After years of escalating zoning non-compliance in SoHo and NoHo, the City of New York, through its Department of City Planning (“DCP”) and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer along with Councilmember Margaret Chin, is finally focusing on fixing a zoning problem that just will not go away.
SoHo is the area of Manhattan south of Houston Street that stretches southward to Canal Street and lies between the Hudson River and Lafayette Street. NoHo is the area of Manhattan north of Houston Street that is generally understood to be bounded by Astor Place and Houston Street (on the north and south) and Broadway and The Bowery (on the west and east).
Under present zoning, residential use in SoHo/NoHo is largely restricted to joint living-work quarters for artists (“JLWQA Units”). This requires one occupant of the unit to be certified as an “artist” by the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. In addition, retail use is not permitted in many of the areas in SoHo/NoHo where, in reality, such uses are thriving, albeit illegally from a zoning perspective. As originally conceived, the SoHo/NoHo areas were zoned to protect the artist community that pioneered the conversion of obsolete manufacturing spaces to an artists’ haven in the 1970’s.
However, due to mounting economic pressure from non-artist buyers seeking to live in a part of Manhattan with unique cast iron buildings and spacious lofts like no other place in the City, artists were induced to sell their spacious lofts. As a result, the amount of residential non-compliance in SoHo/NoHo has been increasing over the years and is now reaching critical mass. The proliferation of this zoning non-compliance can be attributed, in part, to a laxity in enforcement by the Department of Buildings (“DOB”), tacitly looking the other way for reasons which some speculate to be due to the difficulty and hardship of enforcement coupled with the undisputed economic vitality brought to the area by the changing demography.
As a result, non-artists have been moving into JLWQA Units at an increasingly rapid pace by offering substantial profits to former artists for the privilege of living in this unique part of the City. Many of the buildings in this area are owned as co-ops, with their Boards of Directors facing increasing pressure from shareholders to accept non-artists. To induce Boards to accept such non-conforming use, many purchasers have agreed to indemnify their co-ops against any zoning non-compliance by offering to execute so-called “SoHo Letters”. However, when push comes to shove, the Courts have not looked favorably on the viability of such arrangements.
Private initiative groups such as the Fix Soho/Noho Coalition have also been pressuring the City to reform the zoning in SoHo/NoHo to address what has become a zoning nightmare by relaxing the prohibition against non-artists and retail use with an eye toward continuing protection for artists.
The DCP, in its SoHo/NoHo Community Planning Process, has proposed certain changes to the existing zoning regulations. This proposal includes expanding the living-work requirements to non-artistic working uses and, thus, eliminating the artist-in-residence requirement. The proposal also includes providing non-artist residents of JLWQA Units an amnesty period against enforcement by the DOB based on no artist in residence until the Unit is sold to a qualifying buyer.
As for commercial uses, the proposal includes plans to allow a wider range of neighborhood- compatible uses on ground floors, such as retail, food stores, community facilities, arts and cultural uses, while maintaining the 10,000 square foot cap on retail uses. The proposal recommends expanding such uses beyond the ground floor with greater capacity in certain portions of SoHo/NoHo. Regulations governing scale, type and hours of operation of eating and drinking establishments would be relaxed while maintaining current regulations on bars and entertainment establishments.
While many of these proposals are viewed by some as potentially damaging to the artistic community, and viewed by others as being simply inadequate to address the zoning debacle, it is certainly encouraging that the City is finally taking steps to address the anachronistic and ineffective zoning that is stifling the legitimate growth of this area.