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M1-5 What? A Lofty History of Zoning in SoHo and NoHo

Scrolling through the NYC Department of City Planning website, it is easy to get lost amidst the zoning texts and maps and terms. But, as we come to realize from time to time – when one of our favorite businesses is replaced with a vacant storefront, or a luxury condominium building goes up across the street, or a neighbor is priced out of their apartment – zoning matters. And every zoning text, map, term, and district has a story. The M1-5A and M1-5B districts in SoHo and NoHo, which have come under scrutiny in recent public meetings hosted by the Mayor’s Department of City Planning, Borough President Gale Brewer, and Councilmember Margaret Chin, are not simply lines drawn on a map. New Yorkers fought hard for M1-5A and M1-5B. These zoning districts emerged following the efforts of local artists, residents, advocates, and politicians throughout the 1960s and 1970s to legalize loft housing for artists. They dramatically altered the city’s relationship to and accommodation of its artist population, and put in place a strong mechanism for adaptive reuse of historic buildings, literally reshaping the neighborhood and the city as a whole.

Meeting of the SoHo Artists Association, 1970. Photo courtesy of The Lofts of SoHo via John Dominis. “Living Big in a Loft,” Life, March 27, 1970.

Almost six decades ago, just as 1960 was turning over into 1961, a number of fires broke out in SoHo. The incidents, causing the deaths of four people, led to routine inspections by the NYC Fire Department and Department of Buildings of the aging buildings in the area. During these inspections, the city discovered a host of artists living illegally in the industrial lofts of the neighborhood. Most of these buildings dated to the period from the 1860s to the early 1900s, when about 250 five- to twelve-story cast-iron loft buildings were constructed in the area as it became a hub of manufacturing. The textile industry was especially pervasive in SoHo and NoHo until the 1950s, when the evolving needs of modern manufacturing – which included loading zones, cheap electric lighting, and improved access to transportation networks – pushed businesses away from the neighborhood. The city adopted its present zoning resolution on December 15th, 1961, creating the framework for the three types of zoning districts we have today – residential, commercial, and manufacturing – each of which could be qualified as a lower-, medium-, or higher-density district. At this time, SoHo/NoHo was zoned for industry, but artists saw an opportunity to live and work in the vacated and underutilized buildings of the area, and began moving in.

The city evicted about 100 of these illegal residents in 1960 and 1961, according to a local artist group of the time. In response to these evictions, SoHo residents created the Artists Tenants Association (ATA), which met for the first time on April 6th, 1961 at the Judson Memorial Church. The ATA sought to develop the Artist in Residence (A.I.R.) program, which would allow artists to live legally in lofts, then a completely novel concept. The ATA argued that artists played a crucial role combatting the twin trends of suburbanization and deindustrialization which were plaguing New York at the time, and was supported by Eleanor Roosevelt, sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning. While organizing an artists’ strike that would have far-reaching consequences for the city, ATA representatives met with city officials to come up with a policy agreement to protect the artist residents. On August 22nd, 1961 the strike was canceled and the agreement was announced to the press: eligible artists, who would have to send a letter to the commissioner of buildings and place a sign outside their apartments, would be allowed to live in commercially-zoned buildings with two means of egress and no excessive fire hazards. Only two loft residences per building would be permitted.

January 7, 1962 article on the presence of artists in lofts, The New York Times. Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

Despite the success of this compromise, it would be years before policy changes more comprehensively reflected and protected the reality of residential life in SoHo. This particular agreement between the Mayor and the ATA remained unofficial and incomplete. Artists continued to be evicted for not bringing their lofts up to commercial code, and only a fraction of artists applied for A.I.R. status. The stipulation that there be only two loft residences per building, and the fact that the agreement only applied to buildings zoned for commercial usage, meant that many artists were still living illegally in SoHo (which was still zoned for manufacturing) without room for legalization. When the city rezoned the area of SoHo and NoHo as an “M1-5 light industrial zone” in the early 1960s, prohibiting new residential development, the city stopped accepting A.I.R. applications altogether. In May 1964, the ATA developed a new coalition with politicians and housing advocates to pass a state bill to amend the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law to permit artist loft residences. Nevertheless, this law remained limited and prohibitive, and according to the ATA fewer than 300 artists were registered to live in loft buildings by 1967. This whole struggle was happening at the same time as the (ultimately successful) battle to prevent Robert Moses’ plan to demolish most of SoHo and a broad swath of Lower Manhattan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX).

A.I.R. Signage. Photo courtesy of SoHo Memory Project.

In 1970, the SoHo Artists Association (SAA), which emerged from the ATA, tried once again to push for zoning changes by promoting the positive influences of artist residents on the city. This time, the organization not only emphasized the role of artists as important contributors to the culture of the city, but also as people who attracted the high-income professionals who would bolster the city’s economic growth. Following a series of planning meetings, the City Planning Commission presented an adjusted zoning plan in October 1970, which was passed in January 1971. Now, it was decided, M1-5 would be separated into two districts: M1-5A and M1-5B. “M1” referred to the manufacturing designation where light manufacturing, commercial, and industrial uses were allowed; “5” referred to the maximum allowable FAR (which stands for Floor Area Ratio, the density of development as measured by floor area); and  “A” and “B” referred to the special allowance of artist residents and the ground floor restrictions to light manufacturing and heavy commercial uses.

