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De Blasio’s Great SoHo/NoHo/Chinatown Developer Giveaway (Video!)

The greed orgy that is de Blasio’s SoHo/NoHo/Chinatown rezoning is currently before the Land Use Committee of the City Council, which held a public hearing on the matter on November 9. Opponents of the plan greatly outnumbered its proponents, which consisted primarily of Open New York-affiliated individuals (more on them and their fine leadership, a member of which is already fantasizing about the destruction of the neighborhood, here); Edison Properties, a developer that would reap tremendous benefits from the upzoning, and two non-profits (Citizens Housing Planning Council and the Regional Plan Association) masquerading as disinterested third parties, even though the aforementioned developer sits on their boards. Every community group, tenant group, preservation organization, and elected official who spoke testified against the plan. Their words served as an eloquent corrective to the risible though persistent narrative by the City that its outrageous plan has something to do with equity.

As these things go, however, such testimonies typically find their audience once, if at all, and are then soon forgotten. We therefore decided to make a video highlighting responses to a variety of deficiencies in the plan, in the hopes that it will lead City Councilmembers, especially those representing these neighborhoods — Council members Chin and Rivera and Speaker Johnson — to heed the voices of those would would be most affected by this abomination of a proposal, and vote NO.

You can find the video and a shorter version of it below:  

Although the speakers covered ample ground in their testimonies, the 2-minute time limit prevented much elaboration or substantiation. To fill in the gaps, we outline the major points put forward, complementing them with further context and references.

For starters, the planning processes spearheaded by the City has been a farce. Outreach to Chinatown residents, who would suffer the greatest impact of this upzoning, was minimal and done only in English. As it turns out, better outreach would have been for naught. The City’s actual public engagement did elicit substantial community participation. Participants, however, got little in return for their effort. The outcome of this process was unceremoniously cast aside in favor of the ham-fisted plan that the City ultimately put forward — a plan rife with demographic misrepresentations and glaring omissions, such as the undercounting of lower income and Asian-American residents and the misrepresentation of the location of existing rent regulated residential units. When this proposal then met with objections, representatives from the City either ignored them or accused opponents of the plan of being racists and against affordable housing.

Map from SoHo NoHo report: Mapping the Incentive to Demolish
Map from SoHo NoHo report: Mapping the Incentive to Demolish

Affordable housing is, of course, the plan’s main ostensible purpose, along with that of making the neighborhood more diverse. As applied to this proposal, this aspiration could be mistaken for a joke, were the negative consequences of the proposal not so profound. As we’ve documented at length, the plan will likely result in little if any new affordable housing units on account of the multiple profitable development alternatives made available by the plan. The City has responded to this critique by predicting that, given market demand, developers are unlikely to opt for any of these alternatives. Putting aside the City’s outrageously bad record at making prognostications of this sort, we might point the City to the recent development at St John’s Terminal building — the largest commercial real estate deal in the country since the pandemic — or to the project recently announced at 358 Bowery on a projected affordable housing site, both of which will consist entirely of office space. But even if these are outliers, we might ask, if these types of non-residential development are unlikely to happen, then why offer the possibility for them to happen at all? 

Beyond being unlikely to produce new affordable units, the plan will likely result in the elimination of many of the existing units of affordable housing that the City did not bother to count. The massiveness of the proposed upzoning would create an enormous incentive to harass tenants or buy them out so as to facilitate the demolition of these buildings and make room for the development of the sites for luxury uses. As we’ve documented, this has already been a pervasive problem throughout the district even though the current zoning offers far less upside to the demolition of rent regulated units than the veritable bonanza proposed by de Blasio’s plan. A disproportionate number of the displaced would be among the most vulnerable residents in the area, seniors and Asian-Americans whose incomes are too low to qualify for the affordable housing that the plan will supposedly build (but in reality won’t). All of this would result in the opposite outcome than that promised by the City. It would make the neighborhood as a whole richer and less diverse than it currently is.

Speakers drew attention to yet another way in which the plan diminishes our neighborhoods and indeed the city — the proposal to allow as-of-right big box chains and restaurants of any size, without limitation, anywhere in the district. This promises, first of all, to push out locally owned small businesses, which contribute to the distinctiveness of the area and whose profits remain in the city and percolate throughout the local economy, and replace them with operations that funnel profits straight out of the city and otherwise have a suburbanizing and homogenizing cultural effect on local neighborhoods. Second, the proposal offers little recourse for current or future residents to address the quality of life conflicts that businesses of this size cause and that have already plagued the neighborhood under far more restrictive zoning limitations. 

As several testimonies pointed out, the massive size of the upzoning, combined with its careless and barely differentiated application across the rezoning area, reflect a shocking disregard for the built fabric of the most renowned historic district in the world. The plan creates an enormous incentive for the alteration and demolition of buildings throughout the district at the discretion of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which will be under great pressure to approve them. The City itself already anticipates the demolition of twenty-nine contributing buildings within the historic district. 

Finally, many community members ask, if this is rezoning is not for new low income residents (because few if any new affordable housing units would be built to accommodate them), and if it’s not for existing low-income residents (because many would be harassed and displaced from the neighborhood), and if it’s not for local businesses (because many would be pushed out by the newly allowed big box chains and restaurants of unlimited size), and if it’s not for New Yorkers and visitors who value the city’s built historic legacy (because the plan puts this legacy at risk), then who is this plan for? For whose benefit are so many being asked to bear the burdens imposed by this ill-conceived plan? It’s easy to hazard a guess. Just follow the money: landowners and real estate speculators. The harder question to answer is how, as the City claims, this makes for an equitable outcome. 

The video closes (as did many testimonies) with an exhortation for City Council members to put the welfare of vulnerable local residents and the interest of New Yorkers at large over the insatiable greed of a few well-connected individuals hoping to profit at the expense of the neighborhood and of the public at large. We second their call.

To send a message directly to every member of the City Council urging them to vote no, CLICK HERE

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