By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Never before have we witnessed such a callous attitude about historic preservation exhibited by city officials and department heads. Mayor de Blasio’s Department of City Planning (DCP) is on the warpath against historic districts—proposing rezoning that strips the historic districts of protections, and substituting open development measures that are designed to destroy the character of these important neighborhoods. The city’s SoHo/NoHo Neighborhood Plan seeks to establish a new special district to modernize the area’s zoning, according to the DCP website.
Why are historic neighborhoods important to New York? The city that does not respect the special character of its cultural assets is doomed to be a place where “there is no ‘there’ there.” (We could have lost Grand Central Terminal and gotten another Madison Square Garden tunnel in midtown.) Many of us look for special historic places when we travel; should we not also respect those special places in our own city? We know that people come here to soak in the special character of our historic districts, and, yes, people come to see new developments too; but we can have both, and we need both.
Zoning is a legal mechanism that can be used to save or to destroy. Historic districts are special zones that are set aside to preserve the special historic character of certain areas. SoHo/NoHo has world-wide appeal for its historic character, generating millions of dollars from tourists.
Historic districts protect only four percent of the total number of buildings in New York City. So why is the Department of City Planning targeting these districts as “opportunity zones” for dense new development? That is what they are proposing, first for the Soho-NoHo neighborhoods, and then for all other low density (read “historic”) districts, like Greenwich Village. This is a fight for the survival of our special places.
This is not a fight for affordable housing, or the city would be mandating low-income housing for the neighborhood. Although DCP and assertions of lobbyists like Open New York claim the contrary, rezoning will not achieve equity, diversity or low-income housing. What it will achieve is high-rise development, large-scale commercial and retail use, and market rate housing, all of which the city already has plenty. Fear-mongering and disrespect in public discourse will not change that.
Sylvia Li, a senior planner at the Department of City Planning, told a recent CB2 (the local community board) meeting that the alternative zoning plan “encourages people to engage in magical thinking that is not rooted in reality… We think that [Community Alternative Zoning Plan] is not a plan that is motivated by a genuine concern for displacement…or…to introduce more housing affordability.” In fact, the DCP has a miserable track record of predicting displacement and affordability due to rezoning proposals. Disregarding community input has compounded the faults in their proposals.
SOHO-NOHO rezoning documents are filled with inaccuracies about residential displacement, MIH rules, and upzoning incentives to demolish affordable housing units. In its 16,000 pages, or even its 76 page “Executive Summary,” there are no redeeming features. Quality of life issues including congestion, open space, or parks are ignored, whereas retail, eating, and mixed commercial/market-rate residential uses are given free rein.
Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, spoke about the Community Alternative Zoning Plan, supported by numerous community groups, which calls for affordable housing to be built on surface parking lots and sites currently occupied by one-to-three-story commercial buildings without residents, and for mandates that as many of the new units as possible be affordable. It’s actually the city that does not care about displacement in trying to ram through the developer-coveted rezoning, Berman said.
The current city rezoning proposal contains so much language that is in direct opposition to what the community demanded at the public meetings, is so flawed, so detrimental to the goals of preservation of affordable housing or quality of life for residents, contrary to the preservation of the historic character of important neighborhoods, so lacking a mechanism for more diverse populations. The only logical response is to vote it down and adopt a more incremental process to remedy the preservation, housing, and quality of life issues.
The processes of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the borough president’s review, the City Planning Commission’s vote, the city council review, the mayoral review, and approval letter have not yet begun.
Council members Margaret Chin and Carlina Rivera, in a joint statement about the DCP rezoning, say, “Affordable inclusionary housing shouldn’t be an option—it should be the only option. We care very strongly about…preserving the affordable housing that already exists. DCP has not addressed real issues raised by sincere housing and community advocates.” Community Board 2 has also prepared a resolution that similarly addresses these shortcomings, as well as other failures of the DCP rezoning proposal. No good can come of allowing the city’s proposal to be approved, not even affordable housing.
Landmarks Committee Concerns re: Proposed Soho Noho Rezoning – Report from a discussion by the CB2 Manhattan Landmarks Committee.
It is the Committee’s opinion that the proposed rezoning, if approved, will result in inevitable and irrevocable harm to the NYCHDs (New York City Historic Districts) within CB2, will permanently weaken the LPC, and will provide a model for destruction of Historic Districts (HDs) citywide.
There is a massive disconnect between proposal’s strongly expressed goal of prioritizing the preservation of neighborhood character and the reality that the plan simultaneously puts forth which advocates a degree of up-zoning that could only do otherwise. This, combined with the proposal’s lack of a structure to bridge this gap and create accountable mechanisms to mitigate and prevent the harm that the proposal will create, is of grave concern. The LPC is already an overtaxed and understaffed Agency and the passing of this proposal will weaken it further. The LPC was not designed to absorb the massive burden of preserving the character of a HD up-zoned on this scale (the highest density allowable in the State of New York). This problem is compounded when factoring in pressure of other city agencies involved in the Plan’s implementation and the inevitable efforts of the real estate industry and other groups who have an interest along these lines, to potentially maximize use of newly allowable FAR by means of demolition rather than modification and adaptive reuse.
Other concerns include the impact of this proposal on areas within CB2 but outside the designated Historic Districts including Bowery, parts of South Village, SoHo, Little Italy/Chinatown, as well as sites designated as State and National Registers Historic Places that are not under LPCs purview. The plan itself references the potential harm to these sites:
“The Proposed Actions would result in direct significant adverse impacts due to the demolition of buildings within the State and National Registers of Historic Places (S/NR)-listed portion of the SoHo Historic District, the Bowery Historic District (S/NR-listed), and the Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District (S/NR-listed). In addition, significant adverse indirect contextual impacts could occur as a result of the addition of new buildings on projected and potential development sites that could adversely affect the setting and context of the Bowery Historic District as well as the Samuel Tredwell Skidmore House (S/NR-listed, NYCL) and the Old Merchant’s House (NHL, S/NR-listed, NYCL, NYCL Interior).”(21-2)
This is the first instance of regulations that will inevitably lead to a pronounced negative impact on historic districts and will, in the intention of the proposal, be precedent for similar changes in other historic districts.
Opposition to this plan from a Landmarks point of view should not be mistaken for categorical opposition to development. There is a false paradigm being promoted that equates being pro-preservation with being anti-affordable housing. We unequivocally support initiatives for greater affordable housing within CB2, and know that there are more equitable and reliable paths to achieve this than the one that is before us now.
We believe that most of the goals of the plan can be accomplished in a more environmentally respectful way, without risking the “death by a thousand cuts” to Soho/Noho that this plan would create.