Chaos, tension at Soho/Noho rezoning meeting

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Councilmember Margaret Chin speaking at the first meeting on the Soho/Noho rezoning. Photos by Gabe Herman

BY GABE HERMAN | The first public meeting of the Soho/Noho rezoning process on Feb. 6 had moments of chaos and tension as residents wanted more information about officials’ motives, and expressed concerns that their opinions were being heard.

The meeting’s format surprised many with its informal town hall style, without presentations or microphones. It was held in a ground-floor space at P.S. 130 at 143 Baxter St.

Jonathan Martin, a senior associate at BFJ Planning, stood in the center of the room as dozens of locals stood around. He explained the six-month process involving input from the community and an advisory group of local organizations.

Martin and BFJ were hired for consulting by the initiators of the process, City Councilmember Margaret Chin, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and the Department of City Planning.

Martin was frequently interrupted with questions about the motives behind the process, and why more information hadn’t been given about it and the meeting until the last minute.

Some angrily interjected that Soho and Noho’s zoning is just fine as it is but that the city just needs to make sure it is being followed. The area has a special requirement for joint live-work quarters for artists (J.L.W.Q.A.) under which a resident of a unit must be a certified artist.

“We need enforcement,” one person shouted out. Another said of the area, “Why do people keep saying it needs to be improved?”

Councilmember Margaret Chin, at right, encountered a skeptical audience when she addressed Soho and Noho residents at the meeting on the area’s proposed rezoning.

Martin pointed out the four stations set up around the room for feedback and opinions, which also had data charts of the neighborhood.

Joan Melnick, a painter and Noho resident since 1969, told Martin the city has a history of changing zoning without community input.

“I will not stand for change in the zoning,” she declared to applause.

She told The Villager later, “I’ve seen so much happen over these years, how artists have been pushed out by developers. The community has been decimated.”

Nevertheless, she thought good could come from the initial chaos and confusion.

“If anything, it’s bringing the whole community together,” she said.

Noho painter Joan Melnick spoke for many at the meeting when she declared she is completely against rezoning Soho and Noho.

Chin thanked everyone for coming, but was met with some hostility from the crowd. The councilmember said many illegal things were happening in the neighborhood and she was tired of reviewing special permits.

“It’s not just about enforcement, we tried that,” she said.

The crowd then dispersed to fill out opinion sheets.

Brewer later stood on a chair to address the meeting, saying she wanted affordable housing, including for artists, added to the mix for a rezoning. Meanwhile, Democratic State Committeemember Christopher Marte announced an organizing effort to focus the community’s response.

Chin told The Villager that feedback she heard included concern about affordable artists housing being preserved, which she said was a priority for her.

“That’s how Soho was created, so we don’t want to lose that creative spirit and energy,” she said.

Chin said the meeting’s format wasn’t ideal.

“We’ll do better next time,” she assured.

A BFJ staff member said the feedback from the first meeting would inform what issues are discussed in future public meetings, and their format.

A Web site for the process, envisionsohonoho.nyc, is now live. The next meeting is billed as “Thematic Public Workshop 1” on Thurs., Feb. 28, time and location to be announced.