BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Despicable.
That’s how opponents of the Soho/Noho rezoning are describing a full-frontal attack on them by a Department of City Planning honcho who tarred them as racist on Monday.
As part of the city’s “ULURP” land-use review for the major Downtown rezoning, the City Planning Commission held a “pre-hearing review” so that the commissioners could be prepped on the plan.
City Planning will then hold its one and only formal public review session for the rezoning on Thurs., Sept. 2, at 120 Broadway, starting at 10 a.m.
In her opening remarks at Tuesday’s pre-hearing review, Anita Laremont, the agency’s executive director, immediately launched into blasting locals who have been battling the upzoning scheme.
“There’s certainly no question that neighborhood change can be challenging and that we need all voices to be heard as we move through a rezoning process,” she said. “However, there is absolutely no excuse for the abusive and disrespectful words, including racist comments, that we’ve heard repeatedly throughout this planning process — one that seeks to make these two high-opportunity Manhattan neighborhoods much fairer and more inclusive.
“We’ve not heard this kind of vitriolic language as we worked through other neighborhood plans,” Laremont said, “and it simply must not and cannot be tolerated here.”
She also praised administration staffers who have worked on the rezoning, singling out Sylvia Li, a senior planner, for her “stellar professionalism and dedication.”
However, the plan’s opponents counter that it was Li, not them, who was disrespectful and abusive. At a meeting in June, Li slammed the motivations of the Community Alternative Zoning Plan for Soho and Noho, which was developed by Village Preservation; Li charged that the alternative 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 [combating residential] displacement,” she said, “or…desire to introduce more housing affordability.”
The alternative plan, in fact, supports deeper affordable housing, though without the upzoning that would open the floodgates to developers, allowing them to run rampant in the coveted Downtown enclaves that were originally pioneered by scrappy artists.
Outraged, the plan’s opponents demanded that Li’s remarks be “denounced and repudiated” and that “appropriate action be taken” against her and two of her colleagues who were also at the meeting.
Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, charged that Laremont’s broadside was coming from a “desperate agency” that is flailing to push through a flawed plan.
“It’s a despicable accusation from a desperate agency which has been exposed for the fraud it is,” he said. “It’s also a little ironic coming from an agency proposing to displace residents of Chinatown following years of racist rezonings targeting low-income and people-of-color neighborhoods. Clearly, the big lie approach to politics has moved from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to City Hall.
“Up is down and night is day with the Department of City Planning,” Berman scoffed. “We’ve exposed how their ‘Soho/Noho’ plan actually targets Chinatown for maximum displacement, and how they basically excluded Chinatown from their outreach about this atrocious upzoning plan.”
Similarly, Sean Sweeney, the director of the Soho Alliance, also used the “D” word.
“I did hear [Laremont] say that and I think it’s despicable that she’s playing the race card — because she has nothing else,” he accused. “She’s just throwing crap. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, ‘Crying racism is the last refuge of scoundrels.’ She didn’t give any examples. I have no idea what she’s talking about.
“She has besmirched a community that is one of the most tolerant communities in the city. She should be ashamed of herself.
“C’mon, ‘vitriolic language,’” he said, mockingly. “It’s called ‘truth to power.’ If the Founding Fathers had not used vitriolic language, the United States would still be a colony.”
Meanwhile, Sweeney added, as far as he can tell, it does not appear that the City Planning executive director even attended any of the community board meetings or the many outreach hearings about the rezoning plan.
“It’s my understanding that she called Community Board 2 a couple of times. But I never saw her once at any of the public hearings,” he said. “How does this woman know what we said? Is she parroting the boys from Open New York?”
Then again, Laremont could have watched some of the pandemic-era meetings on Zoom, though the process has been going on for several years.
Sweeney was referring to a pro-real estate front group, Open New York, that, for several years now, has been obsessively focused on opening up Soho, Noho and Chinatown to large-scale development.
While one of the city’s — and Open New York’s — main arguments for the rezoning is that it would create affordable housing, the opponents — including residents, preservationists, affordable housing groups and local politicians — counter that there is no guarantee that even a single unit of affordable housing would be built. On the contrary, the opponents say, the rushed rezoning would lead to the displacement of low-income residents in existing affordable housing, especially in Chinatown — which the rezoning plan has cynically redubbed “Soho East.”
Meanwhile, the city is not doing anything to make Thursday’s City Planning hearing easier to attend in person, Sweeney noted. First of all, it’s scheduled for the day before the Labor Day long weekend, when many people traditionally are out of town.
“Except for Christmas week, it’s the quietest week for New York City politics,” he noted.
Also, because of COVID restrictions, people are being told to wait outside the hearing room — several blocks away — and only come in when it’s their turn to testify.
To participate in person, City Planning is providing indoor areas with seating at 1 Centre St. (the Municipal Building) and 48 Wall St. Those at the former location can watch the livestream and provide live testimony via video. Those at 48 Wall St. can view the livestream and, according to City Planning, “can make the short walk to 120 Broadway to testify in person before the Commission.” According to Google Maps, it takes 5 minutes to walk the four blocks from 48 Wall St. to 120 Broadway.
Members of the public can also watch and testify remotely via Zoom. City Planning says video testimony will be given equal weight to in-person testimony.
“They’re throwing slander,” Sweeney said, “they’re holding it on the Thursday before Labor Day weekend, and they’re making it very hard for us to attend in person. They’re doing everything they can to stifle our voices.”
As for Borough President Brewer, she appears to have gone AWOL. As part of her stage of the ULURP review, she was expected to weigh in on the Soho/Noho rezoning plan last Thursday, but still has not publicly done so. Berman said his understanding is that Brewer will now actually release her advisory recommendation on the plan this Thursday, a week late, though he’s not sure how she is allowed to do that.
A Brewer spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.