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Possible Soho, Noho rezoning could broaden the scope of artist live-work spaces

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Preliminary recommendations say those units could be expanded for “all types of work”

The city is mulling a Soho and Noho neighborhood rezoning.
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Potential zoning changes in Soho and Noho may broaden those who qualify for the neighborhoods’ artist live-work spaces to make those units “more inclusive,” according to the city-hired consultant who is crafting recommendations to help shape the area’s future.

In 1971, the two Manhattan neighborhoods were mapped as M1-5A and M1-5B districts, which legalized residential use for certain manufacturing buildings to be occupied in what the city has dubbed joint living-work quarters for artists (JLWQA). To qualify, tenants must meet the city’s specific definition for an artist and get certification, but people have found ways around those provisions.

To create a path toward ensuring those units remain, even if their occupants are not artists, the city could allow for “non-artist amnesty” until that unit is sold or a change of occupant occurs, says Jonathan Martin of BFJ Planning, who the city hired to develop a vision for a possible neighborhood rezoning.

“This is a complete sort of reversal of how we might go about supporting the artists,” said Martin. “It does one other thing too, because it supports all types of work … it becomes much more inclusive and it does support ideas of fairness.”

Once one of these units hits the market, it could either remain as a JLWQA and be sold to a certified artist, or through another mechanism that is “yet to be determined,” a new live-work framework would expand who can reside in those spaces to “all types of work”—thereby widening the definition of creatives and micro-manufacturers eligible for JLWQA units and creating incentives to encourage their occupancy, said Martin.

“We would like that unit to have tenancy by an artists or a micro-manufacturer—the heart and soul of the district,” said Martin. “[To do that] we broaden that qualification and say if you qualify under this, you can access some additional resources to support the artist and maker community.”

A possible pathway toward preserving or expanding artist live-work spaces in Soho and Noho.
Department of City Planning

The idea could be a compromise that settles “some of the sticky situations” that pop up with the current JLWQA framework while preserving the neighborhoods’ artist legacy, but the concept is still in its infancy. Some area artists say the idea is promising in theory, but fear that broadening the requirements for live-work units—even with incentives for artists—could backfire and usher in a wave of non-artists into JLWQA units, eliminating the community’s “creative essence,” said one sculptor.

“It worries me that by allowing others to get their foot in the door it opens the floodgates to being abused and eventually just completely filling with people who aren’t artists,” said Janet Marcus, who has lived in a live-work space with her husband in Soho for nearly three decades. “They need to be very careful about how they phrase things because I could see this backfiring if it’s not done right.”

The method is part of a set of preliminary recommendations Martin will compile in a report and submit to the Department of City Planning this summer. From there, the city will mull that input as it considers possible changes to address longstanding neighborhood issues and develop a roadmap for the area’s future.

Currently, Soho and Noho are plagued with issues stemming out of new neighborhood uses that conflict with the area’s underlying zoning, including regulations that technically prohibit ground-floor retail and residential units, and retailers either using zoning loopholes or outright illicitly occupying spaces larger than 10,000 square feet. The latter has led to quality of life concerns, especially near Broadway, such as late-night deliveries to shops on the thoroughfare and storefront lights shinning into homes at all hours of the night.

These are issues Martin has taken into account during several community meetings “to start thinking about what is the future of these neighborhoods rather than simply addressing the issues that are on the ground right now, one at a time.” To that end, he has identified two core concerns: preserving those JLWQA spaces, and maintaining “appropriate restrictions” on the size of retail while taking steps to diversify the businesses that can legally operate.

The three guiding principals for possible land use and policy changes are as follows: improve quality of life; protect artists and residents while maintaining the area’s historic scale and character; and strengthen the neighborhoods’ economic health. Within those principals includes a mix of recommendations from alleviating street congestion to building affordable housing to creating new neighborhood green spaces.

Chief among them is to allow “residential use, live-work units, shared studio/maker space and other services” in new buildings; ensuring height, scale, and density are in context with the existing built environment; and expanding allowable uses for ground floor retail, but mostly capping those spaces to 10,000 square feet.

After the city digests community feedback, DCP will return to Manhattan Community Board 2’s land use committee in October. Plans for a rezoning proposal will not be developed without further discussion with Community Board 2 and locals, he emphasized.

“This really is about looking for ways to help perpetuate and maintain, ‘What is the legacy of these two neighborhoods?’” said Martin. “I think we heard that very clearly.”

Comments on potential changes will be accepted online until June 20. After that, the public can connect with the Soho and Noho planning team by emailing SoHoNoHo@planning.nyc with questions and comment.