By Alec Pruchnicki, MD
There has been lots of opposition to various development projects in lower Manhattan over the years, and opponents are often described as taking a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) position. As these controversies have accumulated, I think there is a better description: BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything or Anybody). This isn’t to say that every opponent of one project opposes all of them, but the total effect is BANANA. At a recent public hearing, a spokesperson for the city accused opponents of not supporting affordable housing. She must have hit a nerve because there were howls of protests and demands for her resignation. The truth hurts.
The hottest controversy now is the re-zoning of SoHo, to allow for taller buildings with the provision that affordable housing be included. A common tactic of opponents is to think up alternatives. It’s the easiest thing to do, especially when you don’t have to do the hard work of putting alternatives, including funding, into place.
The most detailed alternative proposal for SoHo was developed by Village Preservation (formerly the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation). This organization has produced some spectacularly successful and beneficial proposals. It is responsible for getting much of Greenwich Village south of Washington Square Park, the far West Village near where I live, and the Meatpacking District declared historical areas with significant protections.
The city wants SoHo up-zoning to create affordable housing in one of the richest and least diverse neighborhoods in Manhattan, along with the West Village and Tribeca. Opponents have labelled this a myth and said that SoHo really is diverse (WestView News, April, 2021, “SoHo-NoHo Rezoning Could Be Applied to The West Village” and July, 2021, “Stop the SoHo/NoHo Rezoning Debacle”).
Lack of diversity does not mean that every human being that lives within a neighborhood is a rich white person; it means that the area is significantly less diverse than the city is as a whole, or as its surrounding areas are. If you don’t realize that these gentrified West Side neighborhoods are less diverse than surrounding areas then just walk east or south through Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side and look around. If that doesn’t convince you, look at the NYC website for SoHo rezoning demographics and you will see that the neighborhood is 77.5 percent white compared to 48 percent of all of Manhattan. (Internet search NYC SOHO rezoning, which will take you to “SoHo/NoHo Neighborhood Plan: Overview – DCP at www1.nyc.gov. Then scroll down to Demographics and Socioeconomics for lots of data.) The diversity argument is so wrong that “delusional” is one of the mildest criticisms. “Intentionally misleading” might be a little more accurate. Also, there is no NYCHA housing in any of these neighborhoods, unlike in almost every other area in Manhattan.
The alternative proposal has a few good points that would be easy to implement or at least negotiate. It asks that some housing be reserved for artists, as is done at Westbeth. It proposes a 10,000 square foot limit on commercial sites, instead of the limitless square footage proposal now in place. But instead of negotiating a compromise, it suggests scuttling the entire re-zoning. It puts forth that developers are eager for commercial development in a city with lots of Covid-related empty space.
The most unrealistic/delusional/misleading aspect of the alternative plan has to do with money. Several times it advocates for smaller-sized affordable, or even low income, development made possible by subsidies. What subsidies? Money coming from Washington will probably all go to NYCHA or other needy housing, and not to rich SoHo. How could any elected official justify scarce money going to SOHO when there is a viable alternative? The viable alternative is the private real estate industry. There should be public money for all the housing we desperately need, but there isn’t. That’s just the reality. Right now, at this moment in history, for a variety of reasons, the private sector has the money; and to think or suggest that sudden massive sources of cash will otherwise appear is just wrong, or intentionally misleading.
How do you get the real estate industry involved? All they are interested in is profits, and big ones. So, if that is all they want, give it to them. There is one asset that SoHo has, which is location. People want to live in Manhattan, especially in gentrified areas, and developers are more than happy to accommodate them. Large developments, sometimes with new zoning, could bring in large profits, even with 20-30 percent of apartments at affordable rates. This is what the industry is demanding at every opportunity. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is, and the city, preservationists, community groups, etc. don’t have the power to force it to do otherwise.
Another criticism is that allowing some of these high-rises to be built could eliminate rent-regulated apartments that already exist and cause a loss of affordable housing. The figure of 600 new apartments within the area is mentioned frequently, but there are some other details that are not mentioned. In the New York Daily News, opponents of the re-zoning quote the 600 figure (May 3, 2021, Giron and Kahn, “A Rezoning Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”) but they also mention that there are about 100 buildings to which this applies, although the city website says that there are 188 buildings involved. That means that there would be about three to six apartments per building, depending on which statistics you believe. Allowing a building of 100 units, with 20-30 affordable apartments is an increase, not a decrease. We can get the affordable housing we want and need along with the market rate, luxury, and “super” luxury apartments we don’t want. (I don’t know how the preservationists distinguish between describing an apartment as luxury versus “super” luxury, but if it demonizes rich folks then I guess it’s ok.)
Giron and Kahn also mention that most of these old buildings are four-seven-floor walk-ups and lofts. Let’s look at these buildings that preservationists want to save. Although many have beautiful exteriors that give SoHo some of its charm, a great number of these are pre-war, and I’m talking WWI not WWII. Buildings, like people, develop more problems, not fewer, as they get older. As problems arise, a developer has the options of massive gut/rehab, individual violation repairs, hiring more lawyers to fight the fines, and numerous other tricks. What is the plumbing like? Lead, iron, copper? What is the wiring like? Is it good enough for air conditioning and the myriad electronic devices we now use? Is it energy-efficient or does it leak heat like a sieve?
