Soho/Noho rezoning: Non-artist residents, retail remain focus

BY GABE HERMAN | At the June 13 public presentation of preliminary recommendations in the Envision Soho Noho process, it was emphasized that the evaluation of zoning options was just beginning, and would continue throughout this year.

As the process continues, local groups and advocates are pushing their agendas, including on whether to legalize non-artist residency and enforcement of retail size limits in Soho.

One such group is the Fix Soho/Noho Coalition, comprised largely of landlords and several big property-owning firms in the city. One member of the group, Margaret Baisley, a Soho loft owner who has been a real estate lawyer in the neighborhood since the 1970s, recently told this paper she and the coalition were concerned that a pathway for non-artists to live in Soho was not laid out at the presentation.

Fix Soho/Noho believes more than 95 percent of current Soho residents, in fact, are not artists. Baisley noted that the issue of non-artist residency was raised at every meeting, including public ones and advisory meetings with local groups and officials.

“The vast majority of people who live here want to be able to live here legally,” she said.

Jonathan Martin presenting preliminary recommendations for Soho and Noho in June. (Photo by Gabe Herman)

The preliminary recommendations only included temporary amnesty for current non-artists in Soho, which Baisley said doesn’t make sense.

“I think, frankly, that would kill the community in Soho as we know it,” she said. “There aren’t enough artists to buy or rent these spaces.”

In addition to retaining the current spirit of the neighborhood, she said, “we need a broad mix of people to keep the community going economically.”

Baisley, who lives in Brooklyn, pointed to recent construction and maintenance work done on her building, and was skeptical any artists could write checks for the high costs that it required.

“We can’t turn the clock back,” she said. “I know it’s romantic to talk about the 1980s when there were galleries everywhere, and many artists everywhere, but that’s simply not the case now.”

Baisley supports grandfathering in the neighborhood’s current artists.

“No one wants to throw artists out,” she said. “They deserve protections and they should have them.”

But Baisley added that other residents, who are now the majority in the district, should also have protections.

“We’re the ones who keep this place going economically, and we’re the ones who should receive some recognition from the advisory committee,” she stressed.

She further argued that zoning based on peoples’ occupations is discriminatory. What’s more, she said, there should be a referendum on legal occupancy, because the majority of residents had not been heard in the process so far, just a loud minority.

Baisley also opposes restricting retail stores to 10,000 square feet, which the preliminary recommendations outlined, albeit with some room for exceptions.

“Because this is a mixed-use district,” she said, “we need many kinds of retail, not just small retail.”

She agreed that there should be better regulations for issues like noise, late-night deliveries and garbage pickups. But on the retail issue, she said there are good, responsible retailers that are larger than 10,000 square feet, and that the taxes paid by retail help property owners to pay their “outrageous” taxes and to maintain their buildings.

“We’re not trying to change the neighborhood,” she said. “We want to maintain the neighborhood, sustain and improve the neighborhood. And I think there should be a broad mix of retail here.”

Baisley said there is still room for negotiation on these issues, and that the Fix Soho/Noho Coalition is continuing to meet with local politicians and officials and advocate for its views.

Bloomingdale’s, on Broadway, between Broome and Spring Sts., is an example of large retail in Soho. (Google Maps)

Meanwhile, Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, which is part of the advisory group, said he was fine with non-artists living in the area.

“We just want the artists protected,” he said. “We don’t care if non-artists move in.”

Based on advisory meetings so far, Sweeney believes that non-artists, in fact, will be allowed to live legally in Soho. He wants the area to be kept as a manufacturing-zoned district, though, which would protect artists by not letting neighbors complain about noise or odor issues coming from artists doing their work.

“The best way to preserve artists and yet have non-artists move in, is to maintain the manufacturing zone, with its lower performance standards, and yet allow non-artists to move in. But they just can’t complain,” he said, referring to non-artist residents.

In short, the longtime Soho activist said he doesn’t want people to be legalized or move in and then turn around and complain and try to evict artists.

Sweeney also predicts the definition of “artist” in the city’s certification process will be broadened beyond just fine artists. It would then include “makers,” or “creative people,” and include Web designers, for example.

Sweeney said he’s O.K. with that, and with including others — like dress designers, architects and writers — and letting all other professions into Soho, but with a preference to creative people to keep the generally creative vibe of the area.

