By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Who will benefit from the Envision SoHo/NoHo Neighborhood Plan’s rezoning and housing proposals?
The Department of City Planning (DCP), as a sponsor of the project, made a commitment to the community when it started the process on Feb. 11, 2019. More than 250 people attended the meeting held at P.S.130, and wrote 211 comments: (we) are committed to continuing community involvement and transparency, preceding any future implementation of recommendations (for rezoning).
The city has said the rezoning methodology will be applied to other “under-developed” neighborhoods, which of course includes our West Village, so what happens in SoHo may happen here too. Let’s look at what that means for SoHo/NoHo and us.
This past month, VP (Village Preservation) followed up on an earlier report, Community Alternative Rezoning Plan for SoHo and NoHo, with further research and reporting. The DCP’s proposed rezoning is contrasted with actual data and histories.
First, the DCP’s stated premises:
Premise no. 1: the current neighborhood is not socio-economically diverse. (False.)
Premise no. 2: the current neighborhood contains little or no affordable housing, and the new housing being introduced would be more affordable than current housing. (False.)
Premise no. 3: the city’s upzoning plan will create a significant amount of new affordable housing. (Doubtful.)
Premise no. 4: there is no danger of the proposed upzoning pushing out people of lower incomes or leading to the elimination of existing affordable housing. (False.)
Premise no. 5: the rezoning plan will make for a more racially diverse and equitable neighborhood. (Doubtful.)
Premise no. 6: the proposed upzoning won’t negatively impact adjacent areas like Chinatown and the Lower East Side. (False.)
All of these assumptions are faulty at best, and the characterizations of the neighborhood are simply inaccurate factually, according to the VP report; the DCP has drafted a plan that undermines the core concepts that built our historic neighborhoods: creativity, preservation and adaptive re-use. In fact, there is a good chance that the rezoning will result in a net reduction in the amount of affordable housing in the neighborhood, and in the number of low-to-moderate income residents. The proposed upzoning will create tremendous economic incentives to demolish many four-six story buildings in the neighborhood that house residents of more modest income levels, and which contain a significant amount of remaining affordable housing.
The city’s SoHo/NoHo upzoning plan will make these neighborhoods richer and whiter, make housing prices overall much more expensive than they are now—likely to destroy a considerable amount of affordable housing, and create about 80 percent less affordable housing than projected. (See the historical examples below.) It will allow grossly out-of-scale development and a flood of super-luxury condos at prices averaging over $6 million, as well as large new office buildings and big box chain stores.
The city is ignoring the clear evidence of the impact which this plan would have, not just on SoHo and NoHo but adjacent neighborhoods like Chinatown and the Lower East Side (and eventually others), continuing a pattern of wildly inaccurate projections and prognostications about what their rezonings would do.
If anyone doubts the possibility of such contrary results despite what the city projects, just look at these examples.
In an MAS (Municipal Arts Society) 2018 report, A Tale of Two Rezonings: Taking a Harder Look at CEQR, one of the key recommendations called for strengthening the flawed City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) process that frequently underestimates the scale of developments, leaving decision-makers with incomplete information. CEQR is the process by which potential adverse environmental effects of discretionary land use actions under consideration by the City Planning Commission (CPC) or other authorized city agencies are identified and evaluated for their significance, and to systematically balance social, economic, and environmental factors early in the planning stages and require project modification as needed to avoid adverse impacts.
Two city-sponsored rezonings, in Long Island City (2001) and downtown Brooklyn (2004), were intended to create two new central business districts, but the expected developments were never realized. Prior to the rezoning, Long Island City (LIC) had retained its industrial character, largely consisting of factories, warehouses and art studios, with some low-scale, affordable residential units. The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for LIC rezoning predicted just 300,000 square feet in 300 new residential units; in fact, 8.74 million square feet for more than 10,000 new units of residential development was built.
The FEIS for downtown Brooklyn’s rezoning predicted an addition of 979 residential units by the build year of 2013; in fact, there were more than 3,000 new units by 2013, with an additional 5,000 units built since then.
