c.b. minutes

‘The Community Is Being Lied To’ and Other Gripes From Manhattan Community Board 2

Photo: Caroline Spivack

On Monday night, more than a hundred people crowded into the dimly lit basement of the Church of St. Anthony of Padua in Soho — a large venue that suggested Manhattan Community Board 2 was expecting a crowd. Neighborhood residents and others from across the city queued up in the cavernous room to sign up for one last chance to sound off on the proposed Soho and Noho redevelopment, which the city estimates would add more than 3,200 units of housing to the neighborhood. After a series of meetings, including one in June when residents shouted nonstop over city officials, the board was scheduled to vote on the rezoning proposal. The vote is only advisory and a step in the proposal’s seven-month land use review, but it is a useful measuring stick of how a neighborhood feels about a project that elected officials weigh during the approvals process. Attendees expected the rezoning would be wholly rejected on Monday, but that didn’t stop local opponents from booing whenever someone spoke in favor of the plan during the four-hour-long meeting. Here’s how the evening went down.

6:24 p.m. | When I get to 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 down into the basement. Dozens of people — mostly older, white attendees, in loose linen shirts, khakis, and flowy wide-leg pants — are sitting in rows of folding chairs that are somewhat spaced out, but not by six feet. Almost every seat is filled. 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 makes me feel like we’re about to begin some sort of night service.

6:27 p.m. | At the door, I’m caught in a small bottleneck of people standing at a foldout table covered with printouts of tonight’s agenda and other flyers. An older woman with silver hair pulled into a tight ponytail under her L.L.Bean baseball cap asks the man beside her if she needs to sign in. He says no and tells her to take whatever flyers she wants. “I know what I want,” she responds firmly. “To save the neighborhood.”

6:34 p.m. | As I look for an empty seat, I pass a woman in a tropical button-down who is handing out signs from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation that read, “STOP DE BLASIO’S SHAM REZONING” and “DE BLASIO’S REZONING: FALSE PROMISES AND LIES.” I ask to take her picture and she shakes her head and says no.

6:42 p.m. | The meeting was supposed to start at 6:30; it looks like all of the seats are filled and everyone is chatting and catching up. Five members of the community board’s executive committee are talking amongst themselves, seated at a long table at the front of the room. Jeannine Kiely, the community board’s chair, announces that they’re about to begin. Someone flicks a switch and two more fluorescent lights overhead flicker on. Kiely warns that the acoustics aren’t great in the space, and she’s right; it’s a bit echo-y and fuzzed out, making it hard to hear what she’s saying. The meeting jumps straight into public comment. The room gets quiet; Susan Kent, the board’s first vice-chair, warns, “We do have many speakers tonight,” and reminds everyone to respect the two-minute limit.

6:52 p.m. | Spencer, a tall, 30-something man with black-rimmed sunglasses on his head, is the first to weigh in. He says he supports the rezoning, and adds, “I’m not just here to support the rezoning of Soho — I think every wealthy white neighborhood in New York City needs to be aggressively upzoned,” he says. Dozens of people silently hold up their anti-rezoning signs in protest. He continues, “It’s time to take down the regulatory walls and welcome new people.” The crowd boos, and someone shouts that he’s a “shill.” Spencer shouts back that anyone who has a problem with what he said should talk to him outside.

7:16 p.m. | Judging by the amount of applause and cheers that greet Andrew Berman, head of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, you’d think he’s a celebrity. “I’ve called this plan a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the fit, bald preservationist says. “I actually think that’s insulting to wolves.”

7:19 p.m. | A dark-haired woman in a sleeveless navy dress takes the mic. “Good afternoon, my name is Stacey Prussman, I’ve worked and I’ve lived in Soho most of my life. Now I’m running for mayor of New York City against Eric Adams and Curtis Sliwa.” The room is silent. “What?” squeaks one confused audience member. She clarifies that she’s a third-party candidate on the Libertarian ticket. She can barely get another word out before Kent cuts in: “Ma’am, I’m sorry, you’re promoting yourself as a candidate.” Prussman insists she’s not. “I’m against the de Blasio plan and I’m explaining why,” she says. But Kent rules Prussman out of order. Prussman tries to push back. Kent isn’t having it: “I am not going to debate this with you. I’m sorry. You will have to relinquish the microphone.” Prussman puts the microphone back in the stand, adding, “Okay, I hope Soho is okay,” before walking off.