Many people in SoHo are young; but what happens to those who are old or age in place and become old? I work in an assisted living facility where we have had residents who previously lived in SoHo, Little Italy, and the West Village. They were happy in their old apartments but had to move out because a non-elevator building can be a prison for an older person. Bad knees, hips, or backs, strokes, vision loss, cardiac and pulmonary fragility, and even just plain deconditioning, can trap an elderly person in an apartment, leading to further medical and even psychological deterioration. Maybe some of these old buildings should be torn down and replaced with modern, up to code, age-friendly ones. And if the building is a mix of affordable, market rate, and “super” luxury apartments, that might be the guarantee of a good level of services. I also have confidence that creative architects can either preserve the SoHo type external facade of a building (although maybe without the fire escapes) or have a new design consistent with surrounding buildings. Preservationists or BANANA opponents should spend less time thinking about buildings and more time thinking about the people who live in them.
Almost everything the real estate industry does has financial benefits in mind. What about the financial issues with BANANA opponents? About half of the residents in SoHo own their homes, according to the NYC website. What are their oppositions based on? A home is a major investment for most people, and SoHo residents are no exception. Years ago, opposition to low-income housing (especially racially integrated) would sometimes elicit intense fear in people who worried about the value of their homes decreasing. Both red-lining and blockbusting were used to increase this fear. SoHo residents are a pretty educated group, so I would hope that they don’t believe these discredited beliefs (or if they do, they’re not stupid enough to admit it in public). Although race and income effects on prices might not apply any more, there is a principle that does—the law of supply and demand. As long as there are more people who want to live in Manhattan than housing will accommodate, prices will be pushed up. The outrageous prices our tiny apartments can command are maintained. We can’t benefit from this unless we move out of our areas or maybe get some type of reverse mortgages, but the potential is there. Any building in a neighborhood, at whatever price level that relieves the undersupply of housing, will weaken this artificially inflated market. SoHo residents, developers, housing advocates, and city planners all understand this. Whether it is a significant factor in BANANA level opposition is hard to know, but it is unlikely to be of zero significance to every single opponent.
Although this essay has focused on what appears to be NIMBY opposition in SoHo and BANANA opposition throughout lower Manhattan, the Village Preservation’s alternative proposal and others by opponents illustrate why that frustrated city official accused all of them of not supporting affordable housing. The SoHo plan has been criticized for depending on real estate financing instead of industry-free government subsidies. But the Green Haven housing proposed for part of the Elizabeth Street Garden is entirely city-financed and, yet has elicited virulent opposition, court action, and a primary challenge to Margaret Chin years ago. The SoHo plan does not guarantee that developers will actually take the financial deals and produce any affordable housing. But the massive financially lucrative condos plan proposed for the Two Bridges area projects about 700 affordable units along with the 2,100 market rate and luxury ones. Nevertheless, there was significant opposition to that. The SoHo plan is attacked for possibly producing incentives to destroy present rent stabilized and affordable housing, yet two sites in that project, along with one proposed for 250 Water Street near the South Street Seaport, have been rejected even though they are parking lots. There are probably other projects I’ve missed, but you get the idea. Many of these evoke intense oppositions, and taken together they produce the BANANA effect and the accusations against preservationists.
Meanwhile, what happens to people who need housing and are waiting for these projects and the proposed but non-existent alternatives? 50,000-60,000 people are in shelters (although Covid has warped the situation at present). What about those with mental health conditions or substance abuse problems who need supportive, and not just affordable, housing? The SoHo plan and the others attempt to address these problems but are immediately met with opposition. This happens in Manhattan in particular. I’m not sure about the other boroughs, but if you read the Daily News you will often see announcements for affordable and low-income housing being fairly distributed by lottery throughout the outer boroughs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen similar adds in the New York Times. Although Manhattan is the most densely populated county in the country (followed, respectively, by Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and San Francisco), people want to live here. And, no, we don’t worry that it might be under water a century from now.
There is one solution to this entire Manhattan housing situation that I consider to be unacceptably cold-blooded: forget diversity in Manhattan; let the rich white gentrifiers and others who can afford it continue to move in, and the less fortunate slowly get pushed to the outer boroughs or way uptown. Let the gentrification of the West Side neighborhoods slowly move east, building by building, block by block, as is already happening in Little Italy. My experience with housing for low-income individuals makes me believe that this vision can, and should, be avoided. But that will only occur if we are flexible and willing to accept at least some degree of change.
The author O. Henry, who moved to NYC to write, and who died here, once said, “It’ll be a great place, if they ever finish it.” New York, and most of its neighborhoods, is not finished. Let’s not freeze it in place or put it under glass in a futile attempt to avoid reality. Let’s keep working on it. Rezone SoHo.