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BY DENNIS LYNCH
Amid fears that yet another luxury condominium tower will replace a century-old, city-owned building just outside the Tribeca East Historic District, Community Board 1 is pushing to landmark its architectural twin.
CB1 voted at its December board meeting to ask the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to consider designating the building at 139 Centre Street for preservation, citing plans by the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to sell off its identical, city-owned neighbor at 137 Centre Street for redevelopment.
The board’s Landmarks Committee cited the EDC’s plan to redevelop 137 Centre St. as a reason to preserve its neighbor, and noted both “were built to standards in context with surrounding municipal and other privately owned buildings” in the neighborhood.
Simeon Bankoff, Director of the Historic Districts Council said that although he supports CB1, the reasoning for landmarking 139 Centre St. in response to potential development at 137 Centre St. was “very flawed” and “not good planning.”
“Why put more regulations on a private building if you’re letting the public building go?” he asked, though he conceded that landmarking 139 Centre St. would make designating 137 Centre St. as a landmark much easier.
“I think [the LPC] would be hard put to reject 137 [Centre St.] on its merits as an architecturally and historically significant building, especially if you regarded its twin at 139 to be architecturally and historically significant,” he said. “Those buildings are very much what people think of when they think of Tribeca — they are just very strong early commercial buildings, and the main reason why the Tribeca historic districts were designated was to protect those types of buildings.”
The LPC said it has received CB1’s letter, but precedent suggests it won’t decide in favor of the landmarking.
The commission denied a request made jointly by the Tribeca Trust, CB1, and Councilmember Margaret Chin to calendar the Tribeca East Historic District Extension — which included the two buildings — for a vote in 2014.
The founder and chairwoman of the Tribeca Trust, Lynn Ellsworth, doesn’t agree with the community board’s more tactic, calling the push to make 139 Centre St. an individual landmark “useless,” and arguing that it should be part of an extended historic district instead.
The Tribeca Trust is currently filing a lawsuit against the LPC aimed at forcing it to schedule the Tribeca East extension for a vote, which Ellsworth said was the only way forward unless Chin can “cut a deal” politically to move the process along.
Ellsworth claimed that the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation made just such a deal with the city to calendar the South Village Historic District — which the LPC established last month — in exchange for the GVSHP’s support of transferring air rights from Pier 40 to the St. John’s Terminal site.
“The city met all those conditions and calendared it at rapid speed. It’s never been that fast,” Ellsworth said. “People have been waiting 15 years to be calendared, and in all of two weeks it happens? Obviously it was transactional. They were not doing it based on its merits, but based on the politics of the situation — they wanted [GVSHP] to stand down. So can’t Margaret Chin make a deal for Tribeca?”
A Chin staffer said that the councilmember absolutely still supports the Tribeca East Historic District Extension, and that in a letter to EDC president Maria Torres-Springer last October, she said that its plans for the property as they stand were completely unacceptable.
The EDC’s current plans involve selling off the property to a private developer, along with 70,000 square feet in air rights — or unused buildable vertical space — from the neighboring, landmarked Engine Company 31 firehouse where Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV) is based.
In her letter, Chin pointed out that the Request for Proposals (RFP) that the EDC issued for the 137 Centre St. site in early 2015 called for a “contextual development that would enhance the surrounding communities” and “respond to the needs of the community,” but that “a luxury condo tower does not meet the needs, and is not within the context,” of the surrounding area.
“From the beginning of our conversation on 137 Centre St., I expressed clearly my preference for deeply affordable housing on this site,” Chin wrote to Torres-Springer. “At a time when affordable housing creation is a paramount goal of our City, I cannot support the use of this public asset for anything other than the creation of middle and low-income housing.”
The EDC will need Chin’s support when the Council votes and proposed sale, since the Council tends to follow the vote of the member who’s district the sale is in.
An EDC representative said the proposal was not final or approved and that it would continue to work with the community and elected officials to craft a proposal “that responds to neighborhood needs and meets the original goals of the RFP, including generating revenue to support Downtown Community Television Center’s programming and endowment, providing necessary neighborhood amenities, and ensuring a financially feasible development.”
The EDC made no mention of two other “original goals” of the 2015 RFP — namely the provision of Pre-K seats and ensuring that any residential proposal be mixed-use and mixed-income.
Though Chin’s letter pointed out that Downtown doesn’t need any more Pre-K seat, She stressed that “deeply affordable housing” was more vital than ever in an area that has seen almost exclusively high-end residential development in recent years.
The Tribeca Trust wants the city to convert 137 Centre St. as-is entirely to affordable housing. A consultant hired by the historic preservation group said the building could accommodate up to 66 units. For his part, Bankoff said there was “no reason why [137 Centre St.] could not be preserved and converted” for affordable housing.
The building at 137 Centre St., which currently houses offices for several city agencies, was designed and built by the firm Schwartz and Gross along with 139 Centre St. in exactly the same style in 1911. The LPC has landmarked around a dozen of the firm’s buildings around the city, mostly in on the Upper West Side and in Harlem.
Ellsworth said that the Tribeca Trust has had to revise its historic district extension maps multiple times to account for buildings that they wanted to protect being knocked down and replaced. Without action, there may not be much left to protect, she said.
“On every corner we’ve moved the border because of demolitions, its going to be gone if they don’t do something,” Ellsworth said.