On Monday evening, more than a hundred people gathered in the dimly lit basement of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Soho – a large hall that suggested Manhattan Community Board 2 was expecting a crowd. Neighborhood residents and others from across town lined up in the cavernous room to register for one last chance to comment on the proposed redevelopment of Soho and Noho, which the city said would add more than 3 200 housing units in the district. After a series of meetings, including one in June when residents shouted nonstop at city officials, the board was to vote on the rezoning proposal. Attendees expected the zoning change to be rejected outright, but that didn’t stop local opponents from booing whenever someone spoke up for the plan during the four-hour meeting. Here is how the evening went.
6:24 pm | When I arrive at the church, the wrought iron gates and dark wood doors in front are closed. Am I in the right place? I look around and spot a dimly lit side entrance, which leads me to the basement. Dozens of people – mostly older white attendees, dressed in baggy linen shirts, khakis, and loose, loose pants – sit in rows of folding chairs somewhat spaced, but not six feet apart. Almost all the seats are occupied. Only some of the fluorescent lights are on, and frankly, the space gives me horror movie vibes; from the back wall of the room, a mounted Jesus nailed to the cross gives me the impression that we are about to start some kind of night service.
6:27 pm | At the door, I am caught in a small bottleneck of people standing at a fold-out table covered with printouts of tonight’s agenda and other flyers. An older woman with silver hair pulled back into a tight ponytail under her LLBean baseball cap asks the man next to her if she should register. He says no and tells her to take the flyers she wants. “I know what I want,” she replies firmly. “To save the neighborhood.
18:34 | As I search for an empty seat, I pass a woman in a tropical shirt handing out Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation signs that say “STOP DE BLASIO’S SHAM REZONING” and “DE BLASIO’S REZONING: FALSE PROMISES AND LIES. “I ask to take a picture of her and she shakes her head and says no.
6:42 pm | The meeting was scheduled to start at 6:30 am; it looks like all the seats are taken and everyone is chatting and catching up. Five members of the executive committee of the community council are chatting among themselves, seated at a long table at the front of the room. Jeannine Kiely, the president of the community council, announces that they are about to start. Someone flips a switch and two more fluorescent lights on the ceiling come on. Kiely warns that the acoustics aren’t great in space, and she’s right; it’s a bit echoed and blurry, making it hard to hear what she’s saying. The meeting proceeds directly to public comment. The room becomes silent; Susan Kent, the first vice-chair of the board, warns, “We have a lot of speakers tonight,” and reminds everyone to respect the two-minute limit.
6:52 pm | Spencer, a tall man in his thirties with black-rimmed sunglasses, is the first to intervene. He says he supports rezoning and adds, “I’m not just here to support the rezoning of Soho – I think every rich white neighborhood in New York City needs to be aggressively outclassed,” he says. Dozens of people silently hold up their anti-zoning signs in protest. He continues: “It’s time to tear down the regulatory walls and welcome new people. The crowd hoots, and someone shouts that he’s a “jerk.” Spencer yells that anyone who has a problem with what he said should talk to him outside.
19:16 | Judging by the applause and cheers greeted Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, you’d think he was a celebrity. “I called this plan a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said the bald and fit defender. “I actually think it’s insulting to wolves.”
19:19 | A brunette woman in a sleeveless navy blue dress takes the microphone. “Hello, my name is Stacey Prussman, I have worked and lived in Soho most of my life. Now I’m running for mayor of New York against Eric Adams and Curtis Sliwa. The room is silent. “What?” squeals a confused member of the audience. She specifies that she is a third party candidate on the libertarian ticket. She can barely say another word before Kent steps in: “Ma’am, I’m sorry, you’re running as a candidate.” Prussman insists she is not. “I am against Blasio’s plan and I explain why,” she said. But Kent rules Prussman out of order. Prussman tries to push back. Kent doesn’t have it: “I’m not going to argue with you. I am sorry. You will have to forgo the microphone. Prussman puts the microphone back on the stand, adding, “Okay, I hope Soho is doing well,” before walking away.
Photo: Caroline Spivack
19:46 | Vincent Cao, a restaurant owner from Chinatown, and one of the very few present in the neighborhood, takes the microphone and speaks in Mandarin while pointing his hand in the air. Ivy Kwan Arce, member of the board of the community, translates: “He thinks that basically we are lying to the community … He feels that Asians, Hispanics, are being kicked out and he is against this development. . Cao walks away to a burst of applause.
8:04 pm | After more than an hour, the crowd started to thin out. On the way out, a woman and her two elementary-age daughters looted a box of free masks from the front table and stuffed several into their bags. I see Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in the back row. She is glued to her phone and has a second one on the seat next to her, wearing a seafoam green jacket and pearls. Sometimes she looks up to listen to a speaker or say hello to someone she knows. Four ceiling fans kept the room cool, but now that the sun has gone down, I’m cold.
8:06 pm | Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, is in place. He says he first got involved in the fight against rezoning because he feared for the historic buildings in the neighborhood, but now it’s because it would destroy Soho’s artist community. The hall erupts into applause and cheers. “And there may be ten people there,” he continues, pointing to the back corner of the room where members of the pro-housing group Open New York are sitting, “followed by a crowd of 1,000 on Twitter who want to call you racist and KKK, but there are millions, hundreds of millions of people around the world who have come to Soho and admired what you have built with your hands.
8:13 pm | Ingrid Wiegand, a frail woman with a graying square, gently takes the microphone. “I’ve lived here since 1969. My husband and I started Soho with a dozen other people, basically,” she said softly. “Those of us who are still here have been portrayed as a bunch of white NIMBYs who don’t want people of different colors and ethnicities encroaching on our precious grass,” she says. “It is not true.” She keeps talking until Kent interrupts her to say she’s out of time. Agitated, she immediately heads for the door.
8:20 p.m. | One of the few people of color in the room, Ankur Dalal, stands up to speak. Dalal, a 39-year-old Upper West Side tax lawyer and member of Open New York, says his parents came to New York penniless and were able to find an apartment anyway; but his generation is not so lucky. Once again, the hands holding the anti-zoning posters rise in silent protest.
9:12 pm | It’s been almost three hours and we’ve completed the public comment portion of the meeting – over 50 people have spoken. Over the past hour, the crowd gradually thinned out. As most of the groans have disappeared, the energy in the room is much calmer. Now, it was mostly the community board members who stuck around to vote on agenda items, along with around 30 in-it-to-finish participants.
9:38 pm | After a handful of mind-numbing committee reports on liquor licenses and sidewalk café applications, Anita Brandt of the board’s Soho / Noho task force takes the mic. Small, older woman with a white bob and rounded cat-eye glasses, she dives directly into the board’s resolution against rezoning, which she says “is failing to meet her stated goals of creating affordable housing, allow a wider range of commercial and residential housing. uses and supports the creative community.
21:52 | Council members engage in a series of questions and comments on the resolution. Treasurer Antony Wong, clad in a crisp white shirt, angrily declares that “there are non-English speaking residents in the Opportunity Zone who, at this point, are still unaware of the plan. You saw this evening that we did not have a translator. DCP did not have a translator at previous meetings.
22:31 | Four hours after the start of the meeting, the council finally votes on the rezoning. One by one, as the names of council members are called out, all but one vote against the plan, in a vote of 37 to 1. Once the last vote is recorded, the room erupts into modest applause. Kiely adjourns the meeting. The remaining 50 participants quickly collapse their folding chairs, prop them up against the wall, climb the stairs, and emerge into the sweltering July night.