Addressing Core Issues…the Case for a Better Zoning Plan for SoHo and NoHo
From its beginning NoHo has been a mixed use neighborhood; some of it legal, some of it not. The majority of each building’s composition is mixed use as well, with ground-floor commercial uses, upper floors live/work and offices or showrooms. It’s building stock is predominantly old – as in pre 1910, as reflected in its three historic districts; commercial uses are grandfathered and buildings dense-packed – most lot-line to lot-line. This isn’t an environment that lends itself easily to increased bulk. But we should make the effort to return to our affordable roots where our energy was spawned and our inspirations radiated across the City and around the globe.
The campaign to delay zoning changes to a new City administration, and perhaps have it dropped entirely as new priorities take precedence, can do actual harm. We need a better zoning plan for SoHo and NoHo, but let’s get it right.
The current rate of artist/creative attrition has to be addressed, now. The need to free retail from the shackles of manufacturing use, only, in our post-Covid recovery needs to happen, now. JLWQA needs to be modified to make current non-artist residents legal while preserving the stock of Joint Living Working Quarters for Artists – stabilized and non-stabilized – in perpetuity. And, finally, it is our moral imperative to contribute to the affordability needs of the City in a manner that will also respect lower income resident’s needs (retail offerings, public space, public services).
What we have, thus far, seen from the Department of City Planning doesn’t address these issues adequately – some not at all. We are advocating for significant alterations to a plan to preserve the uniqueness of NoHo and SoHo while redefining their mixed use profile in 21st Century terms. There is precedence in other mixed use districts that have incorporated affordability as well as retail and residential variations reflecting built environments and evolved uses. It is our job to advance them further.
The following statement has been approved by NoHo-Bowery Stakeholders, Inc. on Wednesday, July 7th, 2021.
*= Updates 7/7/21
The Affordable Conundrums
[CPC Reference: Article XIV Special Purpose District,143-20 SPECIAL BULK REGULATIONS]
To build a better zoning plan for SoHo and NoHo we should modify the zoning recommendations. The extreme bulk overlays recommended in DCP’s plan will not ensure affordable development or curb the excesses NoHo has struggled to contain in the last five years. To quote Steve Herrick at the Cooper Square Committee:
[This zoning] poses a substantial risk to the historic districts in the core of SoHo/NoHo. Another major issue is that DCP’s proposed zoning text amendment would allow for off-site low income housing when less than 25,000 sq. ft. of housing is developed. This creates an opening for developers to do enlargements of existing historic buildings, creating a windfall for developers who can add luxury penthouse units, and not have to provide any on-site affordable housing.
Additionally, the overgenerous allocation of Commercial and Community Facility use in each envelope will suppress the residential development essential to realizing affordable options. Of the six immediately proposed sites in NoHo for MIH development, only four are actually developable. (See Table #1)
The potential bulk of market rate commercial units prescribed in the current plan will drive property assessments and taxes higher for everyone, doing little to encourage local, affordable goods and services to the newly envisioned affordable neighborhood. We need more precise zoning tools to increase affordability overall and give it a more stable foundation.
To illustrate, allocating just 3.0 FAR of the prescribed Commercial and Community Facility 6.5 FAR radically affects the realization of affordable residential units and re-distributes NoHo’s 60:40 mix (residential to commercial) to a decidedly commercial dominance. (See Table #2).
And, we need to curb compromises to the historic fabric of these neighborhoods; excessive roof-top additions, air-rights transfers, contextual anomalies. Among the unique characteristics in NoHo and SoHo are the number of buildings originally erected as factories with full lot coverage. This is particularly apparent in through-lot buildings dominant along Broadway, south of Bleecker. We also agree with the New York Landmarks Conversancy in their concern for the integrity of the Historic Districts – See their statement of June 23rd.
Zone for a more balanced Mixed Use suggesting combinations of R8A (6.02 FAR/7.2 FAR MIH, Max height 145′) with C2-5 overlay*; and for the northern portion of NoHo, where there are opportunities for the most significant affordable development M1-5/ R9A (7.52 FAR/8.5 FAR MIH, Max height 165 ft. on narrow streets and 175 ft. on wide streets*. with a C2-7A commercial overlay of 2.0 FAR). This limits commercial use to two above ground floors located below residential units. This combination makes (1) all residents legal with (2) contextual height caps in historic districts, (3) maintains NoHo’s commercial to residential ratio and (4) provides incentive for new affordable residential development equal to the out-of-scale R9X envelopes originally proposed.
All new development should include an affordability component with requisite bonus. Community facilities should be qualified for a more narrowly defined list with art/creative use bonus incentivizing creation of community art/maker spaces. We suggest, in particular, that dormitories and non-art-related classrooms be prohibited.
- Allow conversion from Office to Residential, if conversion includes affordability. We realize that the cost of conversion in large buildings may be disproportionate. The allowed proportion of affordability should be flexible reflecting conversion costs as well as structural impediments in a formula for market-rate vs. affordable units. Such evaluations are traditionally examined in BSA Applications. Perhaps a less onerous protocol for approval could be established or a range of acceptable proportions be defined.
- Restrict additions on buildings with 80% or more lot coverage. This would prevent dominant numbers of high-end market-rate additions on Historic buildings that are below the MIH threshold.
