For more than 50 years, I have lived two blocks from NoHo, and about six from SoHo.
During those years, both neighborhoods have gone through radical transformations, some of which I have welcomed. Especially SoHo, which has shifted from light manufacturing and warehouses to artists’ lofts and galleries in landmarked, handsome, empty cast-iron buildings. That time in the 1970s and ‘80s was when the neighborhood was most creative and dynamic, and when my wife and I took long walks on its cobblestoned, gritty streets and often took pleasure in its flourishing and unique artist cafes, restaurants and bookstores.
In recent years, SoHo evolved into a neighborhood of sterile and upscale boutiques, sleek furniture shops and hyper-expensive hotels, losing much of its flair in the process. Indeed, in its most recent incarnation as a swarming and totally mercantile tourist haven, SoHo was at its least lovable. All that activity has temporarily been halted because of COVID, and I for one don’t lament its disappearance.
Still, even when the city’s future remains uncertain because of the pandemic, there has been a drive by real estate interests for upzoning and new luxury development in SoHo and Noho. They inexorably try to fill these neighborhoods with midtown-like massive buildings, with the city indicating that if the development is successful here, it intends to implement similar projects throughout New York. Their reach is somewhat restricted, since much of these two neighborhoods can’t be built on due to complex zoning and historic-district protections.
However, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new plan seeks to make it possible in parts of the neighborhood to build luxury towers and provide a percentage of affordable apartments as a way to justify the building of these intrusive monoliths.
The plan is a big change in the de Blasio administration’s longstanding approach to development, with the city usually targeting underbuilt, low-income neighborhoods (such as East New York, Far Rockaway and the Bronx’s Jerome Avenue) for affordable housing. According to de Blasio, his plan would open the door to as many as 3,200 new apartments, with 800 of those at below-market rates — a part of his Mandatory Inclusionary Program. Their claim is that it would provide some cheaper apartments and create a more diverse population in these expensive areas.
However, a study done by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation indicates that the plan would raise housing prices and make the moneyed, primarily white neighborhoods even less diverse. According to the society’s unwavering and articulate Andrew Berman, the plan “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” — most of them Chinese and Hispanic.
It is probable there would also be secondary displacement of lower-income people in nearby areas in Chinatown and the Lower East Side as they begin to gentrify. These buildings could possibly increase the size of development by 250 percent, including building on the immense and ugly Edison parking lot on Lafayette Street, across the street from our favorite cafe. It’s a lot that for years has puzzlingly been untouched, while new and renovated buildings went up all around it.
Much of this housing built under this plan is not only unaffordable, but will undermine the distinctive aesthetic character of the neighborhoods with egregious towers. SoHo had become a model for other cities transformation of abandoned manufacturing space into distinctive neighborhoods. Berman ultimately sees the plan as a ”massive windfall for the big real estate interests who are Mayor de Blasio’s biggest campaign donors,” as well as placing the moral onus on its opponents as resisting necessary affordable housing rather than allowing new out-of-scale buildings to be constructed.
De Blasio’s argument for the development is that: “Thoughtful, progressive zoning changes will pave the way for the next fifty years of growth — while making two iconic neighborhoods more accessible than ever, and helping us rebuild a fairer and better city.”
However, according to my state Sen. Brad Holyman, since De Blasio became mayor in 2013, the program for affordable housing has been a failure, resulting in the construction of 43,000 units of market rate housing but only 2,000 affordable units.
Options for compromise
Andrew Berman has proposed an alternative development plan that calls for new developments to be no larger than current rules allow and direct taxpayer subsidies to fund construction of 100 percent affordable housing on select properties.
Also, existing mechanisms would allow the city to mandate the inclusion of affordable housing when manufacturing or commercial buildings are converted to residential use in NoHo and SoHo.
Andrew Berman may not have all the answers for building affordable housing in NYC — who does? — but compared to the mayor and his avaricious developer allies, Berman has always been on the side of what makes this city affordable, communal and aesthetic.
He has also always had a gift for alerting us to the dangers of the perniciousness of development that would destroy what is left of the city’s character. Something developers and De Blasio care nothing about.
The last word should go to the award-winning journalist and urban critic Roberta Brandes Gratz writing about midtown’s new urban towers and the Hudson Yards development:
“I weep for my city; it is committing urban suicide.”