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Tensions running high as city looks to rezone Soho


Soho hasn’t been rezoned since 1971. But city councillors and the borough president hope to change that. They’re holding a series of public hearings to gather opinions. Now, according to zoning laws, you have to be an artist to live in the area. As Moira (MOY-rah) Warburton (WAR-burr-tun) reports, the potential for change south of Houston (HOW-stun) Street has some residents up in arms.

WARBURTON 1: Today, Soho is world famous as a retail-heavy, tourist mecca.

But that’s not how it’s zoned. It’s meant to be mostly manufacturing, with residential permits exclusively for artists. Now that the city’s begun the process to rezone Soho, emotions are running high. Sean Sweeney’s been a resident of Soho since 1977.


It’s gonna open up a Pandora’s box of hurt.

WARBURTON 2: To understand why, he says picture this: Soho, 1960s. No tourists, no galleries, just a lot of industrial buildings. During the day, it’s busy.


Light metal, zipper factory, that kind of small stuff.

WARBURTON 3: After 6pm? No one. Dead.

Then artists discover they can rent huge lofts at dirt cheap prices as live-in studios. City planners like this idea. It means there’d be residents around at night to sound an alarm if there’s a fire. So they create a set of regulations called Loft Laws. These allow industrial spaces to be made into homes. Aaron Shkuda teaches architecture and urban history at Princeton. He says this is when things get complicated.


The city planning commission is essentially layering another special zoning district on top of the light manufacturing district in Soho.

WARBURTON 4: And since then, according to city zoning laws, Soho hasn’t changed. Except, it has. Over the years, zoning in Soho has been ignored and unenforced. And residents are divided on whether that’s good, or not. Sean Sweeney, the neighbourhood resident, is also a member of the Soho Alliance, a community group the city’s invited to be part of the consultation process:


It might be not according to the law, but it’s working. So why fool around with success, why risk killing the goose that laid the golden egg? 


Because the zoning is broken and it doesn’t work.

WARBURTON 5: Margaret Baisley’s worked in Soho for more than three decades. She’s also a real estate lawyer who’s worked on many deals, from co-ops to large-scale developments. She says current zoning laws are a huge hassle. When someone’s looking to buy a loft in Soho, they have to arrange for an artist to live with them.


I ask them to check their Google contacts list and see if there’s a relative, if there’s a friend. We try and find artists who can take or rent the backroom to make the space legal.

WARBURTON 6: But, she says, that’s not what most prospective buyers do. Instead, they either buy somewhere else and leave Soho. Or they ignore the zoning.


You take the risk that you can’t live here legally.

WARBURTON 7: Baisley emphasizes that no one wants to throw the artists out. But there are a lot of other residents in Soho now, and zoning laws need to make room for them too.

It’s still early days in the rezoning process. There are a lot of unknowns. But ultimately, Sweeney isn’t afraid of what will happen. He sees himself as a pioneer.


We dealt with the mafia, we dealt with landlords who wouldn’t give us heat, or intercom service, or elevator service, elevators being broken. There’s a certain kind of mentality pioneers have to have, so we don’t really worry about fear.

WARBURTON 8: The next public meeting on the plan to rezone Soho is scheduled for March 20. Moira Warburton, Columbia Radio News.

Correction: Margaret Baisley has worked in Soho for thirty years, but does not live there.


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