SoHo/NoHo/Chinatown Rezoning: The Vast Gap Between the City’s Projections and Reality
Critics of de Blasio’s atrocious upzoning plan for SoHo, NoHo, and Chinatown–including yours truly— have raised a wide range of serious concerns about its possible and likely consequences. To the very limited extent that the City has acknowledged and addressed these concerns, it has attempted to counter them by predicting that the outcomes feared by critics will not come to pass. This response has failed to allay concerns, in part, because the City has historically proven to be outrageously inept at anticipating the effects of its rezonings (as we will be documenting in detail in the coming days). Beyond the matter of the City’s cracked crystal ball, however, this response raises a fundamental question about the plan: why propose zoning changes that allow outcomes that, however unlikely, would fail to advance the City’s ostensible planning goals for the area. Today, we will offer a couple of examples of the enormous gap between the development scenario that the City predicts and the type and amount of development that its own plan makes possible and reasonable to anticipate.
We begin with the City’s expectations for office space development within the rezoning area. The amount of office space ultimately developed as a result of de Balsio’s proposed upzoning matters a great deal, because this land use constitutes one of several profitable development alternatives to residential uses. The City’s affordable housing projections are premised entirely on developers’ decision to build projects with over 25,000 SF of housing, so as to trigger the affordable housing requirement. As we have extensively documented, however, in each case where the City expects affordable housing to be built, the plan allows the construction of more market rate uses by not including uses that trigger the affordable housing requirements (residential uses of over 25,000 Sq ft per zoning lot) than by including those that do. Office space is one such use. The more office space is built, the less residential space is likely to be built and therefore the less affordable housing.
The City expects the rezoning to result in very little construction of office space. It anticipates 160,755 SF of it to take place in the entire rezoning area. To put this in perspective, the ten-story Scholastic building at 557 Broadway alone represents, at 112,500 SF, 70% of the office space development that the City anticipates for the entire district. To put this in further perspective, take just two of the projected development sites as examples, 123 Lafayette and 247 Canal, both located within the portion of Chinatown that the City insists on calling SoHo East. The official projections predict that their development will consist primarily of residential uses, yielding a total of between 63 and 94 affordable housing units. Under this scenario, these sites would include only 0 and 15,464 SF of office space, respectively. And yet, if developers decided to devote these projects largely or exclusively to office space, they could, under the proposed zoning, build 166,150 SF of it. In other words, the proposed zoning would allow just two buildings (from among hundreds within the rezoning area) to accommodate all of the office space predicted by the City for the entire rezoning area.
Asked to justify this ridiculously modest prediction, the City takes out its crystal ball and confidently maintains that the real estate market does not support more office space over residential development in the neighborhood (and that it, presumably, will not do so for the next 20 years, the timeframe of its projections). And yet, just a few days ago, a few blocks away from the rezoning area, Google purchased the 1.3 million square feet St. John’s Terminal building for $2.1 billion, the largest commercial real estate transaction in the country since the pandemic, with the intent of using for office space a site that, upon its rezoning, was envisioned by the City itself as residential. Now, it could be that, in the instance of SoHo/NoHo/Chinatown, the City anticipated, for purposes of its office space projections, the Google transaction and concluded that this deal would exhaust the demand for office space in the neighborhood for the next ten years. Maybe. It could also be, however, that the City is just making a wild guess that happens to coincide with the affordable housing goals used to justify its hamfisted rezoning proposal. We’ll let you decide.
The City has mostly kept silent about the consequences or intention behind the proposed relaxation of the current community facilities restrictions so as to allow all manner of “community facility” development in the area, including, most notably, space for private universities like NYU. Indeed, the City estimates that only 32,232 SQ of community space will be produced throughout the entire rezoning area over 20 years. This is not very much. To put that figure in perspective, consider Founders Hall, the NYU dorm at 120 E 12th Street that hides its undistinguished form behind the vestigial remains of St Ann’s, the attractive church that NYU demolished. That dorm alone would fit over five times the total amount of community facility square footage that the City expects to be built in the neighborhood.
Within the rezoning area, one could almost throw a dart and find a site that under the proposed rezoning could accommodate all of the anticipated community space. The City identifies, for instance, 103 Prince Street, the former post office building and current Apple Store, as a potential development site that will yield between 13 and 20 affordable housing units and no community space. And yet, the zoning allows in just that one building the development of a community facility of 64,577 SF, twice the anticipated amount for the district.
Until now, NYU has mostly not encroached upon the rezoning area, because the zoning does not allow it. De Blasio’s plan would lift that limitation, opening the door for it to build just about anywhere in the district. Then, despite the evidence provided by NYU’s historic rates of expansion, the City predicts, without explanation, that its upzoning will result in virtually no development of such facilities within the neighborhood. If that is the case, and if a primary purpose of the plan is to produce affordable housing, then why bend over backwards to allow a use that, being exempt from the affordable housing requirement, would produce none of it?
The above examples fit into a broader pattern surrounding de Blasio’s ill-conceived upzoning plan for SoHo, NoHo, and Chinatown. The City has justified its plan in terms of social justice goals. Instead, however, of formulating a plan that might further those goals, it has produced a monstrosity–a plan that paves the way for development that would undermine those goal throughout the neighborhood (and we say throughout the neighborhood, because we don’t believe for a second, based on the City’s track record, that it has correctly identified the sites where development will actually take place). Then, rather than tackle the challenging task of defending the development that the plan actually allows or of explaining why the plan encourages projects that run counter its ostensible goals for the district, the City simply predicts, against all common sense, that those projects will never happen. Why won’t they happen? I guess because the City’s crystal ball says they won’t.
Find out more about the SoHo/NoHo Upzoning plan here, and urge city officials to oppose it here.