Packed informational event was first public gathering on controversial land use proposal
By Adam Pincus
At least 150 people crowded into an informational event at PS 130 in Little Italy tonight, organized by the city’s Department of City Planning, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and City Council member Margaret Chin. The stated intent was to help residents learn about and comment on the zoning changes that may be coming to Soho and Noho.
The city wants to refashion land use regulations which impact the two neighborhoods, and that are widely considered to be outdated and expensive to navigate. Currently developers, owners and tenants often use special exemptions to get around the regulations, to allow certain residential uses as well as ground-floor retail uses.
But some in the audience were soon frustrated that the event was not an open forum. Instead City Planning employees were taking questions while standing near an array of oversized multi-colored maps and charts mounted on foam core. The displays illustrated land use, density and other metrics intended to aide attendees in forming an opinion of the proposed zoning change.
After it became clear there would be no opportunity tonight for attendees to speak to the audience, Brewer rose to say there would be a chance going forward. The city has laid out a public engagement schedule for the first half of the year, culminating in a report with community input expected in the summer.
As Brewer was trying to side with the audience, saying, “this is a situation where you are going to be listened to,” she was interrupted by an attendee who said, “you should not allow artist [apartments] to go for free market!”
Some attendees were satisfied with any law — outdated or not — that kept developers at bay. In conversations with a reporter, several attendees said that Soho was crowded enough and any land-use change that would streamline more retail and more development was a bad idea. Some blamed the Real Estate Board of New York, some blamed developers.
“We don’t want so much development,” said Soho resident Ramon Sanchez.
One attendee who gave her name as Linda said the developers who would benefit from a change, had brought the problem upon themselves by overpaying for retail space in the first place. Now, they wanted the change to make leasing the space relatively more valuable, she speculated.
To be sure, there were supporters of the plan in the room, even as the opponents were more vocal. For example Dan Miller, of the nonprofit Open New York, was there. His group pushes for additional residential development and lower rents.
But it seemed many just wanted their old Soho back, even if they knew that was not possible.
“I don’t see how New Yorkers would benefit,” said Tom McKitterick, who has lived in the area for 38 years. But he added with a note of resignation that with or without the zoning change, “there is no turning back.”