BY GERARD FLYNN | While the massive rezoning recently announced for 56 blocks in the historic neighborhoods of Soho and Noho by Mayor de Blasio now calls for unprecedented development, the origins of the proposal date back to community concerns of a very different kind.
Under the plan, which the mayor surprisingly announced last fall, restrictions in the existing zoning on the size of ground-floor retail would be removed and an upzoning would be allowed under the mayor’s 2016 Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, which trades increased density for 25 percent affordable housing. All of this is, according to the mayor and his supporters, in the name of equitable development, a term of the trade often bandied about by affordable-housing developers.
But residents of the neighborhood recently told The Village Sun the possibility of behemoth buildings rivaling those on Billionaires Row uptown was not their intention when they reached out to the offices of Councilmember Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in 2015.
They were simply asking for enforcement of the law curbing the influx of big-box stores spreading throughout the neighborhoods, which traditionally served industrial uses, but were rezoned M1-5A and M1-5B zoning districts in 1971 to allow for artists to live and work there under the Joint Live Work Quarters for Artists or JLWQA, which has since brought a flood of illegal conversions to luxury condos by occupants working in the financial sector.
“We were more than tired,” said Pete Davies, of Broadway Residents Committee. “It was making it such that we couldn’t sleep at night because of [all the overnight] deliveries.”
How it all began…
In response to residents’ complaints, both Chin and Brewer sent a letter in September 2015 to then-City Planning Chairperson Carl Weisbrod, bringing to his attention the “flood of special permits and variances” being processed by his agency, which, as they put it, added up to a “de facto rezoning” but with “limited public benefit.”
The letter called for a new framework for Soho and Noho, aiming to “strengthen small-scale retail character, promote a diversity of uses and a diverse employment base, and encourage the development and preservation of affordable housing” — but it did not push for affordable housing in the disruptive way now proposed, which the mayor hopes to add to his legacy before he leaves office at the end of this year.
A six-month-long community engagement series launched in January 2019, the Envision Soho/Noho process brought together property owners, residents, artists, politicians and members of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), the most powerful real estate lobby in the state, to discuss the neighborhoods’ future.
Mayor waffles…then plows ahead
However, in January of last year, speaking on “The Brian Lehrer Show,” the mayor said he had decided he would not push for new housing in Soho and Noho. His change of heart then, nearly nine months later, has prompted a lot of speculation.
Davies told The Village Sun that what the mayor is now determined to ram through is in stark contrast to what was discussed and agreed to during the Envision discussions.
Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, attended most of the 30-plus meetings, at which, he said, real estate lawyers were also pushing for a residential rezoning on behalf of wealthy clients. These affluent residents, perhaps hundreds or more, had paid perhaps millions for artist lofts, even though, legally, they did not have a right to live in them since they were not certified artists. Sweeney said he is also surprised by the mayor’s shift.
“I swear to you, no one ever talked about an upzoning, even REBNY,” he said. “The only thing REBNY wanted was unlimited square footage for retail. So where this came from was de Blasio, and de Blasio is as crooked as a witch’s nose. We don’t know who got to de Blasio.”
Open New York behind the scenes
Davies said that he wonders if Open New York, a pro-development group, had something to do with the mayor’s shift in thinking, given that, around the time the envisioning meetings were concluding, the group was calling online for the city to construct 3,400 new residential units, with 700 set aside as below market rate, social justice figuring importantly in their concerns. Those figures are close to what the plan would later propose, which is 3,200 new apartments with up to 800 of them set aside for affordable housing.
Sweeney suspects “shills like Jessica Katz” may have gotten to the mayor. He pointed to an editorial in City Limits magazine in September 2020, an op-ed that he suspects helped shape the mayor’s shift.
“The Window is Closing to Rezone for a More Equitable Soho” was written by Katz, executive director of the well-connected Citizens Housing and Planning Council. It reads like a plea for racial and economic justice in super-white and wealthy Soho and Noho, leading Davies to ponder how adding thousands of new luxury units will make those neighborhoods that much more diverse.