“We just want to have a creative feel to the neighborhood,” he said. “People still come here from Europe and they still think it’s kind of creative, and if it becomes doctors and lawyers and bankers, it’ll lose that. So we want to maintain that as a creative neighborhood, in which doctors and lawyers and dentists are allowed to live.”

Sweeney said he is also fine with the current retail zoning, but is willing to extend ground-floor retail in the entire neighborhood, since most retailers now just occupy the ground floor, and 95 percent of Soho stores are now retail.

“So we’re not going to turn the clock back,” he said. “Fine, so we’re giving them that concession.”

But if the ground-floor retail has 10,000 square feet, he said another 10,000 square feet should not be allowed on the second floor, as some are pushing for. At meetings, according to Sweeney, Real Estate Board of New York  members said they wanted unlimited retail sizes. When asked if that even meant 100,000 square feet, the REBNY people nodded, according to Sweeney.

“I knew this was going to happen,” Sweeney said. “Once you start messing around with this, I said a can of worms is going to open up, and that’s what’s happening now.”

Sweeney said his group didn’t want any zoning changes at all.

“We were happy the way it is,” he said. “It’s very successful, it’s the second-highest retail neighborhood in the city.

“So we didn’t want this, but we’re willing to be realistic,” he said, referring to non-artist residency and ground-floor retail throughout Soho.

“But don’t get greedy,” he added. “They’re getting greedy.”

A report with recommendations will be put out by consultant Jonathan Martin in late August, according to Sweeney. It will then go for review to Community Board 2 in October. Zoning changes after that would likely go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Margaret Baisley has been a Soho resident since the 1970s. She is a Brooklyn resident.

7 Responses to Soho/Noho rezoning: Non-artist residents, retail remain focus

  1. Baisley said “No one wants to throw artists out.”
    A blatant lie!
    Baisley has never lived in SoHo. She lives in brownstone Brooklyn.
    She has her law office in SoHo, where she has tried to evict a working SoHo artist and his family for her landlord client who had gotten rid of al the other artists in his building.

    "Fix Soho/Noho believes more than 95 percent of current Soho residents are.. not artists,” according to Baisley.
    Hogwash. There are many, many more artists than that.
    Why is Baisley again misrepresenting the facts? The public meetings this spring saw artists overwhelmingly in attendance.

    Furthermore, in 2011, Baisley raised $30,000 from SoHo property owners to do a study to find out how many artists and non-artists actually live in the neighborhood. Fine. We need data.

    However, no study was ever done. Is that because Baisley knows that there are lots of artists still in SoHo/NoHo?

    Worse, if no study was ever done, what has Baisley done with the $30,000?
    When questioned about the whereabouts of the money this spring by a realtor who had contributed to the fund, Baisley said she might conduct a study with it. But she was supposed to do that eight years ago!!!

    So, Ms. Baisley, are you going to return the $30,000 you fleeced from your clients? I wonder what the Bar Association would have to say about that?

    • Margaret Baisley

      Sean, I live in Brooklyn because I am not allowed to live in the loft I have owned and paid my mortgage on for over 25 years. That's why we are having this discussion. Most of the 50 buildings I represent are coops with owners in similar circumstances as mine. The funds I raised in 2011 to conduct a study are still sitting in my attorney's escrow account. The study was never done because the Dept of Cultural Affairs refused to release the names of certified artists to us so that we could see how many still lived here. We tried two Freedom of Information demands and were refused twice. In 2011, we went to City Planning and asked that they obtain the names and run the study. The matter was tabled for seven years. You took a poll to see how many of your SoHo Alliance members wanted to rezone SoHo. Only 100 answered, and you told me at lunch (with architect Shael Shapiro) that 48 said they favored rezoning and 52 wanted to keep it as is. So you said you were taking no position on the issue. If you are so adamant about finding out the answer to this question, ask DCA to release the names. We have a survey company lined up ready to find out how many artists certified since 1974 are still here. Let them do their work and we'll have the answer. Then we can eliminate nasty, baseless allegations made by people with no knowledge of the facts. We need to work together to find a fair solution that protects all stakeholders' interests, Sean, and I hope in the future you will work toward this worthy goal.

      In partnership,
      Margaret Baisley

      • Margaret, you now admit living in Brooklyn. Then why did you tell the reporter that you live in SoHo? It doesn’t help your credibility.

        Why would you say “I am not allowed to live in SoHo”. You have counseled countless clients over the past three decades how to break the law and live in SoHo/NoHo without any repercussions. You know full well that not a single non-artist was ever evicted for violating the current zoning. Again, it doesn’t help your credibility.

