NoHo-SoHo Rezoning Scheme

There is much to be examined in the currently proposed NoHo-SoHo rezoning scheme, but so far we have heard only one interpretation, largely through real-estate based media and promoted by The Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a vocal proponent of an upzoning plan.

The story line for NoHo-SoHo rezoning began with a rich vs. poor frame. The M1-5b Artist Live-Work neighborhoods had suddenly become NIMBY and too exclusive. These neighborhoods need to absorb more poor more diverse populations, the headlines read. Adding 800 units of affordable housing (affordable yet to be defined) will wipe the slate; the collective conscience is clean. But this frame is changing; recently morphing to a “expand retail uses to better adapt to the murky future”scenario.

The Affordable Question

We have not heard of anyone, in NoHo, at least, object to population diversity or to affordability. Most of us – even the new and perhaps elite – moved in when there was a homeless shelter, methadone clinic, rehab facility or social service agency less than a block from our front door. It has always been the nitty-grittiness of NoHo that’s been a salient feature right next to the lure of our edgy artist cache.  For SoHo grit’s not an attraction as  much as the still redolent cache as artistic crucible for residents and retailers alike.  Curiosly, in NoHo as well as SoHo, it is artists who are the most in need of affordabiity, the more diverse their roots, the better.

The Retail Question

The ability for ground-floor units to encompass a wider range of commerce and maintain some light manufacturing uses has merit. Indeed, even with the encumbrance of expensive and time-consuming variances, that’s how we’ve evolved. Let’s not, however, rule out smaller retail footprints and modern-day light manufacturing uses for maker entrepreneurs.

The Politics

Village Preservation (GVSHP) is, first, concerned about the politics of the proposal. Andrew Berman titled his review Local Elected Officials, Citywide Candidates, and Real Estate Interests Back Move. The line up is getting complicated. Councilmember Margaret Chin favors affordable housing, but she’s not alone and thus far she hasn’t weighed in on this plan. Mayoral hopefuls, Brooklynn Borough President Eric Adams and NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer both promote affordability, though it is not clear that they buy into DeBlasio’s plan. Opinions from Borough President Gale Brewer, Councilmember Carlina Rivera and Council Speaker Corey Johnson have been guarded. State Senator Brad Hoylman (running for Manhattan Borough President in 2021) is wary of the outsized benefits this plan gives to market-rate housing developers and concerned about needed protections for small businesses. Christopher Marte, running for Council District 1 (Chin’s district) in 2021 has allied with the SoHo Alliance and Downtown Independent Democrats (DID) against the plan. Gigi Li, currently Chief of Staff for Councilmember Chin, who vigorously participated in the Envision SoHo-NoHo project, favors more dialogue from NoHo and SoHo stakeholders before making any recommendations. Ms. Li is also a candidate for Council District 1.

Department of City Planning

The question is how the Department of City Planning is interpreting a zoning change for NoHo and SoHo. We will soon have a chance to find out. Here’s their full public portal

Building on the foundation of the Envision SoHo/NoHo process and report, DCP has prepared a draft scope of work for environmental review and is initiating the next phase of public engagement to inform the Neighborhood Plan. Scoping for environmental review will take place in 2020, followed by the development of a zoning proposal that is expected to enter the formal public review process (ULURP) in 2021.

Public Meeting:

  • October 26: DCP will hold a public informational seminar that will provide information on the draft proposal as well as details on the environmental and public review processes.
  • December 3: DCP will hold a public scoping meeting to hear comments from the public on the environmental scoping materials and to allow the public to inform the environmental review process.

Stay tuned for details on how to participate in those meetings remotely.

NoHo Zoning_Street-by-StreetLet’s Look at Some Numbers

(You can click on the charts for larger versions)
Perhaps it is helpful to look at some raw figures. We can start with residential comparisons. NoHo M1-5b lots total 165, with footprints totaling 4,292,832 sq. ft. The current average FAR is 5.8 yielding an approximate built environment of 24,898,426 sq. ft., currently. Residential vs. Commercial units are 63% to 37%.  The chart to the right breaks this down street-by-street.

Residential_Current&ProposedCurrently there are 8000 residential units in M1-5b NoHo & SoHo, with approximately 2000 rent-regulated (25%). The proposal increases residences to 11,200 (+50%) with 2400 market rate units and 800 affordable units (total proportion 3.5%).
Comparing market rate to affordable bulk gives a slightly different picture. If market rate units are typically large (2000 sq. ft+) an FAR of 7+ will be necessary. The typical one- bedroom affordable unit is 650 sq. ft. In this scenario:

The chart to the right represents residential proportions between current and proposed.

Total Affordable: 520,000 sq. ft. or 10% of additional sq. ft.

Total Market Rate: 4,800,000 sq. ft. or 90% of additional sq. ft.

If this is the case, then there is likely to be much more sizeable profit in market-rate housing than loss in affordable units among prospective developers in the current known proposal.

Borough President Gale Brewer, who co-sponsored the Envision SoHo-Noho initiative with Councilmember Chin and CPC Chair Marisa Lago, is hopeful for a more unique rezoning plan: “We have an opportunity with this rezoning to address affordable housing, diversity and a neighborhood’s roots at the same time, and we shouldn’t blow that opportunity.”

Some Things to Consider

  • Is the Mayor’s Zoning for Quality and Affordability Plan the right formula for NoHo-SoHo? Is there opportunity to modify?
  • Would an FAR of 6 (R6) with a contextual height limit not be more contextually compatible?
  • Should “affordable” units carry some qualification/incentive to include artists/makers?
  • Should affordable buildings be required to provide art/maker space to create, display or present, perhaps as a non-profit enterprise, to be included in the“affordable” definition?
  • Should the affordable requirement be increased to 35%, 40% even 50% and permanently affordable for artists/makers up to an income threshold?
  • Given the glut of office space, should there be consideration for adaptive re-use? When NoHo and Soho began it was the conversion of factory space to live/work 45+years ago in another expeditious transition. Would the zoning proposal include this and adapt quotas as they occur over time? Or could the recommendation require more in affordable unit percentages if new construction but special benefits for adaptive re-use?

The DeBlasio administration hopes the required ULURP will be completed in 2021. We’re not so sure.

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