SoHo’s Zoning Secret

September 22, 2010

The SoHo Grand Hotel, located on West Broadway, has a relatively unique design. The hotel’s main lobby is on the building’s second level. The set-up lends the hotel an air of exclusivity. However, this design wasn’t just an architectural choice or a way to give visitors to the hotel more privacy when checking in – it was mandated by zoning.

The SoHo Grand is located in an M1-5A district, which, along with the similar M1-5B district, covers much of SoHo and parts of NoHo. The two districts permit light manufacturing and most commercial uses, including hotels – but not on the ground floor. So a hotel lobby – at least as a primary use – wouldn’t be permitted at street level. Also not permitted on the ground floor of most buildings in these zoning districts: retail stores, banks, restaurants, and bars. Essentially, most ground floor uses that exist today in SoHo and NoHo are not permitted. What is permitted on the ground floor? Manufacturing uses, wholesale establishments, some service establishments (like printing shops, caterers and exterminators) and trade schools for adults. Residential use is not permitted either – with the exception of “joint living work quarters for artists” in certain buildings, which are exactly what they sound like.

This is not to say that all uses in these neighborhoods are illegal – many are legally non-conforming, or “grandfathered” (the use, or a similar use, existed before the zoning district was established and has continued since then). Still others have received one of a number of special permits available that permit retail and residential after an extensive process at City Planning, sometimes involving the Landmarks Commission as well.

The M1-5A and M1-5B districts were originally established to protect manufacturing in SoHo in the face of growing residential and retail pressures, while still providing a way for artists to live and work in the area. Setting aside the question of whether zoning is the appropriate tool to protect manufacturing, it’s obvious that, in these neighborhoods, there is little manufacturing left to protect. The zoning in these areas has been in place for a relatively long time, and some may argue that it’s best left as is – the special permits give the City and community a chance to more fully vet some developments, and encourage the maintenance and restoration of buildings within the area’s historic districts (ongoing maintenance of a landmark building is a requirement of one of the special permits). However, with such a disconnect between what’s permitted and reality, maybe it’s time for the Zoning Resolution to openly acknowledge SoHo’s current character.