SoHo/NoHo: Zoning for a Housing Crisis

Open New York
Jun 10 · 10 min read

The Department of City Planning is considering a rezoning of SoHo and NoHo, two of New York’s wealthiest and most desirable neighborhoods. At Open New York, we believe that the scale of the housing crisis demands a pro-housing approach.

We ask that policymakers allow contextual increases in residential density within the area’s historic districts, while also permitting denser construction in the surrounding areas. At minimum, these two proposals would allow 3,400 more homes than the status quo, with almost 700 offered at below-market rates. Half of those, in turn, would be offered first to local residents.


Upzoning for equity

New York City and the region as a whole are in the midst of a profound housing crisis, generations in the making. Homebuilding in the city has fallen desperately behind levels that are needed to keep prices stable — never mind drive rents down. The housing crisis is fundamentally a housing shortage: last year, the five boroughs permitted fewer new homes per capita than either San Francisco or Baltimore.

Wealthy neighborhoods have particularly shirked their responsibility to build their fair share of housing. When the de Blasio administration looks for opportunities to “upzone” — that is, to change the zoning code to permit larger buildings — they find them in the lowest-income neighborhoods. East Harlem and Inwood in Manhattan, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, East New York in Brooklyn, Far Rockaway in Queens, and Bay Street on Staten Island have all accepted or are working through rezonings for more housing. The only neighborhood that the de Blasio administration has considered rezoning that isn’t poor is Gowanus, an industrial area where there aren’t many residents to complain. Open New York believes this is an unfair dynamic, which must change if New York is to lay any claim to being a progressive city that makes room for people of lesser means.

The Department of City Planning’s reconsideration of zoning in SoHo and NoHo is an opportune time to challenge this unfair pattern of development. The city is looking to clean up zoning rules which, bizarrely, forbid retail in the M1–5A and M1–5B districts that blanket SoHo and NoHo. Open New York thinks this is also the time to make room for more neighbors in two of the city’s most exclusionary neighborhoods. The city should upzone the neighborhood within the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing framework common to all rezoning during the de Blasio administration, requiring developers to build affordable housing alongside market-rate rental apartments. Not only would the additional density be more than appropriate in a very in-demand neighborhood with some of the best transit in the western hemisphere, but housing is a bigger need in New York City than the boutique office space currently allowed.

We recognize this won’t be easy — many existing residents entered the neighborhood as early-wave gentrifiers decades ago, and have profited from growing amenities and property values shooting into the stratosphere. More recently, fabulously wealthy investors and homeowners have bought into a neighborhood whose outward appearance they expected to never change. Both are groups who are rarely asked to shoulder any responsibility for housing New Yorkers and would-be New Yorkers without six-figure jobs, who didn’t have the good fortune to buy or rent lofts back when they were still halfway affordable.

Despite the difficulty of rezoning Lower Manhattan neighborhoods, it is necessary if neighborhoods in the outer boroughs and uptown are to be saved from the SoHo-ification that will continue to send overflow demand from Manhattan into the outer boroughs, gentrifying Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island — and eventually beyond. We also hope that it could make room for the next generation of artists, who can’t afford to buy or rent in the current market.

To that end, Open New York has identified two ways for SoHo and NoHo to accommodate more housing — which we believe should be a higher priority than the boutique office space currently allowed — while at the same time preserving the cast iron buildings that make the neighborhoods unique. The first strategy is to rezone the neighborhoods’ underdeveloped edges for mixed-income, high-rise housing, with mandatory affordable housing set-asides, at rents that low-income New Yorkers can actually afford. The second is to allow infill on vacant or near-vacant lots in the cast iron heart of the neighborhood, while matching the density of pre-war buildings on the same block.

Furthermore, we would also support exploring the pedestrianization of the neighborhoods’ historic districts, both to discourage car use and make the walking experience more pleasant, while also making room for the additional residents that new housing would bring.


