BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Mayor de Blasio recently dashed cold water on the idea of a major rezoning for Soho and Noho, saying there’s simply not enough time left in his final two years in office to get it done.
He made his remarks live on Brian Lehrer’s radio show on WNYC on Jan. 24.
The Envision Soho/Noho process — initiated a year ago by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Councilmember Margaret Chin and the Department of City Planning — is proposing legalizing such things as nonartist residents and as-of-right first-floor retail use, plus allowing so-called “underbuilt” sites to be developed. However, the Envision process is not specifically pushing for a sweeping upzoning for Soho and Noho.
On the other hand, Open New York, a group of young pro-development advocates, is, in fact, calling for a large-scale upzoning, and that is what most in the media have seized on to report.
Not surprisingly, then, Lehrer asked de Blasio about the “group of young YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) activists, who are calling on the city to upzone Soho and Noho to include more affordable housing.”
“They say these are among the wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods in the city,” Lehrer said of Open New York’s statements on Soho and Noho, “and that the larger context is the charge that almost all the density and lower-income units you’ve been adding through zoning have been in low-income neighborhoods. So what do you say about Soho and Noho in particular and the larger picture?”
De Blasio responded by calling the Envision Soho/Noho plan that was recently released a “really important plan” and a “pathway to create more affordable housing in Lower Manhattan.”
However, he added, “I think it’s a question of whether it’s viable to get it through the ULURP process in the coming months and years. But is it generally the right idea? Of course. We have to create affordable housing everywhere if we’re going to keep this city a city for everyone. And that means in neighborhoods that are more privileged and every kind of neighborhood. So I think the direction is correct.”
ULURP refers to the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, a lengthy process that includes multiple layers of public review, including by the local community board, borough president, City Planning and the City Council.
Slams San Fran ‘gated communities’
De Blasio said keeping certain areas off limits to new construction could risk creating “gated communities” — as he said has happened in San Francisco — and would force poor and working people out, while increasing the numbers of street homeless.
Lehrer also asked de Blasio about Open New York’s charges that the mayor’s rezonings are generally in far-flung low-income areas, removed from Manhattan.
“I have pushed very hard for affordable housing in every kind of community,” de Blasio responded. “In fact, some of the rezonings coming up are in communities that have done pretty well, for sure. So, no, I want to see it in all kinds of communities. There is more land available in some communities than others. That is a true statement and that very much aligns to economics.”
The radio-show host concluded the discussion by asking the mayor point-blank: “So are you proposing something for Noho and Soho?”
Again, de Blasio — who will be term-limited at the end of 2021 — said the timing just is not right.
“There’s a good report out that I think points us in a good direction,” the mayor said of the Envision study. “But what I want to be very real about, in the next two years, is where are the things that we are absolutely certain there will be the support for in the ULURP process to get it done. Because I got two years to work urgently on these issues, Brian, and I’m going to put my energy in the places where I’m convinced we can get something done. So as we look at that issue, that’s the question. Can we put together the support to get something like that done? I’m not sure of that at this point.”
(You can listen to the mayor’s remarks here, starting at the 9-minute mark.)
Locals glad to hear it
Soho and Noho resident activists were heartened by the mayor’s remarks.
Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, slammed the Open New York plan an “offensive by a group of YIMBYs who want not only so-called ‘affordable housing’ in Soho/Noho, but increased market-rate housing, as well.”
“It’s ironic,” he said, “that these YIMBYs outliers demanding zoning changes in Soho/Noho — vilifying the residents as ‘white’ and ‘wealthy’ while ignorantly and repugnantly playing the race and class card — are themselves the very ones responsible for displacing countless working-class and minority residents out of now-gentrified, outer-borough neighborhoods. … So these YIMBYs should be the last to pontificate to anyone on ‘affordable housing.’
“The mayor is simply confirming what most of us locals already know: Calls for [creating] so-called ‘affordable housing’ by building on top of existing one- and two-story buildings, on vacant lots and increasing density by boosting the bulk and the height — what the YIMBYs are calling for — ain’t gonna happen anytime soon, for obvious reasons.
“First, the mayor correctly affirmed that land is too expensive in Soho/Noho to build cheap, affordable housing.
“He next referred to the administrative difficulties in having ‘affordable housing’ in Soho/Noho. It would require a major zoning change.
“The current Soho/NoHo zoning initiative that the city has been addressing — whether nonartists can live in Soho/Noho legally and whether retail use should be allowed to expand — can likely be addressed by a mere zoning amendment. Even that simple process takes about a year.
“The major zoning changes required to address what the YIMBYs are demanding would take way more than a year from now to effectuate,” Sweeney explained. “That’s cutting it too close, since the de Blasio administration, the borough president and Councilmember Chin — the zoning initiative’s sponsors — are term-limited out next year. So the mayor is just being realistic.”
Not many sites anyway
Sweeney added that there is only one existing lot available that can be built on, the Edison Parking lot, at the corner of Centre and Hester Sts.
“And nowadays that’s considered Chinatown,” he noted. “Importantly, the Edison representative told me that the company is primarily in the parking-lot business, is family-owned, plans for the long term, and has no interest at present to build anything there. The YIMBYs should do their homework first.
“The few remaining lots scattered about would have been built upon years ago were it viable,” the Soho activist pointed out. “However their shape and size make economical construction impractical. So no affordable housing is going on those lots.”
