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Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Will SoHo Be the Site of New York City’s Next Battle Over Development?

THE NEW YORK TIMES - By Emma G. Fitzsimmons

SoHo, the upscale Manhattan neighborhood known for its chic stores, art galleries, cobblestone streets and multimillion-dollar lofts, will be the next focal point in New York City’s effort to create more affordable housing.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Wednesday that he wants to rezone SoHo to allow for more residential buildings in Lower Manhattan, a move that the administration says could create 800 new affordable units there.

Rezoning efforts in New York typically target neighborhoods that are far less wealthy, setting off tense battles with longtime residents over gentrification.

But in a city that is being reshaped by the pandemic, the plans for SoHo could signal a turning point in how the city approaches development, and could mean wealthy neighborhoods are no longer off limits. The issue has already emerged as a major theme in the 2021 mayor’s race, with leading candidates like Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, and Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, recently announcing their support for rezoning SoHo.

The mayor’s office said zoning rules in SoHo, a former industrial district in Lower Manhattan, and the nearby NoHo area have not been updated in half a century. The plan would also remove cumbersome regulations for retail businesses.

“We have an opportunity here to create affordable housing — to bring to an area that has been upper income a greater mix of New Yorkers,” Mr. de Blasio said on Wednesday at his daily news briefing.

The city’s proposal comes two weeks after a rezoning plan for the Brooklyn waterfront, known as Industry City, was defeated by progressive Democrats. Mr. de Blasio refused to take a position on Industry City, but he said he would support other rezoning plans if they benefited the public.

His plan is likely to cause an uproar in SoHo, where wealthy residents could resist the prospect of taller buildings and affordable units. Rezoning efforts in other neighborhoods like Inwood, Manhattan, and Bushwick, Brooklyn, have faced legal battles and furious opposition from some residents.

A local preservation group immediately attacked the proposal, saying it would give rise to huge buildings that would alter the character of the neighborhood.
“This upzoning approach of super luxury towers with a small set-aside for affordable units is bad for New York City, bad for our neighborhoods, and bad for affordability,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat who leaves office next year, appears ready for the fight. Vicki Been, his deputy mayor for housing, said in an interview that the economic devastation of the pandemic had made the need for affordable housing even more urgent.

“We need affordable housing in every neighborhood,” she said. “This is a neighborhood that does not have any.”

Ms. Been said the city had already been working with the community to gather feedback.

“I’m sure there will be controversy, but I think it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

The pandemic has transformed the real estate market in New York City, causing rents and home prices to drop as some people flee to the suburbs. The city has faced an affordability crisis for years, and it is too early to know if the pandemic will have a long-term effect on the cost of living.

With 15 months left in his administration, Mr. de Blasio said he wanted to move forward on two other rezoning proposals — on Governors Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan, and in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, another industrial area.

“There’s important work to do in terms of development that actually produces for communities and for the good of all, not just for a few developers,” the mayor said.

The SoHo neighborhood, named for its location south of Houston Street, was once known for manufacturing, then as a hub for artists, and is now a mecca for luxury shops. The area encompassing SoHo and nearby Greenwich Village has a median household income of $150,000 and more than 70 percent of residents are white, according to city data. The neighborhood had some of the worst destruction from looting during Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year.

Mr. de Blasio is proposing new zoning rules for an area between Houston Street and Canal Street, with Sixth Avenue as the western border and Lafayette Street as the eastern border. There is also a piece to the north between Houston Street and Astor Place.

The proposal would allow for about 3,200 new housing units to be built in the area, using a policy known as mandatory inclusionary housing to require affordable units. About 25 percent of new units must typically be affordable, though the City Council can set specific rules for each neighborhood.

The mayor has pledged to create and preserve at least 300,000 affordable homes by 2026, 200,000 of which the administration says it plans to achieve ahead of schedule in 2022, when Mr. de Blasio will no longer be in office. About 165,000 affordable homes have been created or preserved since 2014.

The prospect of rezoning wealthier neighborhoods could be gaining momentum. Mr. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, said recently that rezoning SoHo and “neighborhoods like it that have long been underutilized will allow us to add affordable housing in a desirable place to live.” Mr. Stringer, the city comptroller, also said he supported the idea.

Jessica Katz, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, an urban planning nonprofit, said Mr. de Blasio had focused his rezoning efforts on communities of color. Now his administration was living up to its progressive ideals by asking wealthy white neighborhoods to help solve the housing problem.

“This is a way for the de Blasio administration to put their money where their mouth is,” she said. “SoHo has a really important symbolic value, but it also has a substantive role to play in terms of creating new housing for the city and affordable housing in particular.”

Emma G. Fitzsimmons is the City Hall bureau chief, covering politics in New York City. She previously covered the transit beat and breaking news.  @emmagf 

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