SoHo/NoHo Upzoning: Another Rezoning for Displacement

In October 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to upzone SoHo and NoHo. The plan would permit new buildings up to 300 feet tall, almost two and a half times the size of the 10-12 story buildings allowed under the current rules. It would also permit big-box chain stores in commercial corridors. 

The City Planning Commission estimated in October that the plan might lead to the construction of 3,200 new residential units, with more than 70 percent luxury housing and 600 to 900 “affordable” under Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), which would give developers a 421a tax abatement. The city’s plan does not define “affordable,” but in previous rezonings under the de Blasio administration, the rents deemed “affordable” under MIH have been well above what most New Yorkers can afford. 

The actual number of affordable units created would likely be much lower. The Planning Commission projected that 1,683 new apartments were likely to be built, with 328 to 494 “affordable.” But a study released in early March by the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation (GVSHP) estimated that only 68 to 103 of the units built would be affordable, “because in 80 percent of cases where affordable housing construction is projected to be built, the plan gives stronger zoning incentives for the construction of commercial buildings.”

The GVSHP also said that the proposed upzoning would likely eliminate more affordable housing than it would create, because its loosening restrictions on size “would provide huge financial incentives” to tear down buildings of four to six stories. It projects that 635 units of affordable housing in the rezoning area might be threatened by the city’s plan, along with 1,257 more in the adjacent Chinatown area. 

“The city’s SoHo/NoHo rezoning plan is being packaged as one which will increase equity, affordability, and diversity, and generate a great deal of new affordable housing,” GVSHP executive director Andrew Berman said in a statement. “In fact, a closer examination shows it will do none of these, and would in fact make these neighborhoods richer, whiter, and more expensive than they are now, while disproportionately squeezing out lower-income tenants and people of color.” About one-eighth of residents in the area live below the poverty line. 

The SoHo rezoning would include the area north of Canal Street to Houston Street, generally between West Broadway on the west side and Lafayette Street on the east, but a block or two wider in the southern part. The NoHo part would include most of the area north of Houston Street between Broadway and the Bowery up to Astor Place. The two neighborhoods now have approximately 7,800 residents, including loft and rent-regulated tenants; and since the early 1970s, have been zoned to include two manufacturing districts (M1-5B), as well as six historic districts. 

The plan has drawn significant opposition from area residents such as Samir Lavingia of the West Village, who told a Community Board 2 hearing in December that “we need more affordable housing, and less office space and big-box retail.”

The plan was sponsored by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Councilmember Margaret Chin, and the Department of City Planning. Councilmember Carlina Rivera, whose district contains the northern part of the area, has not voiced an opinion. However, Rivera, who initially opposed the Union Square/Tech Hub rezoning, eventually voted for it in 2017. 

Edison Properties is the developer expected to benefit the most, as it owns parking lots and other properties in the rezoning area, according to The Real Deal trade journal. An Edison executive is on the board of Citizens Housing & Planning Council, a landlord trade group that supports the plan, as is Douglas Durst, chair of the Real Estate Board of New York, which also backs the rezoning.

The community expressed much opposition during public hearings in late 2020. 

“Affordable housing should be the main goal; 25 percent is laughable,” said Madelynn Gingold, a resident since 1971.

Anita Isola, a lifelong resident, called the upzoning “a developer’s dream” that would “devastate an historic area and displace many people living in affordable spaces.”

Andrew Berman testified that an environmental impact study of the plan’s impact on “small renters and retail” is needed. Half of the units in the area, he said, rent for below $2,000 a month, “which qualifies as MIH affordable housing.” 

Micki McGee of South Village Neighbors expressed concern about displacement. Paul Schinkel, who has lived in SoHo since 1970, discussed how he and others had “resuscitated the neighborhood. Now, developers want to piggyback on it. There are no plans for children. Where do they go to school? There is no parking.”

“Developers and government are capitalizing on our neighborhood,” stated Julie Harrison, who has lived on Mercer Street since 1978. “It is historic, special, unique.”

Even real-estate broker David Rosen, who works in Douglas Elliman’s TriBeCa office, expressed opposition. “The market is stagnant and stores are empty,” he said. “Government should be working on helping the aging housing stock rather than building more empty luxury condos.”

GVSHP, Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants, and South Village Neighbors are among the dozen groups supporting an alternative plan that would allow for as-of-right residential development with affordability requirements, but without upzoning to allow taller buildings. 

Their plan says it would “expand inclusion and diversity through deeper and broader affordability requirements than those currently proposed by the city; legalize and protect current residential occupancies; and lower restrictions on converting commercial and industrial spaces to allow for new residential opportunities, including affordable housing, through adaptive re-use.” It adds that it would “retain, reinforce, and perpetuate the creative and artistic character of SoHo and NoHo in new developments, conversions, and street-level spaces; and permit appropriately scaled as-of-right retail without opening the floodgates to giant big-box chain stores or oversized eating and drinking establishments.” 

State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) called the city’s plan “the Amy Coney Barrett of rezonings, because the mayor is trying to rush this proposal through in his last year. Planning should be for the next administration. 800 units of affordable housing is a disgrace, because it is a pittance.”