Volume 16 • Issue 30 | December 23 - 29, 2003

Bars banned in new Soho buildings

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Community members cheered the passage of a bill last week that will prohibit the construction of new bars and restaurants on approximately 17 vacant or parking lots in the Soho and Noho historic districts.

On Dec. 15, the City Council approved a zoning change that will allow developers to apply to the Department of City Planning for permission to build housing in empty lots in the historic districts of Soho and Noho. However, as part of the new zoning change, ground-floor restaurants and bars cannot be included in any new residential construction on the affected lots, the City Council decided.

The bill became a law as soon as the council approved it, said City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who represents Soho and Noho. Land use bills do not require the mayor’s signature.

“I’m elated,” said Sean Sweeney, head of the Soho Alliance, a civic group.

The ban on new bars and restaurants was one of several concessions the community requested of the City Planning Department as part of the agency’s zoning code changes. City Planning, controlled by the mayor, rejected the proposed ban on new bars and restaurants, but the Council, led by Gerson, overruled the agency’s omission and included the ban in the final bill.

Prior zoning did not allow the construction of new housing in Soho and Noho, which is zoned for manufacturing. While developers could previously apply to City Planning to change the bulk of proposed buildings on the affected lots, they were restricted to manufacturing uses.

City Planning wanted to expand the possibilities for land use in Soho and Noho, but the community felt the agency’s originally proposed amendment could open up the neighborhood to the possible construction of dormitories or big-box stores. Community Board 2, recognizing that lawmakers would likely give the green light to City Planning’s changes, requested several concessions including the ban on new restaurants and bars.

“The City Planning Commission heard the community’s concerns during the public review process about the new development…and made a number of significant changes to respond to those concerns,” said Richard Barth, executive director of the New York City Department of City Planning, in a statement. “The department believes these changes will ensure that future infill development [of the vacant lots] under this new special permit is in keeping with the celebrated neighborhood character of Soho and Noho.”

Concessions that City Planning approved include the requirement that all new apartments be built at a minimum of 1,200 square feet and that the existing floor-area ratio of five be maintained. The community and Gerson also requested that an arts-related project be incorporated into each development application. Instead of granting this specific request, the City Council included general language in the bill saying the city will continue to promote the arts in Soho and Noho.

While Gerson said he was disappointed that City Planning didn’t show stronger support for the arts in Soho and Noho, he hailed the bill as an overall victory against the “terrible proliferation” of bars and restaurants that upset the quality of life in the neighborhoods. And he said he was very happy at the inclusion of the Council’s language supporting the arts in Soho and Noho, feeling it could be the basis for future decisions affecting the character of these districts.

According to Sweeney, the legislation will have more impact on Soho than Noho. Sweeney said the affected lots in Soho represent most of the empty space in the neighborhood, while Noho has more empty spaces outside the Noho Historic District that do not fall under Monday’s legislation.



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