Summary From The First 3 Soho/Noho Zoning Meetings
Thank you to community member Dianne Mendez for summarizing the following concerns a group of Soho residents have compiled.
These are issues that have arisen at all three recent public meetings regarding the possible rezoning of SoHo/NoHo. Several themes/topics have been common to all these meetings: (1) trust/distrust of both motivation and process; (2) retail glut/vacancy/store size; (3) parking or lack thereof; (4) traffic/air/noise pollution; (5) green/open recreational space; (6) lack of affordable housing; (7) trash; (8) transportation. I am cc’ing some people I know in SoHo in the hope that they will add their opinions and voices for consideration.
(1) trust/distrust of motivation and process
I first read about the city’s review of zoning in SoHo/NoHo in Crain’s and The Real Deal in separate articles published in September last year. After that, the issue seemed to go under the radar, and was largely forgotten by many of us. What we didn’t realize was that a secret “Advisory Committee” had been formed without any input from the people whose lives would be most affected by contemplated changes, and that the so-called “advice” and “advisors” were subject to a gag order. Under these circumstances, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when residents express anger about being railroaded into a pre-baked rushed-up deal under the guise of your soliciting our input. Trust, once destroyed, is difficult to restore, but there are a few things that might begin to address some of the harm precipitated to date:
- Be honest – are you talking about rezoning as originally announced? Or, as stated at the March 20 meeting, are you looking for local input? The shifting message strongly suggests an ill conceived cover for a preconceived plan.
- Divulge who/what initiated the idea of rezoning – it seems highly unlikely that BP Brewer and Council Member Chin woke up one morning with the simultaneous thought that it was necessary to rezone a large part of lower Manhattan.
- Did this originate with the Mayor’s office with the thought of collecting higher taxes on increased retail/office space? Or from real estate interests seeking to maximize rental rates? Or from an unholy alliance of the two?
- Expand the “Advisory Committee” to include artists living/working in these neighborhoods, as well as preservation groups such as the GVSHP.
- Make the proceedings/minutes of Advisory Committee meetings fully public without redaction or editing.
- Slow the process down to allow time for further study of the neighborhoods in question – June 2019 is much too soon to have an understanding of who lives, works, plays, passes through the neighborhood.
- The data on which proposals are to be developed must be more accurate and inclusive than the 2010 census in a rapidly evolving area; Bureau of Labor Statistics information fails to capture most live/work activity in the neighborhood.
- We are near the 2020 census, so any zoning modification plans should be shelved until updated information can be used to develop a more meaningful and comprehensive profile of the neighborhoods.
- Enforce existing laws and regulations until a well-reasoned plan that garners widespread community support can be devised: limit store size/use, maintain building height and loft size restrictions, grandfather live/work spaces for artists, keep bikes off the sidewalks, penalize trash/little scofflaws, etc.
(2) retail glut/vacancy/store size
When my husband (a certified artist) and I first moved to SoHo, there were lots of locally owned small interesting stores, many of which were operated by and outlets for resident artists. Today, none of these remain. We have instead high-end international retailers who have no interest in or connection to the neighborhood, and whose goods very few, if any, of us can afford or would want. Moreover, the people who work in these establishments commute in from elsewhere and likewise don’t care about everyday quality of life issues for the residents. In addition, the city has routinely granted permission for conversion of ground floor apartments into new retail space and the construction of new buildings with even more retail space. This is madness, especially at a time when retail vacancy is at an all time high and growing and when brick/mortar stores are closing due to overwhelming competition from on-line shopping. Allowing even larger stores with glaring lights, loud music and promotional events will not solve this problem; nor will the myriad of disruptive pop-up stores that denigrate the stable fabric of the community. Alas, these types of retail enterprises are guaranteed to make the quotidian existence of residents increasingly miserable.
(3) parking or lack thereof
In the time that I have lived here, every available parking lot has been built on and almost all of the off street parking garages have been converted to residential or office buildings. Absolutely none of these developments have incorporated parking facilities to replace the parking that was lost, even though many of the people who move into them have cars. The lack of parking has been greatly exacerbated by thoughtless installation of huge CitiBike stations, which for the most part are located where street parking once existed. The Bike stations have also contributed to trash issues – blocking DSNY street sweeping equipment, having no trash baskets despite being trash magnets, and having no plan to keep bike stations litter free. Parking is frequently curtailed by film crews as well as ongoing construction. The city collects hefty fees from Bike Operators and Film Crews, but none of that revenue is used to benefit the affected neighborhoods. At the very least, a portion of that revenue should be earmarked for neighborhood improvement and cleanup.
(4) traffic/air/noise pollution
Traffic on all streets providing access to and egress from the Holland Tunnel is often at a standstill, resulting in the worst air quality, highest particulate matter in Manhattan, not to mention the extreme disturbance caused by blaring horns, police sirens and oversized trucks/busses. Pedestrian safety is threatened at almost every intersection as impatient drivers block cross walks and run red lights. While some of the most congested intersections have been provided with traffic cops, the city needs to realize the enormous budget impact of having to divert so many police personnel to directing traffic rather than preventing crime. If this is due in part to the one-way Verrazzano Bridge toll, then let’s change that. Guy Molinari may have thought this was helpful to his constituents on Staten Island, but I’m sure he didn’t foresee the how much havoc would ensue from this provision. Another cause of traffic congestion is the plethora of Uber, Lyft, Via, etc vehicles, which, judging by the TC license plates, now seem to represent the majority of vehicular traffic on the streets. The growth of this industry has been a budget disaster for both the city and the taxi industry, and should never have been allowed to expand unfettered. The lack of enforcement of bike traffic poses yet another threat to pedestrians who are forced to dodge bikes going through red lights, going the wrong way on one way streets and riding on the sidewalks.
(5) green/open recreational space
I know that the Elizabeth Street Garden is supposedly outside the boundaries of the SoHo/NoHo area under consideration, but this small gem has such a devout group of supporters even from people who live far to the West of the garden precisely because most of the area below 14th Street is entirely bereft of open/green/space. The few “parks” we have are pathetic – often poorly maintained expanses of asphalt, bricks and pavers, mostly devoid of vegetation. This sad lack of greenery was greatly affected by last fall’s freak snow storm that destroyed many mature trees on street such as Thompson and Wooster. Where there once was welcome shade, we now have a bunch of barren tree stumps.
(6) lack of affordable housing
Aside from deregulation of vacant apartments, there are two principal reasons for the disappearance of affordable housing in the neighborhood. The first, alluded to above, is the conversion of ground floor apartments to unneeded retail space; the second, is the AirBnB phenomenon. It’s common to see tree guards festooned with key holder locks like the ones that used to be used for emergency access to apartments housing the ill or elderly. I have seen buildings with as many as 16 of these key holders outside, which likely means that every apartment in the building is used for illegal short-term rentals. If there are more than one of these key holder outside a building, it’s safe to assume that some people are renting out apartments in violation of NYC law.
This is an especially sore point for those of us who have made an effort to address the problem in the years since ACE decided to stop servicing the streets and trash baskets in SoHo. Disgusted by the accumulation of litter, grossly overflowing trash receptacles, and the increase in rodent infestation, an ad hoc group of residents joined forces to replace DSNY’s small wire baskets with larger supposedly rat-proof receptacles. We also interviewed non-profit organizations providing services similar to ACE’s and recommended one to Council Member Chin’s office, who has allocated a modicum (albeit diminishing level) of support from the Council’s discretionary funds. Although we have succeeded in reducing litter, our efforts have been undermined by trash from pop-up and big box stores, aggressive and ubiquitous can scavengers who rip open bags and leave trash basket doors gaping open and container liners off center so that trash falls everywhere except where it’s supposed to, obsessive graffiti/advertising stickers who repeatedly deface trash baskets, walls and store windows, and by many tourists and AirBnB transients who don’t know or care about NYC trash collection rules. While we all appreciate that DSNY has a large and largely thankless job, they need to do a much better job of enforcement. Piles of Adidas and Nike shipping cartons beside corner trash baskets, slimy sidewalks outside of restaurants, and other recurring affronts to people who live here and manage their trash responsibly should result in regular and escalating fines.
The neighborhood has experienced a tremendous increase in residential (new apartment buildings on Houston and 6th Ave) and office occupancy (WeWork and Knotel) in recent years, without any parallel improvement in public transportation. The Spring Street E/C station is notable for dinginess, dangerous crowding due to limited access (especially on the uptown side). Two new apartment buildings on 6th Ave, a new apartment building on Thompson/Broome (once a parking garage), a massive WeWork office complex on West Broadway, the heavily trafficked Trader Joe’s on Spring Street and a renovation/enlargement of the God’s Love We Deliver building are projects that should have incorporated funds for a major subway station upgrade when the permits were granted. After all, the developers and businesses benefit greatly from this transportation option in terms of both economic value and convenience.
The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions – aka the law of unintended consequences.
The story of this neighborhood is unfortunately clouded by well intentioned initiatives that were undertaken without appropriate consideration of the long term consequences:
- The one way toll on the Verrazzano Bridge meant to benefit Molinari’s district on Staten Island has precipitated a traffic congestion, air/noise pollution nightmare in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan;
- The influx of international brand name stores may have benefitted landlords in the short term, but has had the unfortunate result of making the neighborhood more vulnerable to high rates of vacancy and far less responsive to the needs of people who actually live here;
- The laudable objective of encouraging recycling of cans and bottles has generated its own army of poor scavengers who subsist on redemptions while contributing materially to the mounting problem of litter and trash;
- Another laudable objective – encouraging non-polluting bike transportation – has been undermined by the unfettered growth of ride share traffic, poorly located oversized bike stations, and failure to enforce the sensible rules posted on the DOT website;
- A rushed, ill-considered rezoning plan is also highly likely to have unintended consequences, so let’s not rush to put something in place that we may soon rue. Allow time to do this right.