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Outrage after City Planning rep slams alternative Soho/Noho zoning plan as phony, ‘magical thinking’

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated July 12, 1:00 p.m.: There may be a heat wave going on, but things got even hotter in Soho and Noho last week after a senior City Planning official accused rezoning opponents of only pretending to care about affordable housing.

Outraged community activists are now demanding that the planner’s remarks be “denounced and repudiated” and that “appropriate action be taken” against the woman and two of her colleagues who were at a meeting last Thursday where the comments were made.

The flap overshadowed the fact that, the day before, Justice Arthur Engoron of State Supreme Court had ruled against a community lawsuit seeking to block the city’s Soho/Noho rezoning plan. The plaintiffs had argued that the city did not give Community Board 2 sufficient advance notice of its intention to launch the public review of the rezoning, plus was “muting” the plan’s critics by holding meetings on Zoom instead of in person.

Initially, Justice Engoron had said that “insufficient notice is the same as no notice.” But last Wednesday, he reversed himself and declared in a terse ruling that “a notification doesn’t have to be perfect.”

In an e-mail after the verdict, Sean Sweeney, the director of the Soho Alliance, said, “We still have several options available and will be discussing our next move with our attorney this week.”

Meanwhile, at the C.B. 2 meeting on the Soho/Noho rezoning last Thursday, which was held in person, Christopher Marte, the Democratic nominee for City Council District 1, declared he opposes the scheme since it would displace existing residents, particularly low-income ones in the rezoning’s Chinatown area.

But right after Marte spoke, Sylvia Li, a senior planner with the Department of City Planning, lashed out at the Community Alternative Zoning Plan for Soho and Noho, which was created by Village Preservation and is supported by a dozen local community groups. The alternative plan supports increasing affordable housing in the two Downtown districts — but, unlike Mayor de Blasio’s rezoning scheme, does not rely on market-rate development to do so.

Li told the meeting that the alternative zoning plan “encourages people to engage in magical thinking that is not rooted in reality… . We think that is not a plan that is motivated by a genuine concern for displacement,” she said, “or…desire to introduce more housing affordability.”

“What? That’s insulting!” Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, blurted out in the audience as Li spoke.

In response, the dozen groups have signed on to a joint letter to City Planning, Borough President Gale Brewer and City Councilmembers Margaret Chin, Carlina Rivera and Corey Johnson, demanding that Li’s statements be “denounced and repudiated” and that “appropriate action” be taken against her, as well as Edith-Hsu Chen, the Manhattan director of City Planning, and the department’s counsel, who were also at the meeting.

In an interview with The Village Sun, Andrew Berman, the executive director of Village Preservation, slammed Li’s comments as both “despicable” and “ironic.”

“What Sylvia Li said was pretty despicable,” he said. “Yet, what was even worse was that City Planning’s counsel and the director of its Manhattan office were sitting on the dais with Li and seemed to agree with what she said — certainly nobody criticized it. And she said she was speaking for the entire department, not just herself, which would have been bad enough.

“It’s incredibly ironic,” Berman said of Li’s diss. “The Department of City Planning has obscured from the beginning that its plan would impact the low-income community of Chinatown. We think that the rezoning would threaten and destroy a lot of affordable housing.”

In fact, Village Preservation’s analysis has shown that hundreds of low-income and affordable apartments, home to mainly Asian residents, would be at risk of demolition if the city’s plan is approved.

On the other hand, the opponents charge that the city’s proposal is rife with loopholes that would allow developers to avoid creating any affordable housing at all.

Meanwhile, Berman said, it’s not surprising that the Planning honcho would slam the alternative plan since “it doesn’t have any goodies and giveaways to the developers who want the mayor’s plan.”

According to Berman and his allies, the de Blasio rezoning would open the floodgates to “a massive upzoning,” with big-box stores, hotels, condos and offices, plus allow New York University to penetrate into the cachet-laden enclaves.

Sylvia Li, a senior planner with the Department of City Planning, charged that an alternative zoning plan by Village Preservation that is backed by Soho and Noho residents is not motivated by genuine caring about residential displacement or affordable housing.

The Community Alternative Zoning Plan, on the other hand, calls for affordable housing to be built on open-air parking lots and on sites currently occupied by one-to-three-story buildings that do not have any residents, plus mandates that as many of the new units as possible be affordable.

“But that doesn’t create the windfall for developers that our mayor has promised,” Berman noted as to why Li and others are snubbing the alternative scenario.

The preservationist dubbed Li’s surprising words “psychological projection.” In fact, he said, it’s actually the city that does not care about displacement in trying to ram through the developer-coveted rezoning.

“It’s straight out of the Donald Trump playbook — saying we don’t care about displacement and affordable housing,” Berman scoffed.

He added that the planner’s remarks were insulting not only to Village Preservation, which spent weeks crafting the alternative rezoning proposal, but also to the groups supporting it.

“To cast aspersions on the motivations of nonprofit community groups that work for the residents of the neighborhood is despicable,” Berman said. “And for them to question that we care about neighbors being pushed out and the affordability of our neighborhoods is the height of hypocrisy and deflection.”