And he added that, of course, where affordable housing is built nowadays, as part of the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, it’s usually just part of a larger package containing up to four times as much market-rate housing.
“At best, under current zoning mandates, it only accounts for 20 percent of the units in new construction,” Sweeney noted of the city’s affordable housing plans. “The remaining 80 percent of the units would be luxury housing, which would only gentrify Soho/Noho further. That is why many are claiming that these YIMBYs are shills for big real estate.”
In fact, sometimes the amount of affordable units in an M.I.H. project is greater than 20 percent.
“There already exists loads of affordable housing in Soho/Noho,” Sweeney asserted. “Many of the pioneers and artists are aging in place in rent-stabilized or IMD [Interim Multiple Dwelling] studios, or else in their lofts purchased when property was still affordable. It’s estimated that this community of affordable-housing residents already accounts for more than 20 percent of the housing stock in Soho/Noho.
“So there is lots of real, affordable housing in Soho/Noho,” he said. “The myopic just have to look.”
At the same time, Sweeney conceded, “The YIMBYs had a good hook, Soho is an easy punching bag.”
‘Think sensible — like Paris and Prague’
Similarly, David Mulkins, president of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, or BAN, was relieved at de Blasio’s responses to Lehrer, and decried the idea of upzoning for the historic Downtown enclaves as “needlessly reckless.”
“We were encouraged by Mayor de Blasio’s recent comments on WNYC that acknowledge that there is tremendous community opposition to the rezoning plans being pushed through in Soho and Noho,” Mulkins said.
“Sensible cities, like Paris and Prague, do not upzone their most architecturally and historically significant neighborhoods. Nor do they allow big-box stores to destroy their character.
“Like a bull in a China shop, some city officials tear through Soho and Noho, ignoring its unique, irreplaceable character, and needlessly dividing its community, which includes a long-established live-work artist community that has made it internationally famous.
“They do so in the name of ‘affordable housing,’ but in fact their upzoning plans promote only 25 to 30 percent affordable, in exchange for 70 to 75 percent market rate (i.e. luxury) housing.
“In their attempt to bulldoze the area’s beloved Elizabeth Street Garden,” Mulkins added, “these same officials have ignored alternate affordable housing sites, such as a vacant parking lot. Similarly, their my-way-or-the-highway approach to Soho and Noho wants us to believe that affordable housing is only possible through massive upzoning.
“In multiple ways, the Soho and Noho neighborhoods are a unique and precious part of our city’s history and culture. They are not just any old neighborhoods, and should not be endangered in such a needlessly reckless manner.”
Open NY feeling ‘frustrated’
Meanwhile, William Thomas, an Open New York board member who lives in the East Village, not surprisingly, was not pleased by the mayor’s remarks.
“We found it extremely frustrating that the mayor essentially said that he supported all the principles of our proposed rezoning, in theory, only to finally hedge on whether it was politically possible to get it through ULURP,” Thomas told The Village Sun.
“He’s still unwilling to confront New York City’s affordable housing and segregation problems in a meaningful way, especially if it involves confronting wealthy NIMBYs. And though we still think he has time to change his mind, if he rejects the rezoning it will simply show that, in his world, rich communities get to veto rezonings and poor communities don’t.”
Asked why Open New York is so hell-bent on development in the Soho area — upzoning Soho and Noho and building affordable housing on Elizabeth Street Garden — and how come they aren’t advocating in other parts of town, Thomas acknowledged that Soho and Noho are currently a target of theirs, though not their only one.
“Soho/Noho has been a major focus for us because it’s the only neighborhood rezoning in a wealthy neighborhood where public hearings are occurring right now,” he explained. “That said, we have also been supporting the Gowanus rezoning and plan to be equally active there as it enters the approvals process, as well as any other high-opportunity neighborhood rezoning that comes on the docket.
“In addition,” Thomas said, “we’ll also continue our support of individual projects in other high-opportunity neighborhoods. So far, we’ve supported a number of individual projects outside of Soho/Noho proper: Haven Green in Nolita, 80 Flatbush in Downtown Brooklyn, 345 E. 33rd St. in Kips Bay and the Union Square Tech Hub — although, admittedly, that last one was equally about preventing a downzoning. In essence, we’re planning to organize around many similar projects this year as we grow our citywide membership.”
Finally, Thomas was asked to address the strong suspicion, expressed by many Downtowners, that Open New York is simply a front for the Real Estate Board of New York a.k.a. REBNY. In short, what’s the connection between Open New York and REBNY?
“None whatsoever,” Thomas maintained. “We’re an independent, all-volunteer organization.”
Next steps? Who knows?
As for where the Envision Soho/Noho process stands now and exactly what comes next, Pete Davies, of the Broadway Residents Coalition, saids it’s unclear.
“I don’t know what the actual ‘next steps’ might be,” he said. “Many of us were hoping to get a sense of what’s to come when the Soho/Noho study sponsors appeared at the Community Board 2 Land Use Committee meeting on Jan. 15, but no information or direction was presented.
“It seems that the sponsors are currently sifting through the info they’ve received from the public and others over the past several months, and — in order to figure out the next steps — are trying to prioritize the truckload of issues found in the 85-page Envision Soho/Noho report. So, I guess we all have to wait and see how that plays out.”