        Finally, answer my question: what do you plan to do with the $30,000 you raised for the study? A study is now pointless and at the time you collected the money, people were telling you that it was a fool’s errand: no one would answer a study saying they were breaking the law.

        Why are you not returning the money to the people who gave it to you? Do you plan to let things cool down and in a couple of years pocket it? Again, it doesn’t help your credibility.

  2. The original artists who joined in the great experiment which created "SoHo" were doing something that had never been done before. The word "Loft" didn't mean luxury or privilege in the 1970s, when we arrived in a vast deserted landscape with our sweat and our dreams.

    We weren't escorted around by Million Dollar Listing agents who presented us with ultra luxury finishes, and amenities. In fact, we sometimes went without water or toilets. We waited outside of Zelf rentals on Greene Street for gigantic sanding machines in order to smooth the splintered wood and remove decades of industrial grease from our floors. We climbed the same old factory staircases as the other sweat shop workers, sometimes froze in the winter, and walked for blocks down dark streets full of industrial debris in order to find some basic groceries.

    Anyone who was certified as an Artist In Residence paid their dues long ago, when "SoHo" was still "So What". Many of us never appeared at the Venice Biennale, but we toiled for decades as artists, and these old buildings would not have survived without our care and diligence.

    It is extremely disturbing to attend one of these zoning meetings and listen to lawyers and representatives of the real estate industry talk about how they will redefine our neighborhood, and thus, our lives. We need to be protected from the enormously powerful interests who are running us over and pushing us out. The City of New York must not abandon the original covenant which was established with the Joint Living Work Quarters for Artists, and the original A.I.R.s need to be protected.

    Who is or is not an artist is not as pertinent today, as who is or is not a human being.

  3. This post is a great example of what's wrong with the entire SoHo/NoHo process: 2 non-artists talking to another non-artist making up what they want to believe that artists want. Makes no sense. One would think this article would begin, end and be filled with interviews of actual artists, but no. Makes even less sense.

    This whole process was rigged from the start when council member Chin and Borough President Brewer refused to put any individual artist(s) on the advisory committee. That's the most senseless thing imaginable. So we have a bunch of non-artists squawking to non-artists, making decisions for artists, and claiming they know what artists want, when they always could have just asked the artists.

    The result is that no artist living in the area has an ounce of trust in this process. SoHo/NoHo artists have been intentionally shut out of the process, and that's the very definition of RIGGED. It's a total sham and a real shame that reflects on the integrity of Ms. Brewer (Ms. Chin didn't have any integrity to begin with). Sad, sad, sad.

  4. As an original "A.I.R." I never asked that anyone who bought into our co op to be "certified" as an artist. My mistake!

    I was naively unprepared when our real estate mogul co op president tried to sell our building out from under us, to pay for the gut renovation of his new townhouse. "You don't know what it costs to build with ultra luxury materials" he explained, and when I objected he said he would "destroy your (my) children's education".

    Meanwhile, the completely illegal, and completely separate "unit" next door was being monetized by the son of the original owner, a deceased member of the Fugs, no less! This attorney son lives in Westchester, and knows full well that the "proposed habitable space," as his architect described it in one of the failed Variance applications, can never be legalized, and is a threat to human life….and property" according to the DOB's. Aggravated Class 1 violations. There is no fire escape, no permitted work and insufficient light and air, but all of that is, once again, Fake News for these wealthy non-artists and their lawyers.

    A new co op president, a non-certified "artist" known for dancing at the Wah Wah Hut in the eighties, recently came along with millions of dollars of someone else's money. She set up with the former president, and the Westchester son of the Fug, as well as a non-artist heiress who lives in San Francisco. Whew! Can you imagine! They served me with a "Notice to Cure" demanding that I cure the irresolvable violations in the separate next door apartment, which is being illegally sublet for thousands of dollars a month by the son of the Fug. This is because the co op filed a fraudulent Certificate of Occupancy back in 1979, listing the separate and illegal unit as a "Studio/No Sleeping" somehow attached to my legal A.I.R. "Living/Work Unit." As I was working as an illustrator for Liberation and Charlie in Paris at the time, I didn't
    know enough to object.

    Perhaps human nature is such that the grand valuations of the current "Soho" provide an utterly corrosive and irresistible force for treachery, but once again, those of us who struggled and fought to create this world renowned phenomenon now need, and deserve to be protected.

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