The groups that back Village Preservation’s Community Alternative Zoning Plan include Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, Bowery Block Association, Broadway Residents Coalition, East Village Community Coalition, Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants, New York City Loft Tenants, Noho Neighborhood Association, Soho Alliance, Soho Design District, South Village Neighbors and Tribeca Trust.

As for the motive behind the highly unusual public attack, Berman said, “I think they realize they have zero support in the neighborhood for this. So they want to try to invalidate the opinion of neighborhood residents — the ones who would be most affected by the plan.”

He added that Li’s remarks were also “insulting” to Marte, who is poised to become Lower Manhattan’s new councilmember if he beats two opponents, a Republican and an independent candidate, in the November general election.

As for what “appropriate action” should be taken against Li for her audacious rebuke of the community’s alternative plan, Berman did not offer specifics, though said, “but there are various steps” that could be considered.

Meanwhile, in an e-mail, the Soho Alliance’s Sweeney called Li’s remarks “slanderous” against the 12 groups that support the Community Alternative Zoning Plan.

“Sylvia Li — without any provocation — hurled perhaps the most contemptuous comments ever uttered by a government official at a community board meeting,” he fumed in an e-mail to the Soho Alliance’s listserv.

“Li self-righteously declared that we advocates, unlike her, ‘are not truly concerned about tenants rights,’ implying that groups like the Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants and New York City Loft Tenants are not ‘tenant advocates,’ ‘do not care about housing’ and had no ‘real concerns’ about displacement,” Sweeney said. “This is the same person who referred to Soho/Noho residents at a prior meeting as ‘relics.'”

The longtime Soho leader said Li has simply got to go.

“Ms. Li’s biased comments have poisoned this entire rezoning process,” he said, “and she should immediately be removed as team leader before she does more harm.”

In follow-up remarks to The Village Sun, Sweeney said of Li, “She has clear bias and animosity toward the very people and communities her agency is claiming they’re trying to help and she has shown her true colors.”

In addition to being incensed by the planner’s remarks, the rezoning opponents are also now questioning her links to real estate groups.

Li co-chairs P/PREP (Public-Private Real Estate Professionals). According to its Web site, P/PREP is a group of 700 professionals who work on public-private real estate and economic development projects, employed by a range of government agencies and leading real-estate development, consulting, law, finance and design firms.

On May 20, Li  took part in a “breakfast meeting” coordinated by WX, Inc.

Among the meeting participants was Olivia Moss, a principal at HR&A Associates, which describes itself as “an industry leader in providing comprehensive real-estate strategies to unlock value and create vibrant places.” Meanwhile, the rezoning opponents say Soho and Noho already are more than vibrant enough.

Li used a report by HR&A as her blueprint during the 2019 Envision Soho/Noho outreach meetings that many community members attended. The firm’s report focused on “Implications of Restrictions on Retail.”

According to the rezoning foes, Li also failed to mention that the report by her HR&A pals was paid for by 11 Soho/Noho property owners who want to remove these retail restrictions.

City Planning is now calling for retail of unlimited size and a 250 percent increase in the bulk and height of buildings in some parts of Soho/Noho.

Another participant at the May 20 breakfast meeting was Casey Martinez of United American Land. The outfit is one of the city’s largest real-estate developers, owning more than five-dozen large properties, with more than a dozen in Soho.

Also at the power nosh were Mark Dicus, executive director of the Soho Broadway Business Improvement District, and Elise Wagner, senior partner in the land-use department at Kramer Levin, the international “go-to law firm” for big-time real estate developers.

“With bedfellows like these, is it any wonder that Sylvia Li sullied the community’s attempts to preserve and protect our neighborhood?” Sweeney accused in his e-mail. “She should be immediately removed.”

Correction: The original version of this article stated that Sean Sweeney, the director of the Soho Alliance, had shouted, “That’s an insult!” after City Planning’s Sylvia Li had panned the Community Alternative Zoning Plan for Soho and Noho. In fact, it was Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group.

16 Comments

  1. mary reinholz mary reinholz July 12, 2021

    Freedom of speech does not appear to be a priority among the overheated locals calling for the head of a City Planning Department rep for the crime of daring to criticize an alternative Soho/Noho zoning proposal. Hard to believe such an extremist reaction could take place in liberal New York but maybe climate change is to blame.

    • Lora Tenenbaum Lora Tenenbaum July 12, 2021

      Mary, someone who purports to be a journalist should know this is not a “free speech” matter. The issue is cut and dry: What do comments made by a city official, in her official capacity as representative of the City, reveal about herself and her department, when she says, after spending at least two years discussing the issue of the future of SoHo/NoHo with them, that she doesn’t believe the nonprofit organizations and the residents who participated in the process are being genuine? What does it reveal when her argument isn’t that she disagrees, but that they are, basically lying? As they said about Trump, it was clearly projection. She knows she’s lying, so she thinks everybody else is lying too. The truth is, the plan she is proposing is unlikely to give us any affordable housing, much less deeply affordable housing. And we know it will fast-track the displacement that is happening already because it will be removing existing protections. It is also telling that when the Department of City Planning was holding its public Zoom meetings, perhaps five members of Open New York were called on to speak each time, which is about 20% of the people who were called. And you know how many ONY people sign up to speak at each meeting, showed up at the Envision meetings to skew results…just about five? You know how many people were at these meetings? Usually about 200. No, Ms. Li’s comments were inappropriate, mean-spirited…actually cruel. She should resign.

