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As City Considers A Potential Soho & Noho Rezoning, Original Loft Artists Push Back

Participants attend an "Envision Soho Noho" event organized by city planning officials.
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Participants attend an "Envision Soho Noho" event organized by city planning officials. Photo by Elizabeth Kim

It was a Department of City Planning event that had the unexpected feel of a reunion. Billed as a workshop for community stakeholders to “envision the future of Soho and Noho,” Thursday's event drew a crowd of roughly 200 participants, including dozens of artists who over the decades have been covered by the loft law, which granted them legal rights to live in self-converted manufacturing spaces as well as rent-stabilization.

Dividing participants into groups, city planning organizers stressed that this was a collaborative exercise, designed to elicit feedback from a neighborhood that over the decades has transformed from a dying manufacturing district to one of the most valuable real estate pockets in New York, studded with luxury condominiums and high-end retail.

Sprinkled across tables, many of the area's longtime artists, however, weren't buying it.

“We are doing feel-good crap while the lambs are being led to the slaughter,” said Ralph Lewis, one of the founders of Peculiar Works Project, a theater organization founded in 1993 inside a Broadway loft, during a break.

Like his fellow artists, he wore a sticker saying “I live work in Soho.”

He added: “I think this is pretty much a done deal.”

As city officials embark on a planning process that could lead to the first comprehensive rezoning of Soho and Noho in decades, downtown loft artists have emerged as one of the most vociferous opponents, arguing that their legal status rests on the area’s designation as manufacturing.

“I live under the Loft Law,” said Lewis, who has lived in the area for 30 years. The law, he said, applies to buildings that are in manufacturing-zoned areas.

Which leads to the question hanging over him and other artists: What happens if that zoning changes?

The question has gone unanswered, in part because the city has refused to describe the planning process as a rezoning, although they have conceded that rezonings could occur as a result.

Organized by the city Department of Planning, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and City Council Member Margaret Chin, Thursday’s event was in many ways designed to assuage concerns raised during the first meeting on February 6th. That proceeding, which had a looser format without presentations, quickly devolved into chaos as residents barked questions at city officials and loudly objected to any rezoning of the area.

Brewer was quick to acknowledge that the city’s first effort to roll out the planning process had failed. “The first public event sucked,” she told the crowd.

But while the second meeting was more tempered, there were still flashes of anxiety. During a slide show presentation giving a snapshot of the neighborhood’s industries, several in the crowd angrily asked why artists were not represented. Soho and Noho, they said, were built by artists.

City planning officials said a fuller demographic report would be presented at the next meeting.

Underscoring the artists’ concerns is a push by the real estate industry to overturn a more-than-four-decade-old zoning law that requires some former manufacturing buildings in SoHo to be reserved for working artists certified by the city. Landlords and brokers have argued that the zoning restriction has hurt property values. But loft advocates say the law has not in practice been used to exclude non-artist residents, and remains an important protection for existing artists, known officially as "artists-in-residence," who otherwise may face eviction pressures.

“You have had situations where artists have been bought out by real estate developers who want to convert buildings into condominiums,” said Tom O’Neill, a photographer and artist-in-residence who lives in a loft on Greene Street. “That’s kind of changed the spirit of the neighborhood.”

After initially issuing a statement last month that said Soho and Noho’s zoning needed to be “fixed,” Brewer and Chin have backed off that statement. In her opening remarks, Brewer told the audience, “There are no preordained plans.”

Later, asked about the high anxiety over the plan, Chin said residents were simply not used to a community-based planning process. “They’re used to fighting against things,” she said. “So I guess we have to make them feel comfortable, and through these sessions, hopefully they will understand that they do have a stake.”

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