The two public meetings held to discuss the potential rezoning of SoHo and NoHo have been predictably tense and boisterous, with artist loft residents in particular worrying that they will be pushed out by landlords seeking higher rents. But alongside the city's public engagement process, the de Blasio administration has been holding a parallel set of talks: a series of closed-door meetings where local elected officials and large organizations are hashing out issues around a future plan.
The private meetings have been held since early January, by an advisory group convened by city planning officials, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Margaret Chin. The group includes a range of organizations, including neighborhood associations, community and cultural organizations, as well as two controversial stakeholders with significant real estate interests in the neighborhood: New York University and the Real Estate Board of New York.
To date, there have been roughly six of these private meetings, according to one source. Members of the advisory group were instructed not to discuss any of the meetings with the press.
“I don’t know exactly what the group does or doesn’t discuss or how much it will affect the outcome here,” said Andrew Berman, the executive director of Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (also known as Village Preservation), who has closely followed the planning process.
But Berman added, "I know a lot of people who participated in the public meetings that don’t feel that process is really giving them a voice.”
In New York City, matters related to land use, especially any having to do with a possible rezoning, are often fraught with suspicion. In the case of SoHo and NoHo, residents and loft artists have from the beginning accused city officials of leading them on a ppreordained process that could lead to the first comprehensive rezoning of the neighborhood in decades. Property owners have complained that the industrial zoning rules in SoHo and NoHo permit few as-of-right uses, requiring those seeking new retail or residential uses to apply for costly and time-consuming special exemptions and one-off variances; residents say the variance process is useful because it provides more public oversight of retail uses and planned developments.
This not the first time the city has tapped a closed-door advisory group to participate in a complicated land use process; most recently, a working group of stakeholders was assembled to help push through the 2017 rezoning of East Midtown. But the practice has set off alarms in a historic neighborhood with an old guard of residents and working artists who are highly sensitive to change, especially given how community groups in other neighborhoods such as Inwood have felt shut out of behind-the-scenes zoning negotiations.
The advisory group, suggests Tom Agnotti, professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College, is most likely an attempt to head off any major disputes before the start of the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, the public review process for a rezoning. “DCP believes that they can inspire confidence by talking to people and answering all potential questions, even if they wind up talking circles around the issues," says Angotti. "It’s all about preventing a failed ULURP.”
It is not clear how the Department of City Planning selected the group's members. Village Preservation, which claims to be the largest membership group in the area that would be affected by a rezoning, asked to be on the advisory group but was denied. Berman, whose group has been a critic of rezoning efforts in the past, said the city never provided him with a reason.
“It’s striking that REBNY and NYU are included as members and we are not,” he said. “It seems to betray some kind of prejudice.”
Reached for comment, the Department of City Planning, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin issued a joint statement on Tuesday:
"With about 90 applications for special permits, and another 60 variances filed with the Board of Standards and Appeals since 2000, the SoHo/NoHo neighborhood has obviously been the locus for development attention out of proportion to its size — and as a result has become a patchwork of styles and exemptions.
"The pre-planning working groups the Borough President has convened jointly with local council members and either EDC or DCP regarding the South Street Seaport, Midtown East, and the Garment Center have resulted in a holistic view of a neighborhood's future, and that's our goal here as well.
"The advisory group is one part of a process that includes everything from one-on-one conversations and special presentations to larger public meetings. It’s valuable to create a 'safe space' for stakeholders with competing interests to discuss their hopes as well as their fears for the future. All of this will inform a comprehensive public document that encompasses a 360-degree analysis and includes all points of view."
Under state open meetings laws, the advisory group is legal because it does not constitute a public body, according to Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government. However, under the Freedom of Information Act, correspondence from elected officials in the advisory group to its other members can be made public.
Not all of the advisory group members are happy about the gag order, but they face expulsion if they break the rule. Chuck DeLaney, one of the founders of Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants, said not speaking to the press about the advisory group's meetings was presented as a “preexisting term and condition” of membership. Still, he said he disagrees with the policy.
“I believe sunshine is the best disinfectant,” he said.
The next official meeting on SoHo and NoHo planning process takes place tonight, starting at 6 p.m. at 1 Centre Street. It is open to the public.