Nonprofit group’s oversize influence
A nonprofit dating back to 1937, CHPC’s donors make up a who’s who of bankers, developers and affordable housing groups. The nonprofit was run from 1958 to 1973 by Roger Starr, known for his neoconservative politics, and op-eds for the super-conservative Manhattan Institute, co-founded by William Casey, head of the C.I.A. under Ronald Reagan. A keen foe of Jane Jacobs, Starr once wrote in The New York Times, also a supporter of the upzoning, of almighty powerbroker and segregationist Robert Moses as “a great man.”
Katz would not talk directly to The Village Sun, but in a prepared statement wrote, “Decades ago, Soho was a haven for low-income residents who formed a thriving creative community among its spacious lofts. Today, Soho is one of the most expensive districts in the nation, barred by exclusionary zoning that protects majority wealthy, white New Yorkers. Updating Soho/ Noho’s zoning is a critical step toward more equitable development for New York City.”
CHPC’s involvement in the plan has prompted accusations that its strings are being pulled by its donors, which include Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Described by The Real Deal as “pro-development,” CHPC has on its board Edison Properties. Edison Properties is not only a developer, but also owns two of the largest lots in Soho and Noho and reportedly was a major donor to the campaigns of Mayor de Blasio. Leading lobbying firm Capalino+Company is also represented on the board, joining REBNY and high-powered international law firm Fried Frank, which is on the board at Citizens Budget Committee, which is supporting Intro 2186. HR&A is also on the board at CHPC, and has none other than Carl Weisbrod, as a senior partner. Weisbrod stepped down as City Planning commissioner in 2017.
New York Housing Conference, an affordable housing developer, connected by board members with CHPC, also came out in favor of the Soho/Noho zoning change last fall. Its executive director, Rachel Fee, told The Village Sun, the mayor’s plan will broaden racial diversity in the Downtown enclaves.
“Previous rezonings have been concentrated in low-income communities, predominantly communities of color, which has been reinforcing New York City’s segregation patterns,” she said. She added that the upzoning — which, if passed by the City Council, would increase floor-area ratios (F.A.R.) up to between 9.7 and 12.5 in certain areas — “has widespread support and…is one of the most effective tools at our disposal to create a more affordable, accessible and diverse city.”
Under the current zoning, the existing maximum F.A.R. in most of Soho and Noho is 5.0 — or 6.5 with a community-facility use.
Open New York letter
Coincidentally, the same day the mayor made his announcement on Oct. 7 that he was resurrecting the Soho/Noho rezoning process, CHPC joined NYHC and a host of other affordable housing groups as signatories to an open letter published online by none other than Open New York that called for “housing justice” in the rezoning of Soho and Noho.
How the YIMBY (“yes in my backyard”) group managed to corral so many affordable housing organizations as signatories on the same day is not clear. But Open New York’s letter includes the Cooper Square Committee, which sits on the board of the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, which, by the way, sits on the board of CHPC. The letter was also signed by the Community Service Society of New York, run by David R. Jones, who sits on the board of City Limits, whose onetime parent company was ANHD.
New York Housing Conference’s list of major funders includes Trinity Wall Street, which has an open lot near the rezoning area and was formerly run by Carl Weisbrod. Major real estate developers, including Tishman Speyer, and banks are also donors to NYHC.
Preservation group pans rezoning
Supporters of the mayor’s plan may see it as an engine of diversity, but a recent report by Village Preservation (Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation) predicted it would foster less economic and racial diversity.
Andrew Berman, Village Preservation’s executive director, told The Village Sun that the rezoning would likely bring “waves of harassment” of low-income and minority residents who occupy rent-stabilized and Loft Law-era apartments, as landlords would be incentivized by the upzoning to build tall.
As for promised affordable housing, Berman said there “is a very good chance, in at least 80 percent of those cases, if development takes place, it would be commercial development not residential.
He said Jessica Katz was waging a campaign during the summer and height of the COVID-19 epidemic in favor of the rezoning, and “that was kind of seemingly the impetus or the fig leaf for the city doing it.”