In the M1-5A zone, where lofts were smaller, the artist population was higher, and the industrial vacancy rates were greater, artists – determined to be “manufacturers” of art – could legally live in any loft smaller than 3,600 square feet. Those who were by September 1970 already living in lofts larger than this size could remain. New artists’ residences in the M1-5B zone, which included the Broadway Corridor in both SoHo and NoHo, would be prohibited, but artists who by September 1970 lived in lofts smaller than 3,600 square feet could stay with a special permit. The allowance for artists living in the non-residential zone was termed “Joint Live-Work Quarters for Artists,” or JLWQA, and was only allowed in buildings in the districts constructed before 1961. All artists cooperatives in both districts would be legalized, and the existing manufacturing zoning code would be preserved to protect the remaining industry and its associated jobs.

In June 1971, the state legislature passed another amendment to the State Multiple Dwelling Law that eased the fire and safety regulations for converted loft buildings and mandated that lofts comply with the safety standards of the converted manufacturing buildings rather than the standards of residential buildings. It also more clearly defined the certification process for artists, giving the responsibility of determining who counted as an artist to the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs. The DCA decided that the certification would be based on the artist’s need for space and his/her commitment to the art.

Artist Certification Letter from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs. Photo courtesy of the SoHo Memory Project.

These neighborhoods attracted a huge artist community in the years that followed, including some very well-known figures like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring. Scores of galleries opened here, and eventually the Guggenheim SoHo, the New Museum, and the Museum for African Art also opened in the neighborhood. The 1973 designation of the SoHo Cast-Iron Historic District, granting most of SoHo landmark status (which, beyond a few individual landmarks, was not extended to NoHo until 1999, 2003, and 2008)  further protected the architectural and cultural character of the neighborhood and encouraged the retention of buildings that had been converted to artists lofts, as well as the adaptive reuse of buildings to residential use (landmark designation can under certain circumstances provide a mechanism for allowing uses or changes to buildings that the underlying zoning does not allow if it can be proven that conforming to the zoning is not economically viable and the exception would in perpetuity serve to help preserve or restore the building). Additionally, in 1982, the State’s Loft Law was enacted, even more broadly legalizing loft living and loft conversion for people beyond artists throughout the city. At the same time, it lowered tax incentives for loft-converting developers and thus protected the remaining loft-based industries and jobs. The law also demarcated areas, including SoHo, where loft living was permitted for artists alone. This law sought to address the needs of artists, residents, industrial businesses and workers, developers, and the city economy all at once, and acknowledged the importance of adaptive loft reuse to the evolution of the New York City.

By the early 1980s, loft rents had risen significantly and the neighborhood showed signs of steady gentrification. According to the “SoHo Zoning Guidebook,” by the SoHo Broadway Initiative, wholesalers still occupied many ground floors of the buildings in SoHo, but fewer traditional manufacturing uses remained on the upper floors. By the 1990s, non-artist, retail, and office tenants had replaced many of the neighborhood’s galleries – a number of which had moved to Chelsea – and buildings in the neighborhood started to routinely house retail on the ground floor and residences on the upper floors. In the early 2000s, destination retail and expensive loft apartments had become commonplace in SoHo, in spite of the M1-5A and B zoning regulations which were intended to discourage both. Many of these new residents and businesses were able to move into the neighborhood through the processes of grandfathering, special permitting, obtaining a variance or zoning change, or employing another legal strategy. Still others moved in simply by disregarding the zoning requirements.

Areas considered for rezoning in the 2019 public meetings hosted by The Mayor’s Department of City Planning, Borough President Gale Brewer, and Councilmember Margaret Chin.

Beginning in 2019, a potential rezoning of SoHo and NoHo is now being considered once again. The Mayor’s Department of City Planning, Borough President Gale Brewer, and Councilmember Margaret Chin have hosted a series of public meetings to discuss a potential rezoning of these neighborhoods with the intention, they say, of updating the zoning regulations to better address the needs of the neighborhood’s present residents, businesses, workers, property owners, and visitors. Of course there is immense pressure from big real estate and big institutions to create zoning changes that would facilitate their development agendas. The advisory board created by the three conveners to steer the public engagement process excluded Village Preservation (in spite of repeated requests by both the organization and other SoHo and NoHo groups to include us) as well as any certified artists. Meanwhile, the Real Estate Board of NY and NYU were both given places on the board.

Village Preservation has joined other groups to create the Save SoHo-NoHo Coalition (which includes the SoHo Alliance, the NoHo Neighborhood Association, New York City Loft Tenants, the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, and the Broadway Residents Coalition) to ask for the following guiding principles to be upheld during this continuing discussion of potential rezoning:

  • Preserving the existing rights and protections for residents, esp. artists/those in JLWQA
  • Maintaining the existing allowable FAR (density of development as measured by floor area)
  • Upholding existing limits on the maximum allowable size of retail
  • Keeping public review for developments or uses not currently allowed
  • Limiting types of university uses to those allowable under existing zoning
  • Keeping the creative character of SoHo and NoHo

Since the first zoning laws in the nation were put in place in New York City over a century ago, the system has evolved, responding to different political, economic, and cultural motivations and pressures. Zoning is always in flux, and it is important to know where our zoning code comes from, and how, why, and for whom it is changing. M1-5A and M1-5B, like many zoning districts, are rooted in a history of people committed to building a vibrant community, and Village Preservation maintains this commitment today.

For more information on the rezoning of SoHo and Noho, click here, and for more information on the history of zoning in New York City, click here.


“SoHo Zoning Guidebook,” SoHo Broadway Initiative

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