Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Should Soho and Noho’s artist certification ("AIR")* requirement be eliminated?

About 200 people gathered in St. Anthony's Church in Soho Tuesday night to debate the question.

Some background: 

For years, the city has required that any resident of a defined area in Soho and Noho be certified as an artist by the Department of Cultural Affairs.  

Honored more in the breach, this requirement has been as irritating as a permanent case of poison ivy to those who live there and those who would like to. 

Now it feels like leprosy. 

For various rumored reasons (the most persistent being new personnel at the Department of Buildings) the DOB has suddenly decided to refuse certificates of occupancy to buildings whose residents are not all certified artists. 

Needless to say, at present, this includes most of the buildings in the area.  As recently as the mid 2000s, non-certified residents were no obstacle to a building getting its C of O.  Now, if they don’t already have one, they can’t get one. 

Technically, it’s illegal to live in a building with no C of O, which means a large percentage of the population of this area is breaking the law.

Banks, at the moment averse to lending money anyway, are now even more averse to lending in buildings that don’t have Cs of O.   And you can’t get a permit from the DOB to do major renovations in those buildings.

Some history: 

I have made many, many sales in Soho and Noho over the years, and I know the loft law and its history are long and complicated.  Here’s my understanding:   

In the 60s and 70s and earlier, these areas were zoned for manufacturing.  Unions wanted to reserve the spaces for printing houses, garment factories and other industries. 

But artists were attracted to these large, cheap spaces, even though many lacked adequate plumbing, electricity and other things non-artists would have considered essential.  They moved in and invested elbow grease to make them livable. 

To protect these people and what was called their sweat equity, the city decided they could be considered light manufacturers and thus included in the zoning requirement.  And they could live in their manufacturing space.  Thus evolved the Joint Living Working Quarters for Artists, commonly called Live/Work, designation.

Since then, by law, anyone who wants to live in a defined area of Soho and Noho has to prove to the Department of Cultural Affairs that he or she is a legitimate artist. 

Art doesn’t have to be their primary source of income, but they have to provide programs from gallery shows, slides of their art, and various other evidence that they really are artists and they really need those big lofts to make their art. 

But Soho’s wide open loft spaces, stunning cast-iron facades, high ceilings and edgy, artistic atmosphere became more and more appealing to people whose closest connection to art was the occasional trip to the Met with visiting relatives.

As the Soho artists realized they could sell their lofts to these people for more than ten and later more than twenty times what they had paid for them and thus graduate from starving artist to simply artist, they understandably got less interested in enforcing the Artist Certification requirement.

This led to the “Soho letter.”  A lawyer, say, or a stockbroker, could sign a letter indemnifying a co-op against any fines or other damage it might incur through allowing someone who didn’t have artist certification to live there. 

And a vast number of Wall Streeters and others who wanted the cachet of a Soho address invaded the area. 

The neighborhood changed.  Prada, Marc Jacobs, Chanel and other retailers moved in to be near all that Wall Street money.  Many of the art galleries could no longer afford the rents that landlords could get from these retailers.

The neighborhood changed some more. Large chain stores could also afford those rents.  I well remember the day that a loft owner with whom I’d been talking for years called me to say that he had to move; Victoria’s Secret had opened at Broadway and Prince.

Today Soho is a major tourist destination.  Supersized outlanders in the wrong jeans and supermodels in stilettos crowd the sidewalks.  Foreign money pours into the shops. 

And despite the complications and the crowds, EVERYBODY wants to live there.

There’s vastly more demand than supply. Remember, there’s only so much Soho to go around.  Prime Soho comprises about twenty blocks.  Most of the buildings on those blocks are only five stories high.   

If area residents want to cash in on their lofts, they can get top dollar.

But because of the sudden enforcement of the artist certification requirement by the city, buyers’ lawyers are strongly warning them against buying.

The city picked the worst possible time to change the rules.

So what happened at the meeting?

There were about 150 folding chairs in the basement of St. Anthony’s Church.  They were all full, and there were at least another fifty people standing in the back and on the sides of the room.

The meeting was organized by an ad hoc committee of various concerned citizens including lawyers, brokers and architects who work in the area. 

Margaret Baisley, a real estate attorney who has closed hundreds of deals in Soho and who represents numerous Soho co-ops, presided.  She was joined at the head table by Susan Meisel, a prominent Soho real estate broker and gallerist, and Michael Zenreich, an architect.

The idea was to give anyone who wanted it the chance to speak to the group in favor of or against changing the zoning to eliminate the artist certification requirement. 

Baisley, Meisel and Zenreich spoke first, for about five minutes each, in favor of changing the zoning.  Baisley said if it’s established that the zoning should be changed, the next question addressed would be the nature of the new zoning.  There is no position on that at present.

After that, anyone who had previously signed up could speak for up to three minutes. 

I stayed for about an hour and a half.  Of the points I heard made by the various speakers, the following seemed the most salient:

Pro change:

There has been no consistency at the DOB.  Enforcement has been random.  The law is anachronistic and vestigial.

The requirements are arbitrary and apparently have become more rigorous over the years.  Today, if a film maker wants to qualify, he has to have had a film screened at the Film Forum or similar venue.  Some writers qualify, others don’t.  For some reason, writers of screenplays seem to have an edge

Zoning should represent the area, and there is no correlation between the zoning and actual practice.

Soho and Noho are the only places in the country where one has to be in a particular occupation to live there. 

The city has been finding loopholes to allow exceptions to the requirement.  If a developer builds on land where no building was before (say, a parking lot), residents of the building are exempt from the requirement.  This has allowed the construction of extremely high priced condominium projects that have provided substantial real estate taxes to the city. 

The city has never told anyone to leave his loft.  Efforts have been made to get the city to challenge a non-artist’s residence in order to take the case to court and establish the requirement’s constitutionality, which some doubt.  These efforts have been unsuccessful.


Changing the zoning would change the character of the neighborhood.

Changing the zoning would remove the protection rent-controlled artist-certified tenants have against being removed from their spaces.   (Another speaker immediately raised the question, why should rent-controlled tenants in Soho have more protection than rent-controlled tenants in other parts of the city?)

Changing the zoning would remove protection for the artists  whether they own or rent.  They could be forced out by co-ops who want to make improvements the artist tenant-shareholders cannot afford.

While feelings certainly ran high, and at a few points, the gavel had to be used to quiet those who were talking over the designated speaker, the meeting was conducted in an orderly fashion. 

We can look forward to future developments.

*Point of information:  The popular acronym AIR which stands for Artist in Residence is incorrectly applied to Soho.  AIR appears on signs all over the city.  It’s a warning to the fire department that even though a building may look empty, there’s an artist living in it.  The sign has nothing to do with zoning requirements.

©copyright Confidence Stimpson 2011

No comments: