BP Brewer Meets Community Resistance at SoHo/NoHo Rezoning Hearing

Posted on: August 25th, 2021 at 5:04 am by

Photo: Art Davison

Borough President Gale Brewer is now in the hot seat with the city’s public review process churning onward for the controversial rezoning of SoHo, NoHo and parts of Chinatown (not to mention what’s left of Little Italy). To that end, Brewer held a virtual hearing on the subject via Zoom and Facebook just three days before her recommendation is due.

The announcement of Monday night’s public hearing met with the same exact criticisms that the Envision SoHo/NoHo Plan process ignited when it began back in 2019.

Soho Alliance immediately chastised Brewer for convening a five-member panel that heavily slanted pro-development to facilitate the hearing. In a newsletter to its members, Director Sean Sweeny described Brewer’s panel as a “dog and pony show.”

The last-minute addition of Jeannine Kiely, Chair of Community Board 2, only slightly evened the scale. She was joined by the moderate voice of Steve Herrick, Director of Cooper Square Committee, who urged more tenant protections to prevent displacement. The balance of the panel was rounded out by lobbyists and advocates for rezoning, including Mark Dicus of SBI the Soho BID, Jerrod Delaine of Carthage Real Estate Advisory, Jessica Katz Director of Citizens Housing and Planning, and Eric Botsford, from the Department of City Planning.

While the Borough President cannot technically vote in this rezoning, Brewer’s pending recommendation nevertheless carries weight on the decision, since it was her office that sponsored the initial community outreach. (The Envision SoHo/NoHo Process is considered by neighbors as a sham because it gleaned info without ever revealing intent.)

During that public outreach two years ago, neither Gale Brewer nor Councilmember Margaret Chin spoke about the creation of new affordable housing through upzoning under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program (MIH), which is now touted as justification for an apparent giveaway to developers. In fact, the Envision SoHo/NoHo Process ended with Chin and the Department of City Planning fully stating that the next steps were unknown.

So, what began as an initial study to update the fifty-year-old zoning laws has transformed into what some are calling redevelopment toward a Mega-SoHo, a super-mall with big box stores and towering luxury from SoHo to the East Side of Bowery, as well as encroaching on Chinatown.

The best-case scenario offered by the panel at BP Brewer’s hearing is really only a lottery for “income-restrictive housing” on poor floors, in a building that might not even really be in SoHo, or one that may never actually exist because of all the loopholes in the MIH program. Brewer’s questions reveal that her office remains at ground level on the discussion of how the rezoning could skew residential instead of commercial.

Meanwhile, Village Preservation, in conjunction with other community groups and housing advocates, including the Chinatown Working Group, already published a community-led alternative plan that would be pro-tenant while still updating the zoning for new residents and as-of-right retail storefronts.

Kickoff in June 2019, Photo: Eddie Panta

These organizations painstakingly dissected the data and continue to explain that rezoning could actually be worse than the status-quo. Their findings, as well as that of Community Board 2, show the public that no amount of affordable housing is actually guaranteed under the rezoning plan or the MIH program.

Katherine Schoonover, speaking on behalf of Village Preservation at the hearing, said that the rezoning should be rejected because the key players responsible for it will be out of office if implemented, and therefore can’t be held accountable for the impact. Indeed, Brewer exits her post at the end of the year; Councilmember Chin is term limited, with her most likely successor being Christopher Marte, who has opposed this plan from the start; and, of course, Mayor de Blasio, who is pushing through the proposed rezoning in the final months of office.

But now, the overarching idea put forth by pro-development groups and the city is that the only choice is doing nothing or the rezoning. But the equality the city is offering with MIH is proportional to the ability for luxury housing to rise higher.

None of the representatives from the Department of City Planning even mentioned Chinatown, Little Italy, or the Lower East Side at the hearing. All of these low-lying neighborhoods would either be encroached upon or potentially erased by the Mega-SoHo the upzoning could create.

Five hours of testimony from the public, including those of many pro-development lobbyists and residents, proved that the community is more divided than ever.

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