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Artists fear displacement as city mulls Soho, Noho rezoning

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“We need a balance or zoning changes will destroy what the artists created,” said one long-time Soho painter

Soho, Manhattan
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Artists who helped revitalize Soho and Noho from a dilapidated manufacturing district into an area with a booming commercial corridor are bracing for zoning changes they fear could push them out of vibrant neighborhoods they worked to create.

On Thursday, dozens who live and work in the neighborhoods packed into the second in a series of public workshops hosted by the Department of City Planning (DCP) to develop a framework for a potential rezoning. A specific plan has yet to be proposed, but city officials say changes could address the myriad issues that arise from the neighborhood’s current zoning for light manufacturing butting heads with a surge of destination shopping.

“Some of the issues that appear with the zoning include the fact that it does not reflect what we see on the ground,” said Jonathan Martin of BFJ Planning, who the city hired to help facilitate the planning process. “The zoning’s manufacturing, [but] we look around and what we really see is mixed use.”

But some fear changes to the area could translate to backtracking a nearly 50-year-old law that mandates former manufacturing buildings be reserved for working artists who are certified by the city.

“Artists made these neighborhoods and now, because it’s creative and buildings are renovated, you have all these commercial interests who want to come in,” said Laurie Marhsall, a painter who has lived in a Soho loft live-work space for some 40 years with her artist husband. “We need a balance, or zoning changes will destroy what the artists created and the goodwill of the city years ago to make a creative neighborhood.”

The area’s last major zoning change came in 1971 when it was mapped as M1-5A and M1-5B districts, legalizing the residential use of certain industrial lofts to be occupied in what the city refers to as joint living-work quarters. Those vacant spaces were often illegally occupied by artists who revitalized units that would have otherwise remained dilapidated.

The sections of Soho and Noho being studied for potential rezoning.
Courtesy of the Department of City Planning

Today, some 8,000 New Yorkers live within the zoning area—85 percent of which are in historic districts—with more than 51,000 jobs crammed into the neighborhoods, according to DCP. But at Thursday’s meeting, DCP presented a breakdown of the area’s jobs using data from the New York State Department of Labor, which largely overlooked artists by not factoring in freelancers, part-timers, and other non-payroll jobs.

The lack of recognition of the existing artists worried several, as participants erupted into jeers.

“It makes me feel like they don’t even have a full grasp on the community they want to change when the data they’re presenting doesn’t even include [independent artists],” Cynthia A. Sherman, a sculptor who has lived in a Soho loft for nearly 30 years, said later in the evening. “It makes me really nervous to hear that they’re relying on data that doesn’t show the full picture.”

Sylvia Li, a planner with DCP, acknowledged that the data left out certain workers, including artists, and noted that Thursday’s workshop was designed to glean input from locals to “create a more comprehensive understanding and picture of the neighborhood” for the department moving forward.

Among the concerns voiced include the need for a greater balance of shops that serve the community (such as grocery and corner stores), a lack of green space, preserving the neighborhood’s historic character, and addressing oversized, big-name retail stores—particularly on Broadway—where late-night deliveries and blindingly bright storefront lights have generated quality of life concerns.

“It’s like Time Square over there now; the stores bring a crush of people during the day and at night it’s like we have a disco ball trying to shine into our homes,” said Henry Reed, who lives just off of Broadway on Broome Street.

Current industrial zoning regulations prohibit ground-floor retail and residential units in Soho and Noho, but they’ve become common throughout the area. Certain restrictions are imposed on retailers, such as not allowing tenants to occupy spaces larger than 10,000 square feet. But that hasn’t stopped oversized retail stores from using loopholes to pop up in the neighborhoods or from seeking special permits from the city.

Some say Soho and Noho have fundamentally outgrown its current zoning and requires changes to better align to the new uses of the neighborhoods, but others still point to a lack of city enforcement of current zoning that has led to a need to reevaluate the area.

“They say, ‘Oh, we have to address the changes that have occurred.’ The reason the changes have occurred is because there’s no enforcement,” said Marna Lawerence, a theater artist who has lived in a rent-regulated tenement building on the edge of Soho for nearly 40 years. “It looks like we’re going to start looking like every other neighborhood.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer emphasized that the city has “no preconceived ideas” for a potential rezoning. New York City Council member Margaret Chin said the city is “working toward truly participatory planning” with a series of additional meetings slated for the spring and summer.

The first leg of the planning process will cap with a June 6 public session that will review a set of recommendations issued by Martin in consolation with 18 community groups.