With its cast-iron buildings, art galleries and boutique shops, SoHo is well known as an international emblem of trendy, upscale New York. But as the city confronts a severe housing crisis, it has also emerged as a focal point in a fraught push to spur development and add more affordable living options in New York’s wealthiest enclaves.
On Wednesday, the City Council approved a contentious plan that would make way for more commercial and residential development, including potentially hundreds of affordable homes.
The plan is an ambitious effort that its proponents hope could become a blueprint for other neighborhoods in New York City, where a housing shortage has helped drive up the cost of living and made it more difficult for people to pay their rent.
Some community activists had vigorously resisted the plan, arguing that it would incentivize what they view as the wrong kind of development: luxury homes and big-box retail stores in a part of the city known for its 19th-century architecture, homes for artists and unique retail stores.
But the plan, pushed by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, had also drawn a host of supporters, including the mayor-elect, Eric Adams, who view it as a template of how to undo practices that have made New York one of the country’s most racially segregated big cities in the nation.
The rezoning plan for SoHo, which also includes a piece of neighboring NoHo, reflects a national reckoning with the way that rules governing land use have long perpetuated segregation, leaving desirable neighborhoods close to business districts or public transit out of reach for many residents.
The problem has been underscored during the pandemic, with many poorer neighborhoods with fewer white residents being hit the hardest by the virus and the economic collapse it triggered.
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As New York tries to determine which areas should take on more sorely needed housing, supporters say SoHo is the type of largely white and wealthy neighborhood that has long been considered untouchable and should bear more responsibility.
Similar rezoning plans under Mr. de Blasio have mostly focused on neighborhoods with higher concentrations of Black and Latino residents, fueling fears about displacement and gentrification.
The SoHo plan, along with another rezoning approved by the City Council earlier this month in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, are the first efforts by the de Blasio administration to focus on relatively white and more affluent neighborhoods.
“If we can create these kinds of opportunities, why not?” said Councilwoman Margaret S. Chin, who represents much of the area being rezoned and supported the plan. “Every neighborhood should contribute to help alleviate this housing crisis.”
The plan would revamp the zoning rules across 56 blocks of Lower Manhattan, many of which have not been updated in some 50 years. It would allow for the construction of an estimated 3,500 additional apartments, including roughly 900 affordable units, in an area that currently has about 8,000 residents. The plan would also make way for more commercial development, including offices and retail.
Mr. de Blasio has relied on rezoning — changing the rules about the type and amount of development allowed in an area — as a key piece of addressing the housing crisis. But his successful rezoning efforts have so far almost all been in parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx that are lower income and less white.
The SoHo and Gowanus plans are among the final acts of his administration, squeezed through weeks before a new mayor and City Council take office.
“It was time to do something, to bring the community into the 21st century and really make it a community for everyone,” Mr. de Blasio told reporters on Wednesday before the vote.
But Mr. Adams, who like Mr. de Blasio is a Democrat, is likely to continue pursuing a similar housing strategy. He said in October in an interview on “The Ezra Klein Show,” a New York Times podcast, that New York City needed to “look at those sacred cows like SoHo and other parts of the city where we used these methods to keep out groups.”
Mr. Adams also said that integrating communities through housing would lead to the integration of schools and more equitable access to public transportation.
“We are extremely segregated as a city,” he said. “And our housing plays a major role in that segregation.”
Eddie Siegel, 32, moved to SoHo from San Francisco in July, after he decided that New York would be an attractive place to call home. The supply chain company he works for has an office in the city, he said, and SoHo’s access to multiple subway lines, and restaurant and bar scene, were a lure.
Mr. Siegel, who is a volunteer with Open New York, a housing nonprofit, said he backed the rezoning because he thought it would help alleviate the city’s challenges around homelessness and affordability.
“We should be building a whole lot more than we currently are,” he said. “This is a positive change in that direction.”
Open New York organized many residents like Mr. Siegel from around the city to help build support for the plan.
“The SoHo rezoning really shows that land-use politics are changing,” said William Thomas, the group’s executive director. “Even just a few years go it was seen as politically impossible to rezone these very wealthy neighborhoods.”
But the rezoning also provoked resistance. Ms. Chin’s successor, Christopher Marte, who takes office in January, was elected after essentially running a campaign against it. And some residents say the plan is a disaster.
Debra Zimmerman, 65, has lived in a rent-stabilized apartment on the edge of the rezoning area since 1979. Over that time she has watched as chain stores like Nike and Adidas have opened while mom-and-pop shops have disappeared.
Ms. Zimmerman, who helped lead a campaign against the opening of a nearby Shake Shack, said she feared the rezoning would accelerate those trends.
“We want more places that are actually in tune with the vibe of the neighborhood,” she said.
She noted that the majority of the housing built under the plan would not be affordable.
“More than anything, do we really need more luxury buildings?” she said.
As is the case with other rezoning efforts, the city’s projections of how many affordable homes will be built rely on assumptions of what developers will choose to build, with city rules requiring that new, big residential buildings set aside affordable units.
Supporters of the plan say that restrictions on the size of commercial developments would favor the construction of apartment buildings.
But Andrew Berman, the executive director of Village Preservation and an opponent of the rezoning, said developers could be more motivated to build commercial buildings or smaller residential buildings that are not required to set aside affordable units.
“From our perspective, in terms of affordability and equity, this rezoning plan isn’t just imperfect,” he said. “It’s actually worse than the status quo.”