By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
In an unprecedented attempt to destroy a world-famous historic area of NYC, a major income-generating tourist magnet, the city has proposed and certified a massive misguided upzoning of SoHo and NoHo neighborhoods.
Only four percent of all NYC buildings are within historic districts, yet the city wants to target those areas for rezoning. The city calls historic districts “high opportunity areas” because they consider them capable of absorbing higher density development; in other words, historic areas are not as dense with skyscrapers as midtown areas are. The proposed rezoning will allow developments of up to ten million square feet, as tall and as dense as in midtown, FiDi, or on “billionaire’s row” at Central Park, according to Village Preservation studies.
Destroy the neighborhood to make it more dense, feed the greed of development—these seem to comprise the city’s mantra.
The SoHo and NoHo neighborhoods— south of Houston Street to Canal Street on both sides of Broadway, and north of Houston on the east side of Broadway to East 8th Street—have a limited infrastructure to absorb massive development, as anyone walking the crowded shopping sidewalks most afternoons or evenings can attest to. The sidewalks are typically narrow, the sewer, water, and waste services are strained to the limit, and open space is almost non-existent or threatened. This is not a neighborhood that can “absorb higher density.”
The city precedent for historic districts in NYC is to actually rezone the areas to be more compatible with the historic character of the districts, which reinforces the efforts to preserve the special qualities that exist. Now the city wants to reverse that, throughout the city, including in Greenwich Village and the Meatpacking District.
When more than 250 people attended a public meeting in February, 2019, and wrote 211 comments about how the neighbors wanted to preserve the special character of the architecture and the artists’ lofts, the city promised continuing community involvement and transparency preceding any future implementation of recommendations for rezoning. But now the community demands have been dismissed by the city and developers’ demands have taken their place.
Initially, the city put forward the six premises listed below to rationalize the rezoning efforts; public hearings have since recorded responses from the community, also summarized below.
City premise no. 1: the current neighborhood is not socio-economically diverse.
Community response: this is false; these neighborhoods have made a place for a diverse population of makers, services, and income levels, as shown in examples below.
City 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.
Community response: this is false; 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. 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.
City premise no. 3: the city’s upzoning plan will create a significant amount of new affordable housing.
Community response: This is very doubtful, as the upzoning will likely destroy a considerable amount of affordable housing. Numerous examples show that new affordable housing is actually disincentivized in the plan, which calls for big-box stores and restaurants far exceeding current limits, and prioritizes commercial use, not housing.
City 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.
Community response: this is false; the proposed upzoning will create tremendous economic incentives to demolish many four to six-story buildings that house residents with more modest incomes, which contain a significant amount of remaining affordable housing, and will probably create about 80 percent less affordable housing than projected (see the historical examples below).
City premise no. 5: the rezoning plan will make for a more racially diverse and equitable neighborhood.
Community response: this is very doubtful, since the city’s SoHo/NoHo upzoning plan will more likely make these neighborhoods richer and whiter as housing prices overall become much more expensive than they are now, based on the evidence of numerous previous upzonings. And there are no provisions to preserve the artistic and creative diversity.
City premise no. 6: the proposed upzoning won’t negatively impact adjacent areas like Chinatown and the Lower East Side.
Community response: this is false. The city is ignoring the clear evidence of the negative impact which this plan would have on SoHo, NoHo, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side—and, eventually, other neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village and the Meatpacking District—continuing a pattern of wildly inaccurate projections and prognostications about what their rezonings would do.
In a MAS (Municipal Arts Society) 2018 report, A Tale of Two Rezonings: Taking a Harder Look at CEQR (City Environmental Quality Review), a key recommendation is strengthening the city’s flawed prediction process. CEQR looks at land use actions under consideration by the City Planning Commission (CPC) or other city agencies, as identified and evaluated for their significance to the community. Two city-sponsored rezonings, in Long Island City (2001) and downtown Brooklyn (2004), have shown drastically different outcomes from what was projected. MAS has also produced a website 3D map showing the potential impacts of the SoHo/NoHo rezoning.
The Cooper Square Committee issued a May 2019 report, In Context; Out of Reach, about the 2008 rezoning of the East Village/Lower East Side, again showing vastly contrary results.
The Manhattan Community Board 2 reported many shortcomings to the CPC in December, 2020, pointing 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. Another CB2 report will be issued in mid-July.
The AIANY (American Institute of Architects New York) held a webinar during which the panelists showed examples of new development in historic city districts around the world. New buildings conformed without exception to the maximum height of the historic buildings, yet these limitations didn’t prevent creative design features that made the cityscape dynamic, interesting, and allowing for existing and historic buildings to adapt new uses or continue prior uses. Height limitation was a key feature that made the newer, denser, mixed-use, and affordable housing buildings such complementary neighbors—no building stood out-of-scale with the others.
Testimonies given by outraged neighbors at recent community board hearings have declared the upzoning of SoHo and NoHo as “all wrong” and “you can’t tweak a terrible plan; we must resist it entirely.” Just say NO!
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “green” architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee, is co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, is a member of AIANY Historic Buildings Committee, and is a journalist, specializing in architecture subjects.