Amidst the flurry of discussion surrounding the SoHo/NoHo Neighborhood Plan, this month we find ourselves looking back at SoHo’s land use patterns to gather a stronger understanding of the neighborhood’s history. Even though there are diverse perspectives about the identity of the present day SoHo and its future, the neighborhood has transformed a number of times since it was first developed. At its conception in the mid-19th century, the area now known as SoHo was a business and manufacturing district that thrived off of Broadway’s commercial success. As Lower Manhattan’s construction boomed, the local skyline began to fill with cast-iron buildings between the 1860s and 1900s. These iconic loft buildings are widely known for their high ceilings, open floor plans, and large windows. When zoning was first introduced, the district was reasonably zoned as M1-5, a zoning designation frequently used in light manufacturing districts with a moderately high FAR.
In a post-World War II economy, demands within the manufacturing industry shifted, leading to a drastic contraction of manufacturing firms in the neighborhood. Modern needs for manufactured goods far outpaced the lower level of production that was capable in SoHo, altering preferences to large factories with strong freight transportation options. By the 1960s, New York City suffered a large loss of industry across its manufacturing districts. To combat some of these neighborhood-level changes in New York, the City Planning Commission adopted new zoning regulations that legalized Joint Live Work Quarters for Artists (JLWQA) and rezoned SoHo to the newly established M1-5A and M1-5B districts. The zoning amendment enacted in 1971 from M1-5 to M1-5A and M1-5B allowed for special uses, which in SoHo and NoHo’s case is permitted artist residency within the manufacturing district. This new form of live-work space, which provided housing and studio space to artists, began an intense cultural boom in SoHo and NoHo. Shortly after JLWQA was legalized in SoHo, the neighborhood was designated a historic district by the Landmarks Preservation Committee in 1973, which sought to protect its iconic cast-iron architecture.
Following the legalization of JLWQA in the neighborhood, art expanded to the forefront in SoHo. Prominent gallery owners opened spaces throughout the neighborhood and many now world-famous artists joined the SoHo art community. Among the most well known artists working and living locally included Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Julian Schnabel. In line with the historical patterns of neighborhood change and development, the art community attracted a new wave of residents, retailers, and office tenants.
Between the 1990s and early 2000s, SoHo began its transformation into a major retail and office hub; Scholastic first moved to the neighborhood in 1992 at 555 Broadway and stores such as Prada, Bloomingdale’s, and H&M opened up shop. Since then, the SoHo Broadway corridor (and SoHo at large) has seen an explosion in retail, pop-up stores, and tech firms. Despite the drastic transformation that SoHo has experienced over these past three decades, its initial zoning of M1-5A and M1-5B from 1971 still stands. Under this designation, SoHo is still technically a manufacturing district without permitted ground floor retail or fully legalized residential use. Commercial tenants that wish to open a new storefront over 10,000 square feet in the district or a developer that may seek to build new housing opportunities must undergo a lengthy and costly administrative permitting process.