Census data tell different story
However, an analysis of zoning census tracts for Soho and Noho by the Census Bureau revealed a neighborhood more nuanced in terms of economic diversity than the Citizens Housing Planning Council claims. A Census Bureau spokesperson told The Village Sun that while the blocks bounded by W. Fourth St., W. Houston St., La Guardia Place and Broadway had the highest median income, at roughly $130,000, for Census Tract 49, right below, the area median income was $85,000 in 2019. Census tract figures there also show that more than one-third of individual earners in 2019 took home an annual income of under $65,000 while one in five earned less than $50,000.
City Hall and CHPC fire back
A few days after Village Preservation’s report was published, Katz and the Mayor’s Office, including his former planning czar Weisbrod, took to the pages of Crain’s to publicly pan the report.
Katz told Crain’s, “The erroneous claims that the proposed Soho/Noho rezoning would make the neighborhood richer, whiter and more expensive are especially puzzling coming from the group that fought against the Elizabeth Street [Garden] affordable housing project to create housing for low-income seniors.”
Weisbrod said that there was “no real current demand, especially in this neighborhood, for commercial office space. There may be in the future, but it’s not the case in the foreseeable future,” he maintained. However, this January, permits were filed for a 21-story mixed-use office tower at 358 Bowery in Noho in the proposed zoning area.
In 2017 Weisbrod received a Roger Starr Public Service Award from CHPC, joining the ranks of other eminent figures in the world of real estate and politics, including the “perverted powerbroker” himself, former Assemblymember Vito Lopez, who would later step down amid a slew of allegations of sexual harassment.
Prof mocks Village Preservation report
Other opponents of Village Preservation’s report took to Twitter to trash its findings. In one tweet, David Schleicher, a Yale law professor, dismissed Berman’s report as “funny.”
In an e-mail exchange with The Village Sun, Schleicher wrote, “The implication of the argument of Part I of the GVHSP report would be that all new construction everywhere should be banned, and even that all sales of property should be banned. That’s how wild it is and why I thought it was funny!”
Berman, however, replied that Schleicher “is living in some fantasy world where the people who are buying new condo construction in Soho and Noho aren’t extremely wealthy — and significantly more wealthy than current neighborhood residents over all.”
Roderick Hills, a New York University law professor, also panned Village Preservation’s report. He told The Village Sun that the “overwhelming empirical evidence has established pretty much beyond doubt that new market-rate housing does not raise rents in the neighborhoods in which it is located.”
New housing, Hills added, “is not the cause of rising rents but the effect of high demand. Excluding new housing,” he said, “just causes rents to rise all the faster, as more rich bidders bid up the prices for existing units in high-demand neighborhoods. Soho/Noho rents have skyrocketed precisely because supply has been so constrained.”
‘Upzonings increase housing prices’
In response to Hills comments, Berman wrote, “This trickle-down, let-the-market-take-care-of-everything approach has been tried and failed many, many times. Every neighborhood in New York City that saw upzonings, which significantly increased the amount of new market-rate housing, also saw dramatic increases in housing prices — whether Williamsburg/Greenpoint, West Chelsea, Hudson Yards, Downtown Brooklyn or Long Island City. Tell that to the thousands of people whose homes were demolished or were displaced by rising rents in their neighborhoods.”
‘An E.I.S. factory’
In some may see as another strange coincidence, responsibility for drafting the rezoning’s environmental impact statement, or E.I.S., rests with AKRF, which, as it turns out, is yet another board member of Citizens Housing and Planning Council.
Tom Angotti, a retired urban planner and professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, said in a conversation more than a year ago, “AKRF is an E.I.S. factory. The E.I.S. is always a charade. They churn them out like widgets. They religiously follow the guidelines set out by the city and will usually make projections they think will stand the smell test in the courts if they are ever challenged, and courts are quite reluctant to challenge such esteemed experts anyway.”
The mayor’s plan has also drawn support from other power brokers in the New York City real estate market, including Scott Rechler, chairperson of the powerful Regional Plan Association, a co-signer of the Oct. 7 open letter from Open New York and C.E.O. and chairperson of RXR Realty.
RXR is also a supporter of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s Intro 2186-2020 bill, which RXR said would not only “create a comprehensive plan” for the city but also “improve upon the existing ad hoc approach to planning and center racial equity in the city’s land use regulations and capital planning.”