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City lays groundwork for potential Soho, Noho rezoning

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A new report spells out possible zoning reforms for the neighborhoods

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The city has released its much-anticipated report recommending zoning reforms for the Soho and Noho neighborhoods, a move that lays the groundwork for what will likely be the area’s first major land use changes since 1971.

The 86-page “Envision SoHo/NoHo” report spells out a series of recommendations to increase diversity and improve quality of life in the area. Chief among those recommendations is the legalization of additional ground-floor retail space and the promotion of affordable housing in the sought-after lower Manhattan neighborhoods.

“Conscious efforts should be made to reconcile the chasm between outdated regulations and the realities of people who reside in the neighborhoods, and to promote more diversity and more equity in SoHo/NoHo,” the report states. It was commissioned by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council member Margaret Chin, and the Department of City Planning.

Although Soho and Noho are now major retail destinations, the neighborhoods’ current zoning actually prohibits storefronts larger than 10,000 square feet. That hasn’t stopped oversized retail stores from popping up using loopholes or special permits obtained from the city. Aside from the area’s light manufacturing zoning butting heads with its shopping destination status, various quality of life issues have sprung up for residents.

Those who live in the neighborhoods have raised myriad concerns about commercial use at several public meetings this year, with many locals criticizing the city for what they say is a lack of enforcement for the current zoning.

The report encourages a “wider range” of commercial ground-floor uses, including retail, eateries, and arts and cultural spaces, but urges the city to maintain the 10,000-square-foot cap. The report points to decades of “failures and discrepancies of code and regulation enforcement” and says the current rules must be updated to “become more enforceable in order to achieve a system that has greater predictability.”

Some locals who feared the report would “open the floodgates” to big-box retailers moving into the neighborhood were pleased to see that it’s not recommended for retail to expand beyond the square footage that’s already allowed. Regardless of the city’s next steps, enforcement is key, said one small business owner and long-time Soho resident.

“These big stores are a real albatross for the people who live here because they don’t make good neighbors—they light up the stores all night, they get deliveries late at night,” said Henry Reed, who co-owns an art gallery and lives just off of Broadway on Broome Street. “We need balance and we need the city to actually enforce things.”

The Fix SoHo/NoHo Coalition, a group of property owners who are pushing for a neighborhood rezoning, largely celebrated the report’s recommendations. “SoHo/NoHo should be recognized as a special mixed-use district because that is what it is today, as the report directly says,” the group said in a statement.

But the coalition also emphasized its opposition to artist loft tenants who, through a certification process, can legally live and work in certain manufacturing buildings. “Most residents in SoHo/NoHo are not certified artists, and legal residency should not be reserved to a select legacy group,” the coalition’s statement continued.

Those spaces have also been the subject of much debate throughout the months of community conversations. In a sort of middle ground, the report recommends the preservation of joint living-work quarters for artists (JLWQA) where only city-certified artists can reside, but says officials should consider expanding the definition of who is eligible for those live-work spaces.

Along with the desire to preserve the neighborhood’s architectural character, calls for more affordable housing were also heeded by the report’s recommendations.

Underused parcels, such as parking lots or those with one-story buildings, should be considered for redevelopment as below-market-rate housing, the report states. It also suggests converting non-residential buildings “conducive to residential conversion.” Pro-development group Open New York has pushed for affordable housing to have a greater presence amid neighborhood changes and applauded the recommendations.

“We hope that the concern given to protecting architectural character is viewed alongside the need to maximize the amount of new housing that can be brought to the neighborhood,” the group said in a statement.

In the coming months, the city will follow up on the report with a presentation on potential next steps to Manhattan Community Board 2’s land use committee. Elected officials say they will continue to meet with locals as they mull changes for the neighborhoods.

“I want to thank everyone who took part in our comprehensive look at the neighborhood’s zoning,” said Brewer. “The SoHo/NoHo area has a rich and vibrant history, but it’s clear that work needs to be done to lay the foundation for its future.”