Photo: Caroline Spivack

7:46 p.m. | Vincent Cao, a restaurant worker from Chinatown, and one of the very few present from the neighborhood, takes the mic and speaks in Mandarin while jabbing his hand in the air. Community-board member Ivy Kwan Arce translates: “He thinks that basically the community is being lied to … He feels like basically Asian people, Hispanics, are being pushed out and he’s opposed to this development.” Cao walks off to a flurry of claps.

8:04 p.m. | After more than an hour, the crowd has started to thin out. On their way out, one woman and her two elementary-school-aged daughters raid a box of free masks at the front table and stuff several of them into their bag. I spot Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in a back row. She’s glued to her phone, and has a second one resting on the seat beside her, wearing a seafoam green jacket and pearls. She occasionally looks up to listen to a speaker or say hello to someone she knows. Four ceiling fans have kept the room cool, but now that the sun has gone down, I’m getting chilly.

8:06 p.m. | Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, is up. He says he first got involved in the fight against the rezoning because he feared for the neighborhood’s historic buildings, but now it’s because it would destroy Soho’s artist community. The room breaks out into applause and cheers. “And there may be ten people over there,” he continues, pointing to the back corner of the room where members of the pro-housing group Open New York are seated, “followed by a mob of 1,000 people 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 built with your hands.”

8:13 p.m. | Ingrid Wiegand, a frail-looking woman with a graying bob, gingerly takes the mic.  “I’ve lived here since 1969. My husband and I started Soho with about ten other people, basically,” she says in a soft voice. “Those of us who are still here have been painted as a bunch of white NIMBYs who don’t want people of different colors and ethnicities to intrude on our precious turf,” she says. “This is not true.” She keeps speaking until Kent interrupts to say she’s run 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, gets up to speak. Dalal, a 39-year-old tax attorney from the Upper West Side and a member of Open New York, says that his parents came to New York penniless and were still able to find an apartment; but his generation isn’t as lucky. Again, hands holding the anti-rezoning posters rise in silent protest.

9:12 p.m. | It’s been almost three hours and we’ve made it through the public-comment portion of the meeting — more than 50 people have spoken. Over the last hour, the crowd has steadily thinned out. With many of the ranters gone, the energy in the room is much calmer. Now it’s mostly community-board members who have stuck around so they can vote on agenda items, along with roughly 30 in-it-until-the-end attendees.

9:38 p.m. | After a handful of mind-numbing committee reports on liquor licenses and sidewalk-café applications, Anita Brandt of the board’s Soho/Noho Working Group takes the microphone. A short, older woman with a white bob and rounded cat-eye glasses, she dives right into the board’s resolution against the rezoning, which she says “fails to meet its stated goals to create affordable housing, allow a wider range of commercial and residential uses, and support the creative community.”

9:52 p.m. | Board members break out in a round of questions and comments on the resolution. Treasurer Antony Wong, dressed in a crisp, white button-down, says angrily that “there are non-English-speaking residents within the opportunity zone that still at this point in time do not know about the plan. You saw tonight we didn’t have a translator. DCP didn’t have a translator at previous meetings.”

10:31 p.m. | Four hours into the meeting, the board finally takes a vote on the rezoning. One by one, as board members’ names are called, all but one votes against the plan, in a 37-to-1 vote. After the last vote is logged, the room breaks out into modest applause. Kiely adjourns the meeting. The 50 remaining attendees quickly collapse their folding chairs, lean them against the wall, and head up the stairs and back out into the muggy July night.

Scenes From Manhattan’s CB2 Soho Rezoning Vote