July 7, 2012

The grossly underenforced zoning law that preserves loft space in SoHo for artists.

The effort to get the law changed involves revealing how many property owners are in violation of the law.
At issue is a 1971 zoning change that allowed artists to legally live in lofts they had converted from industrial space in SoHo. Technically, much of the neighborhood is still zoned to permit manufacturing, and a condition has been placed on the old industrial buildings: Each loft must have at least one artist or successor, and the use of retail spaces must be wholesale without a special permit.
Technically....

Untold numbers of owners have sold lofts to wealthy non-artists, and SoHo has become one of the city's premier commercial retail centers, with boutique shops occupying the area's high-ceilinged, cast-iron buildings....

The owners' committee said it wants to legitimize what has already happened: SoHo's loft spaces are no longer just for artists, and their current residents and owners shouldn't have the uncertainty of being at odds with city zoning law hanging over their heads.

"In all fairness to the 99% of people who are here illegally, now is the time and the problem must be solved," said Ms. Baisley.
What about fairness to all the people who have refrained from doing things that are against the law? You operated in a market that was affected by this law, free of competition from law abiders, and now you want it all legal, which would allow you to profit hugely by selling to all these late-comers to the market. Shouldn't the excess profit be factored out and put into a fund to support artists — the people you pushed out?
"To get rid of [the law] will destroy SoHo," said Mimi Smith, a feminist painter and sculptor, who bought a loft in 1973. "It's a real-estate ploy. They want more money for their lofts."
Does she still own that loft? Or did she cash out early? Anyway, the SoHo of the 1970s was destroyed long ago. Presumably, there are remnants of artiness left, not that you can tell from street-level nowadays.

26 comments:

Rick Lee said...

The libertarian in me doesn't like artificial zoning restrictions, but I also can't see how it can be good for NYC to push all the artists and bohemians out to Brooklyn.

Paddy O said...

I think we need to enforce the laws as they are on the books, and if that means kicking out the illegal residents, then so be it.

Sure, some may ask, "What about the kids who have been born while living in SoHO? Should they be punished simply because their parents/guardians broke the law in order to provide a more aesthetically validated lifestyle?"

Yes. Kick them out. In this economy we need to provide loft space for real artists, the ones who helped make build the neighborhood in the first place.

Bob Ellison said...

Are any of these lofters also illegal aliens? Maybe we can do a two-fer.

Hagar said...

Unworkable ordinances should be repealed.

And this one, favoring a "pet" class of people should never have been passed to start with.

Robert Cook said...

Oh, please. They're not going to kick out all the residents who live in Soho and who have lived there now for many years. An agreement of some kind will be reached.

Anecdote: I moved to NYC in 1981, but visited a couple times before that. In 1980 I was on one visit and spent the evening at the Mudd Club and then an after hours place, and ended up wandering with my companion, at dawn, up through and into Soho. It was very different then than now. Virtually deserted, not at all peppered with the luxury shops, galleries, boutiques and bistros that make up virtually the whole of it today. It's amazing how swiftly the change happened.

Paddy O said...

Moreover, we need to build a fence or a wall so that affluent nonartists can't get back into SoHo.

But who will be our bankers or be our stockbrokers or manage our real estate or fill positions in upper management? Those are jobs that artists won't do.

Well, I don't have an answer for that, maybe we can create technology to help fill those roles, and maybe it might end up raising bank fees in SoHo, and lead to the outsourcing of jobs to other parts of the city, somewhere where high income professionals are welcomed.

All I know is that once you let one marketing executive in the neighborhood, soon they'll be taking over, with hipster wine bars and arclight-like cinemas soon to follow--places with cushy chairs and seat "reservations," playing blockbuster movies that are utterly incomprehensible to real artists.

fivewheels said...

"feminist painter and sculptor"

Bet she's really good. (Because if you were, you'd really need to add the "feminist" qualifier.)

Roger Sweeny said...

No amnesty for undocumented owners.

edutcher said...

Surprised Bloomie doesn't have his death squads after them.

Breaking the law!

How dare they?

Roger Sweeny said...

"Let me see you papers. Are you really an artist?"

(And Pilate said) "What is art?

Matthew Sablan said...

All those other people are just performance artists.

a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

You know that 'duck' thing that you talked about maybe a week ago**. I think it applies here. TNC at the Atlantic, as is his wont, talks about the attempt at secession, the Civil War, says that it might have been possible, reasonable, at some point in the nation's history, later wasn't*. Similarly with SoHo, at some point the artists or others could have reasonably, and by law, stopped or reversed the gentrification but now Soho has had a Lamarckian transformation, has become that 'duck' we hear so much about. The investors who 'benefited from breaking the law' were also, at the time and still now, bearing the risk that the transformation would not succeed and would have lost money on their investment.

*http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/07/american-exceptionalism-in-history/259533/

**'If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it's a duck.'

TomHynes said...

Is no one else offended by a list of city certified artists?

Matthew Sablan said...

