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Group Hunts Non-Artists Wrongly Living in SoHo and NoHo Lofts

By Andrea Swalec | April 17, 2012 8:23am
Under Department of Cultural Affairs rules that critics call arbitrary,
Under Department of Cultural Affairs rules that critics call arbitrary, "fine" artists like painters, poets and choreographers are eligible for official certification as artists, but "interpretive" artists including dancers, actors and musicians are ineligible, the agency's application materials say.
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Wikimedia Commons/Beyond My Ken

SOHO — A realtor-led group in SoHo seeking to throw out 1970s-era zoning laws that require SoHo and NoHo lofts to house at least one city-certified artist is planning to go on a hunt this summer to find out if the neighborhood's residents are as creative as they claim to be.

The SoHo/NoHo Action Committee is aiming to raise $25,000 by mid-May to hire a team of surveyors to verify that every residence on file with the city's Department of Cultural Affairs in fact is occupied by an artist, the head of the group said. 

"We'll find out [building] uses that are legal and illegal and how many artists actually live in the neighborhood," SoHo-based real estate lawyer Margaret Baisley, the head of the committee, told DNAinfo.

The group has already raised more than half of the money needed for the survey, she said.

The committee, comprised of about 10 members who claim to represent "hundreds" of supporters, wants the city to eliminate language in the citywide zoning resolution that mandates at least one certified artist must live in every rental or owned loft converted from industrial use in the portion of SoHo and NoHo roughly bordered by Astor Place, the Bowery, Canal Street and West Broadway.

"It's old, archaic and no longer makes any sense," Baisley said.

She denied that the group is trying to eject SoHo and NoHo artists, saying they're only trying to make the rules line up with reality.

"We're not trying to throw artists out. We're just trying to live legally," said Baisley, a real estate attorney who lives in Brooklyn and works within the affected zone.

The committee has tapped an independent surveying team from Baruch College's Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute to conduct the summerlong survey, armed with the addresses of all city-certified artists turned over to the group by the city under a Freedom of Information Act request, Baisley said. 

DCA said approximately 3,540 artists are city-certified. In 2011, 26 people applied for certification. Seventeen were approved and nine were denied, a spokeswoman said. 

Under DCA rules that critics call arbitrary, the city considers "fine" artists like painters, poets and choreographers eligible for certification, but "interpretive" artists including dancers, actors and musicians are ineligible, according to the agency's application materials.

"Among the reasons DCA has denied certification to applicants include having an address outside of the [relevant] zoning districts and production of work that is exclusively commercial, industrial or work-for-hire and lacks evidence of independent aesthetic, judgment or self-direction," the DCA spokeswoman explained.

Artists living in industrially zoned SoHo lofts in the early 1970s won zoning changes that permitted those lofts to be used as joint living and working quarters, as long as the city determined that at least one occupant was an artist.

Shael Shapiro, a SoHo architect who fought for the artist-in-residence zoning in the 1970s, said the policy no longer corresponds to reality in the pricey, cast iron shopping hot spot. 

"Forty years ago, artists were here saving the neighborhood and asking to be legitimate," he said. "Those conditions no longer exist here, and the policy doesn't make sense anymore." 

Realtors say the outdated law drives away big-spending potential buyers from SoHo because they'd rather go elsewhere than risk being rejected by co-op boards or denied mortgages because they are not certified artists. 

Prudential Douglas Elliman luxury real estate agent Leonard Steinberg, a supporter of Baisley's committee, said he recently had a non-artist client pass on buying a $15 million home in SoHo rather than try to buy illegally. 

The city needs to change with the times, Steinberg said. 

"These rules are government stupidity," he said. "I'd say 80 percent of people who live in SoHo now are not artists, but the government has a problem redefining the neighborhood." 

Real estate broker and certified artist Susan Meisel said the artist-in-residence rules now hurt the very people they were designed to protect. Aging artists sometimes have trouble selling their properties, she said. 

"[The zoning] deters would-be buyers," she said. "People don't want to deal with the restrictions." 

A Department of City Planning spokeswoman said the zoning policies were created to respond to "unique issues" in the area and any modification would require a thorough review. 

"[A] change in the regulations would require careful analysis of existing conditions and trends in the area," the spokeswoman said. 

The methodology of the SoHo/NoHo Action Committee survey and whether workers will go door-to-door to find out if certified artists are illegally renting their properties to non-artists, is currently under discussion, Baisley said.

"I doubt that anyone will answer their door if a surveyor is asking about certified artists, so it will be difficult," she added.