      • ------m ------m July 15, 2021

        thank you lora for your clear, correct, & factual based statements!

    • David R. Marcus David R. Marcus July 12, 2021

      Of all things, free speech is not the issue here. My grandma always said, “It’s not what you say but how you say it.” Li’s comments were deliberately antagonistic and disrespectful and betrayed an ignorance of the merits of the community plan and an unwillingness to acknowledge the serious flaws of the mayor’s plan — but most egregious of all, her failure to understand her role as a taxpayer-funded public servant. Just who does she think she is lecturing and belittling? The true stakeholders deserve respect and a city government that takes their concerns seriously!!

      • John Smith John Smith July 16, 2021

        David – your views and those of your fellow “true stakeholders” are contemptible and deserve to be called out as such – and I’m glad Li said so.

    • JS JS July 12, 2021

      Mary, obviously you don’t live in the SoHo/NoHo community and maybe haven’t been a New Yorker for very long. The Department of City Planning is notorious for disregarding the voice of the community and pushes through their own agenda, especially if it’s a university, hospital or real estate interests. The total disregard for this member of City Planning for the community in such a disagreeable way was totally uncalled for. There are limits to freedom of speech, especially if you are a government representative. By the way, City Planning has been duplicitous from the initial “planning” of the SoHo/NoHo rezoning.

      • mary reinholz mary reinholz July 12, 2021

        Js, I’m originally from California but have lived in nyc for decades, mostly in Chelsea and Gramercy. I was not at the meeting but obviously Ms. Li offended people. I’m surprised, given the history you cite of the City Planning Department, that people are now calling for her head. Seems a little extreme.

    • James Drogan James Drogan July 20, 2021

      The reality is that you’re getting so much pushback on these comments because Soho/Noho residents are afraid of an influx of black/brown people in their neighborhood lowering their home values. They will never, ever, admit it because they voted for Biden. This is limousine liberalism at its finest. “Fine for thee, not for me.”

  2. mary reinholz mary reinholz July 12, 2021

    Oh Gee. Looks like some readers of The Village Sun regard Ms. Li as a bad girl for shooting her mouth off at a meeting and disagreeing with a community plan. For this dreadful lapse in etiquette and failure to conform to the prevailing community view, she deserves to be fired. I give her credit for having the guts to speak her mind and would love to interview her. Have a nice day, folks.

    • David R. Marcus David R. Marcus July 12, 2021

      You bet. She serves the public and should not disrespect them. Public Service 101. She failed miserably and ought to be counseled out to a different line of work.

  3. Martha Gotwals Martha Gotwals July 12, 2021

    Thank you for this. I’m troubled by the role real estate interests play in our city. Personally, I feel we need to step up for the low- and even the middle-income residents. Honestly, folks, do you want to lose your homes or the diversity of your neighborhoods?

  4. Carol from East 5th Street Carol from East 5th Street July 12, 2021

    Mary, you’re “from California,” have lived in “Chelsea and Gramercy” and were not at the meeting. I would hardly think you are in a position to criticize the “overheated locals” who are fighting for the future of their homes and their neighborhoods of SoHo and NoHo.

    And what does being a “liberal” New Yorker have to do with being okay with government agencies being more in tune with real estate developers than with residents?

    Unfortunately, JS is correct that the Department of City Planning regularly ignores the wishes and needs of the community and instead pushes ahead with satisfying the greed of the real estate community, which is backed by our current administration that is all too eager to accept their “contributions” to their “election campaigns.”
    In the end it’s all about $$$.

    • mary reinholz mary reinholz July 13, 2021

      Carol, I was not at the meeting but read the article describing Ms. Li’s comments and don’t believe they warrant her being terminated from her job and losing income because her opinions run counter to many in attendance. It’s a free country supposedly.

  5. Jed Root Jed Root July 13, 2021

    Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from any consequences of one’s speech. I’m really tired of people claiming their rights are being infringed when they are being held accountable for what they have said. Ms. Li is free to say whatever she wants. But if she’s going to denigrate the motives of the very people she is employed to serve, then there should definitely be consequences.

    • mary reinholz mary reinholz July 13, 2021

      Obviously there are consequence to free speech. And to quote the ACLU of yore, the anecdote for bad speech is more speech.

    • John Smith John Smith July 16, 2021

      You might not be aware of this, but city employees serve the people of the entire city, not the Soho residents specifically. If you don’t like what she’s saying it’s because your ideas and your motives are bad to begin with.

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