Building up the edges

Outside of the picture-perfect core of SoHo and NoHo, some of the edges, especially outside of the boundaries of the historic district, remain un- or underdeveloped, and unloved. Especially around Sixth Ave. and Canal St., there are good opportunities to zone for high-density, mixed-income housing, which fits in with the context of tall pre-war buildings nearby.

On one block alone — bounded by Canal St., West Broadway, Grand St., and Thompson St. — a rezoning to allow a floor area ratio of 12 (or FAR, the standard measure of density — the multiple of the lot area that can be built as floor area) could make way for well over 600,000 square feet of housing, all while remaining below the density of the 16-story Holland Plaza Building, built in 1929–30, which sits on the other side of the park near the Holland Tunnel entrance. Similarly, the vacant lot on the northeast corner of Sixth Ave. and Grand St. could be upzoned to the same density and still remain less dense than pre-war 100 Sixth Ave. to its north. On these two blocks alone, that means over 900 new apartments in a neighborhood with excellent schools, abundant transit, and a history of exclusion.

With a rezoning, this dilapidated block could have 681,000 sq. ft. of new housing — that’s up to around 900 new homes, 181 affordable.

The building at 100 Sixth Ave. also provides context for a building with an FAR of 12 of a few non-historic buildings across the street, on and just off Watt St., between Thompson St. and West Broadway. The two non-landmarked lots at 40 Thompson St. and 356 West Broadway, currently home to a disfigured commercial building with barely a single pre-war feature left on it and a parking garage, could host a new building of nearly 180,000-sq. ft. if upzoned to an FAR of 12, yielding over 200 apartments.

This surface parking lot is zoned for an office building at less than a third of the density of the building next door. Wouldn’t 200 apartments — 40 to 60 of which would be affordable — be a better use?

Other opportunities abound. The parking garage at 209 Centre Street, just north of Howard, could make way for a residential building with over 200 apartments, if built to an FAR of 12. The three buildings just north of 210 Lafayette, on the west side of Petrosino Square, could make way for 110 new apartments at the same FAR, while still generally matching the densities of buildings surrounding the square. Best of all, at these densities, even smaller lots would begin to allow significant amounts of housing. At 12 FAR, the two lots at 314 and 321 Lafayette St, north of Houston, currently home to a single story chain bank and UPS outlet, could yield up around 50 apartments.

Which would you prefer? 50 homes, or the current chain bank and billboards?

These are just a few of the sites outside the historic district where new housing could go, but there remain a number of underbuilt lots which we believe could accommodate thousands of apartments. Nonetheless, for those keeping score at home, simply rezoning the sites identified above would allow more than 1500 new apartments.


Matching historic densities

But what about the area inside the historic districts? We see much opportunity there as well. Take Canal St. — a major crosstown corridor, with five subway stations — ideal for greater densities. 416 Broadway, a building built to a floor area ratio of 10, is an example of the high-density buildings that turn-of-the-century developers were erecting decades after the cast iron building boom. Open New York believes that if that density was good enough for the 1910s and 1920s, it’s good enough for the 2010s and 2020s, and that all of Canal St. should be zoned to allow FARs of 12 — a slight increase in density that responds modestly to the huge increase in demand over the past century.

As Canal St. already sits in one of three historic districts crisscrossing the area, distinguished historic buildings would not be threatened by demolition from an upzoning. But for the other buildings — the single-story taxpayers, the vacant lots, or the low-rise earlier 20th century commercial buildings that could be expanded upwards without destroying their essence — an upzoning would allow more development.

The need should be clear to anybody familiar with Chinatown housing. The tenements home to our oldest Chinese community are bursting at the seams, stuffed with families whose children sleep on bunk beds in living rooms and seniors whose walk-up buildings make them prisoners in their own homes. Mandatory inclusionary zoning would ensure hundreds of new affordable apartments — at least half of which would go to those already living in the neighborhood — on sites that are otherwise unlikely to see a single affordable unit built under current zoning, either because they are not buildable at all, or because the most profitable use under current zoning is luxury condos, hotels, or office buildings.