[NOTE: We would think that adding the limited commercial overlay to the “Opportunity Zones” would improve things as well…for small businesses and for increasing the affordable component. OR it could be applied to a reduction from 10X to 9X still not harming the total residential unit count. We have been informed that in areas bordering Chinatown, there has been no new affordable residential built in many years; that there is a surplus of commercial space that will take many years to recover. We completely agree with the Cooper Square Committee and Welcome to Chinatown that more stringent protections be put in place for current rent stabilized/protected residents, following the precedent established with the Special Clinton District rezoning, https://zr.planning.nyc.gov/article-ix/chapter-6 Sections 96-01*, 96-08*, 96-110*]
Preserving Artist/Maker Contribution
[CPC Reference: Article XIV Special Purpose District, 143-13 Joint Living-Work Quarters for Artists]
To make a better zoning plan for SoHo and NoHo we shouldn’t lose our key asset. NoHo’s population, while not all certified fine artists, is creative: architects, designers, writers, illustrators, graphic artists, videographers, video editors, musicians, sound engineers, interior designers, jewelry designers, lighting designers, theater arts, playwrights, screen writers and the remaining – even among the financiers – entrepreneurial. Live/work lifestyle dominates, even among the newer and restored buildings. This is our caché, our unique and substantive contribution to Manhattan and the distinction of SoHo-NoHo among other areas of the City. It directly contributes to the lure of the area as the second largest economic contributor to the City’s economy.
This caché contributes irrespective of race, age, gender or income. But, it is one that must constantly be refreshed. Supporting our substantial creative and entrepreneurial contribution to the City with live/work and maker affordable housing and commerce should be a priority.
DCP suggests a conversion tax on units that transfer from JLWQA to non-artist residency (UG-2), at point of sale, on a one-time basis at $100/sq. ft. to be given to Dept of Cultural Affairs to distribute throughout Lower Manhattan. This does nothing to preserve our artistic and creative inventory nor it’s valued tradition, it, in fact, accelerates the attrition of artist/maker space. The loss of artist/maker/creative energy will similarly affect our commercial distinctions.
- Redefine artist certification, as required in the Loft Law that enabled JLWQA, to Maker Certification and require renewal every 24 months, thus expanding the definition of those eligible with a means to keep certification fresh and accurate. We realize that this needs to be accomplished at the State level and have initiated the process through our State Senators. In the interim, the current artist certification definition and process should be invigorated and promoted, with an on-line bi-annual renewal requirement.
- Make Joint Live Work Quarters for Artists/Makers a permanent designation. When the expanded certification definition is secured, more current inhabitants and potential inhabitants of JLWQA units will qualify, more new residents can seek it.
- Require a continuing conversion tax assessment at 1.5% to-2.0% of sale price at deed or lease transfer for any non-artist/maker purchaser or leasee. Under City statute the seller may be exempt; the purchaser, in this case a non-artist, would pay the assessment. This provides a documentable status – through DHCR lease renewals or transfers or through NYC Dept of Finance Real Property Transfer Tax and recorded with the County Clerk for anyone living in SoHo-NoHo District. The additional assessment, like those imposed for buildings within a BID area, can be allocated to the Department of Cultural Affairs toward an ongoing SoHo-NoHo Fund for artist/maker grants, affordable studio development, purchase or lease of communal maker, performance or gallery space.
- Assign an Art Fund entity. Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), for example, can manage and disseminate these funds to NoHo-SoHo artist/maker projects, area group showing/performing/producing spaces or projects or help with seed capital for the purchase of affordable community facility condo spaces (e.g. Fourth Arts Block).
- Provide an incentive for certified artists/makers in applications for affordable live/work units.
We do need an evolution to occur. Our current artist stock is diminishing, without anything affordable to replace it. Our newer entrepreneurial residents who have contributed significantly to the historic preservation of our buildings also deserve a legal status that supports their investments and longevity.
[CPC Reference: Article XIV Special Purpose District, 143-11 Retail Uses]
To ensure a better zoning plan for SoHo and NoHo we need all the pieces to be compatible. As neighborhoods, we have been tweaking the manufacturing zoning envelope for years. Even many current uses pre-date the 1970 designation and are grandfathered. Too many buildings have large footprints. Even subdivisions that could amount to more than 10,000 sq. ft. in their aggregate are currently illegal; but the alternative – to allow all uses – needs more thought. There are large commercial/retail uses which are low impact (an art gallery, physical culture establishment, a day-care or senior care center, walk-in medical facility). We do need guidelines with a better fit and which can adapt to the commercial/retail profiles that are, at this minute, evolving.
Unfortunately, the current proposal doesn’t create a framework befitting a newly informed community of affordable residents with the smaller local retail options it will require. We need a less broad array of allowable commercial/retail uses that more intelligibly fit with the mixed-use nature of this zoning proposal. Let the community work out the acceptable particulars of hours of operation, delivery schedules, refuse management, environmental impact– this is a regular occurrence in land use, restaurant (SLA), event applications.
- A broad list of commercial/retail use groups be defined. Among the uses that might require restriction: Catering halls, restaurants over 5000 sq. ft (capacity and method of operation defined), music/concert venues.
- Continue ground-floor and below grade commercial use up to 10,000 sq. ft., as of right.
- Allow commercial use over 10,000 sq. ft. that adheres to predefined parameters specifying requirements as lighting, interior refuse storage, refrigerated organic waste, limiting hours of operation, methods for deliveries/shipping, perhaps street-side security. Such specifications have been detailed for other mixed use districts.
- All others uses or configurations remain subject to Special Permit process. Our nearly universal ground-floor retail needs to be unshackled to meet the needs and tastes of a post-Covid economy and a means to rationally and stably support the finances of the buildings they occupy, most of which are landmarked, also residential and dependent on commercial income. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that, without restraints, quality of life concerns as outlined in several categories within the DEIS (traffic, sanitation, public space, EPA standards) will be even more seriously compromised in the currently certified plan.
We do need a better zoning plan for SoHo and NoHo.