The LIC FEIS estimated that the already-overcrowded Queens Community School District 30 would need only 99 additional school seats by the build year 2010; as of 2018, the zoning changes have brought more than 3,200 new students to the neighborhood, where seven of nine schools are now overcrowded and one elementary school in particular operates at over 200 percent capacity.
The Downtown Brooklyn FEIS expected 446 new students in their school district; it has, in fact, resulted in nearly 4,400 school-age children being added, with no adequate mitigation plan for adding school seats.
Similarly, the Cooper Square Committee issued a May 2019 report, In Context; Out of Reach, about the rezoning of the East Village/Lower East Side by the City of New York, enacted in November, 2008. The goal of stopping out-of-scale development by imposing height caps was successful, but the encouragement of affordable housing was a disappointment. A total of 1,004 residential units were created since the rezoning, with 814 market rate units (81 percent) and 190 (19 percent) “affordable” housing units. Those 190 units are just 55 percent of the worst-case target number of 348 units. The city’s current policy is that MIH (Mandatory Inclusionary Housing) rezonings are only done in communities being upzoned.
On top of all the misguided changes the city is promoting, disregarding so many priorities that the community has put forward, Community Board 2 has also reported many shortcomings in the DCP report. In the CB2 Report to CPC (December, 2020) it pointed out that projected historic district sites have distinctions not reflected in the draft scope, and potential development sites have distinctions not reflected in the draft scope. It mentions that all three proposed “representative examples” of prototype conversions are landmarked, and all are within a stone’s throw of each other (154 Grand Street, 75 Spring Street, 324 Lafayette Street). These and many other aspects of the DCP report need to be further studied.
So, what can we hope for SoHo-NoHo as the city continues to push this rezoning? VP does not just condemn bad ideas, it offers constructive alternatives.
- Allow for as-of-right residential development at the same five FAR (floor area ratio) currently allowable, with inclusionary affordable housing mandates, but with no upzoning.
- Expand inclusion and diversity through deeper and broader affordability requirements than currently proposed by the city, such as lower income levels required for the affordable housing, rather than the up-to-130 percent of AMI (area median income), and ask for a higher percentage of residential developments to be reserved for affordable housing instead of the 30 percent currently proposed.
- Legalize and protect current residential occupancies, and lower conversion restrictions to allow for new residential opportunities, including affordable housing, through adaptive re-use. Allow legalization of current non-artist residential spaces, providing a clear mechanism by which the pathway to legalization will take place. (The current city proposal offers no specifics.)
- Retain, reinforce, and perpetuate the creative and arts character of SoHo and NoHo in new developments, conversions, and street level spaces. Continue loft law and JLQWA protections to enable artists to work in their homes and not be diminished in any way so artist residents can work and produce without harassment.
- Permit appropriately scaled as-of-right retail without opening the floodgates to giant big box chain stores or oversized eating and drinking establishments.
Neighborhood residents do not object to a reasonable loosening of ground floor retail regulations if they allow retail uses which are compatible in the size and character of the neighborhood.
The AIANY (American Institute of Architects New York) held a webinar, Adapting Historic Districts for an Equitable Future: SoHo/NoHo Case Study, on March 19th. Distinguished panelists in architecture, city planning, and affordable housing development discussed SoHo-NoHo, as introduced by a city DCP representative.
The panelists showed examples in historic city districts, in New York and around the world, of medium to low scale new development buildings that never exceeded the maximum height of the historic buildings, even though some were taller than some of their one or two-story neighbors. Height limit was a key feature that made the newer, denser, mixed use, and affordable housing buildings good neighbors, without exception, so no building stood out-of-scale among the others. And these limitations allowed for creative design features that made the cityscape dynamic, and existing and historic buildings adaptable to new or continuing uses. This approach can lead to the best of both worlds, not the end of SoHo-NoHo (or West Village) as we know it.