In order to ensure that the affordable housing is actually affordable, we would also urge the administration to offer developers the “deep affordability option,” making room for families of three with annual incomes up to $31,080. We do not think that the “workforce option” — available to families of three making up to $89,355 a year — is appropriate.


Contextual infill, looking up

For the heart of SoHo and NoHo, a more surgical approach is in order. While “context” is often evoked to restrict development, we believe that in this area in particular, the prewar context of blocks can be used to guide increases in allowable construction. The current zoning allows floor area ratios of 5, despite the fact that many cast iron buildings have FARs of 6, and many turn-of-the-century buildings have densities that are higher still.

Open New York proposes special zoning rules that allow for mixed-income housing to rise to the density of the tallest prewar building on each block. This would not override current historic district protections, but would complement them — new buildings would still have to pass Landmarks Preservation Commission muster, which would prevent the demolition of historic buildings, and ensure that anything new is of enough quality to sit in such a well-known historic neighborhood.

In practice, this more granular approach would mean an imperceptible upzoning on some blocks, and a dramatic one on others. For the empty lot at the northwest corner of Grand St. and Lafayette St., our approach would permit a building with a floor area ratio of roughly 6.8 –not a huge upzoning over the FAR 5 permitted today, but one that would allow mixed-income rental housing where currently only boutique office space is permitted, all while respecting the context of the block, and matching the density of 180 Lafayette St. three doors down, built in the early 1890s.

The contextual upzoning plan would allow for a much larger building, on the other hand, for the parking lot at 410 Lafayette St. There, the 11-story office building behind it at 718–20 Broadway, built in 1906–08, would justify a floor area ratio of nearly 11, offering an opportunity to build over 100 apartments, with market-rate rentals cross-subsidizing affordable ones on a site that would otherwise be home to office space that would otherwise drive up the rent for existing housing by bringing more high-paying jobs to the city.

These are just a few of the sites we’ve identified, but there are many more. According to our analysis, there are, at minimum, 48 potential development sites in SoHo and NoHo that could altogether fit 1,945 new units, assuming each new building is allowed to contextually match the density of the tallest building on its block. Combine those with the sites we’ve identified outside various historic districts, and our plan would yield 3,484 apartments in total. Furthermore, through MIH, at least 697 of those apartments could be rented at deeply affordable rates, yielding hundreds of below-market homes in the heart of one of the most expensive and exclusionary neighborhoods in the United States.

While the SoHo/NoHo area is largely built-out, allowing truly contextual development could yield even greater densities, and result in hundreds of deeply-affordable homes that Manhattan desperately needs. The difficultly is not in locating where they could go, but rather in summoning the will of the de Blasio administration and Council Member Margaret Chin to permit dense housing in the first place.

Under our plan, at least 3,400 more people will be able to call SoHo/NoHo home.

Support our plan for SoHo/NoHo?

You can help make it a reality. Every one of the decision-makers below will have a say in any neighborhood rezoning, and each voice they hear supporting more housing will go a long way. You can also CC: your local councilmember, who you can find at this link.

Councilmember Margaret Chin: Contact if you live in her district!

Email: mguerra@nyc.council.gov

Twitter: @CM_MargaretChin

Councilmember Carlina Rivera: Contact if you live in her district!

Email: District2@nyc.council.gov

Twitter: @CMCarlinaRivera

Borough President Gale Brewer: Contact if you live in Manhattan!

Email: gbrewer@manhattanbp.gov

Twitter : @GaleABrewer

The Department of City Planning: Everyone should contact!

Contact Form for Director Marisa Lago

Twitter: @NYCPlanning

For more from Open New York, and to learn how you can help us advocate for more housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods, visit us at http://opennewyork.city, and follow us on Twitter at @OpenNYForAll.

Open New York

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Open New York is an advocacy group working for more housing in New York City. Let’s open the city we love to all. You can find us at http://opennewyork.city