Tom: If lawyers, realtors, doctors and hair salons get to have guilds, I see no reason why artists can't have them too.

Ann Althouse said...

Seems to me... if you've got millions of dollars riding on the question whether somebody in your household is an artist, somebody in your household will be an artist.

The question is: when are they checking and how are they checking?

If you were completely lying, but knew they were checking next week, what would you do to try to pass the test?

But how would this unfold? How does the city come and check?

Anyway, I can imagine a Hollywood movie about a rich Wall Street guy who needs to have an artist wife installed in his loft within some super-short time frame.

I feel like I've seen that movie before. It's such an obvious plot.

Fen said...

"feminist painter and sculptor"

ie. not really an artist.

Hey Look! [throws Spaghetti sauce on wall] I'm an artist!

Richard Dolan said...

I had a loft in SoHo in the '70s, when you could practically buy them on MasterCard. The AIR (artist in residence) zoning was a joke from the get-go. But it was borne from an even more classically NY real estate insanity. Artists and others had moved into those spaces when lower Manhattan still had a manufacturing base, but it was dwindling. Landlords wanted to get what rent they could. When the spaces became more valuable, landlords tried to evict the illegal residential tenants. At first that worked. But the politicians soon got involved, and suddenly the eviction proceedings were stymied by a requirement in the L&T code requiring the landlord to produce a residential certifiate of occupancy for the building in order to maintain a residential eviction. Joseph Heller could not have come up with a better catch-22.

Now the landlords as well as the tenants wanted to regularize what had been an ad-hoc thing, and AIR zoning was borne. There were a few real artists in my building (Joel Shapiro was downstairs) but mostly the artist was the spouse of the banker. No one was more focused on real estate values than the 'certified' artists -- a bureaucratic pigeon-hole that's was as silly then as it is now -- or as willing to ignore the AIR stuff when selling. I sold the place in 1981 and moved to Brooklyn. Best move I ever made.

It was a classic example of a favored group's use of gov't power to game the relevant market and grab some for No. 1.

cubanbob said...

Let the artists buy the lofts if they can. Seperate the 'real' artists,those who can actually sell their art from the bullshit artists. its laws and ordinances like these that there is a need to curtail the power of local and state government.

deborah said...

Anyway, I can imagine a Hollywood movie about a rich Wall Street guy who needs to have an artist wife installed in his loft within some super-short time frame.

I feel like I've seen that movie before. It's such an obvious plot.


There was a very funny sit-com with Thomas Haden Church and Debra Messing called Ned and Stacey. He was a top executive told that someone less qualified was getting the promotion because he was married. Sooo...

Bruce Hayden said...

Friends had one of those lofts from the latter 1970s up through the early 2000s, when they lost it for not living there enough (which would fit right into this debate, since the landlord most likely would have violated the zoning). And, yes, they are/were artists (one recently passed away).

It was a gorgeous place, and they had a lot more space than they would have had elsewhere in Manhattan at the time. Maybe 3,000 sq ft or so, on the second floor over a small manufacturing facility or something on the 1st floor. Metal door with multiple locks, and stairs going up to the higher lofts.

I was living in DC at the time, and would come up a couple times a year for shows there. It really did look like WW III around there. That was my major impression of NYC at the time, and would ask why anyone would want to live in a place like that. Their answer is that it was THE artist hot spot in the country, where a great amount of the innovation was going on, from the mid 1970s maybe up into the 1990s. Not being the least bit artistic, I never did understand this.

Methadras said...

New York real estate is a fucking nightmare.

PatCA said...

Sounds like Greece. I read once everyone there spends their time time avoiding government or trying to cash in on government.

Or like California now! There are so many new laws about green this and green that, that no one follows the code anymore. They remodel as close as they can, and as soon as the inspector leaves, do what they want.

raf said...

While I was on a city planning commission, I saw that zoning carried the seeds of its own destruction. Developers' greatest profit opportunities did not come from following the zoning plans, but from acquiring land in "lower-value" zones and applying for a zoning variance. Thus, residential developments sprouted in areas planned for light industrial, etc. Why didn't the planning commission or city council enforce their plan? Seems like individuals' political futures were more correlated with developers than with the plan.

Donald said...

I am a non-lawyer. This seems outrageous on its face. Are other geographical areas set aside where homeowners are required to be butchers, bakers, candlestick makers? Must one sell one's residence pursuant to an occupational change?

How does an artist qualify for/maintain certification? (It seems like there must be someone whose job it is to decide whether your doodles or fingerpaintings meet the required standards. Opportunity for abuse of authority?)

The wholesale/retail distinction seems like reasonable application of zoning ordinances, but the occupational restriction strikes me as unreasonable, onerous, and unenforceable.

Seeing Red said...

--Untold numbers of owners have sold lofts to wealthy non-artists--


So the artists sold to the big bad capitalists for dirty money?

ed said...

You can call yourself an artist by stacking bricks. Literally.

So the bar isn't precisely all that high.