge’s decision.

“We’re deeply gratified that Judge Lebovits agreed with us and denied N.Y.U. the opportunity to strip away one of the few positive elements of the Soho/Noho rezoning, and to further ceaselessly expand throughout our neighborhoods,” Berman told The Village Sun. “As their new, gargantuan Paulson Center at 181 Mercer St. shows, the university’s growth in our neighborhood is anything but benign, and continues to overwhelm our communities. N.Y.U. seems to think they have a manifest destiny to occupy and control all of our neighborhoods, and we are glad that we were able to successfully defend this important safeguard against that.”

It was not immediately clear if N.Y.U. would appeal the ruling. However, according to Village Preservation, Justice Lebovits’s decisions “have a very high rate of withstanding appeals.” Nevertheless, the preservation group pledged to closely monitor the situation and defend its position, “as well as all rules and regulations that limit N.Y.U.’s ability to ceaselessly expand throughout our neighborhoods.”

N.Y.U. spokesperson John Beckman called the area’s zoning “unconstitutional” and said the university is mulling whether to appeal.

“N.Y.U. respectfully disagrees with the court’s ruling on its challenge to a provision of the Soho/Noho rezoning,” he said. “We believe we provided ample proof of our standing to bring the action, not least the harm that comes from being subjected to an unconstitutional provision of the zoning law. We are reviewing the decision, and our options.”

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