Volume 19 Issue 51 | May 4 -10, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Clayton Patterson

Essex Street Market

Where pushcarts proliferated, condos for the rich?

By Lincoln Anderson

When the four one-story buildings of the Essex Street Market were constructed in 1938 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, they were meant to house the Lower East Side’s droves of pushcart vendors so that they would stop crowding the streets.

More recently, starting nine years ago, a local entrepreneur tried to renovate one of the market’s vacant buildings into a banquet hall for bar mitzvahs and quinceria parties. But the project never got off the ground. After lengthy litigation, the city a few months ago succeeded in evicting the tenant, Henry Rainge-Megill, from the building.

The question is what should fill the old market building now, in 2007?

Some say it should be a high-energy “Baseball City,” others a green environmental education center. Affordable housing advocates are also making a play for the city-owned site, which is located between Rivington and Stanton Sts.

Meanwhile, there’s strong speculation that, given the Lower East Side’s frenzied development boom, the city’s Economic Development Corporation plans to sell the site to a developer who will build yet another high-rise hotel or luxury residential apartment building.

From pushcart vendors hawking shmattes to the affluent living high on the hog in a — most likely — glass tower. How times change. Or might change, that is.

Community Board 3, which covers the East Village and Lower East Side, means to have a say in whatever happens at the site. Barden Prisant, chairperson of C.B. 3’s Housing & Land Use Committee, said the committee, assuming that E.D.C. intended to issue a request for proposals for developers for the site, decided to be proactive. They recently invited E.D.C. to come before the committee and discuss the site and hear input from the community.

“We realized that this was coming to the fore,” Prisant said. “The R.F.P. is going out in a few months. They made the presentation in very broad strokes. They didn’t give much idea of what’s going up there. We’re lucky we got the opportunity to air the issue.”

Prisant said ideas proposed by the community ranged from affordable housing to space for nonprofit organizations — or, as he put it, “not the kind of things E.D.C. is known for putting high on their priority list.” There was also a suggestion that the site have an arts component, such as being a new home for Tonic, the experimental music venue priced out of its space on Norfolk St. a few weeks ago. Big-box retail, on the other hand, is strongly opposed. Some even want to landmark the old building, too, he added.

The committee in its resolution recommended shifting control of the property to a different city agency, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, since it runs the city’s affordable housing programs. However, Prisant said of E.D.C., “It seems improbable that they would give up such a site.”

At the committee meeting, the E.D.C. representatives, as well as avoiding specifics themselves, discouraged community members from making too detailed suggestions — feeling doing so potentially could bias the R.F.P. process and selection of a developer. Nevertheless, the suggestions came fast and furious.

“They left the meeting pretty beleaguered,” Prisant said. “People were pretty fired up.”

E.D.C. said it will return to the community board once it has an R.F.P., Prisant said, adding it’s even possible the board might have some input on the R.F.P.’s language.

The vigorous discussion continued among the community at last week’s C.B. 3 full board meeting.

Prisant said his gut tells him E.D.C. envisions market-rate housing for the site — possibly “with a few sops thrown in to try to please the community.” Yet, amid the growing crop of new luxury towers, this is a spot the community must demand input, he said.

“Here we actually have some city-owned land,” Prisant said.

David McWater, C.B. 3 chairperson, can envision baseballs pinging off metal — or possibly even wooden — bats at a “Baseball City” at the site. He’s part of a proposal that would comprise indoor practice space for his Lower East Side Gauchos Little League baseball team, as well as housing — including 20 percent to 40 percent affordable housing — developed by Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association and Atkins and Breskin, a landlord that owns several properties adjacent to the site. The Gauchos would be a tenant, not part of the development team.

“I’m looking for a practice facility for the Gauchos, and I’m concerned about E.D.C. selling the property for a 25-story building,” McWater said. “What E.D.C. told me is they’re going to dispose of it — and you can pretty much draw your own conclusions.”

The Gauchos/housing proposal would include construction of a seven-story mainly residential building. The second floor would be used by the Gauchos and house 12 batting cages, a weight room, office, small SAT preparation classroom and an area for fielding ground balls.
McWater would take the building — known as Building B — right now as is just for the Gauchos alone. But he feels that offer is unlikely to come, especially since he’s been rebuffed in his previous efforts to get another vacant Essex Street Market building — the one located below Delancey St. — for the Gauchos.

“I’ve been trying to get Building D for years,” he said. “They’ve shown it to everyone else. All I need is an open area with high ceilings — it’s perfect for us.”

In their six years of existence, McWater has turned the Gauchos into a force to be reckoned with. This year the league will boast 100 players, ages 12 to 17. Next year, the organization plans to grow to 150 players, ages 8 to 18.

“Everyone we’re competing against has both outdoor and indoor facilities,” McWater said. “If we’re going to compete on the national level, we need this.”

The Gauchos would make the space available to other local youth baseball organizations, such as Felix Milan Little League and the Our Lady of Sorrows teams.

C.B. 3 spearheaded a proposed rezoning of the East Village and Lower East Side, which would cap building heights and end the run of new high-rise tower construction. If approved, the rezoning would limit the height of any new building on the Essex Street Market site.

Said McWater, “There’s three hotels in the area east of there being built. Blue and THOR and whatever is going up. That’s why we’re doing the rezoning there.”

Among those features, like high-rises and big-box retail stores, he doesn’t want to see at the Essex site, McWater — a prominent neighborhood bar owner — said whatever gets built at the Building B site, there also shouldn’t be a liquor license. That would rule out a bar, club, restaurant or even a hotel bar.

Ultimately, since the city-owned site must go through the uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, E.D.C. will have to deal with a public review by C.B. 3 and the City Council.

“If they completely blow us off — I mean the community board, not the Gauchos — I think it’ll be a difficult ULURP process,” McWater warned.

Possibly the most elaborate plan for the property was hatched in late 2005, but dropped in early 2006 and is now totally kaput. Bob Perl, an East Village and Lower East Side broker and developer and a board of directors member of the Federation of East Village Artists, came up with a proposal for an arts and retail complex with a 12-story residential tower.

Estimated then at costing $20 million, the project would have included two theaters — one 4,400 square feet, the other 2,400 square feet — a Lower East Side TKTS booth for half-price tickets to local plays, retail space for arts- and Lower East Side-related merchandise and market-rate condominiums, possibly with 20 percent affordable units thrown in for artists under the 80/20 tax-abatement program.

The two theaters would have been owned by FEVA and supported by some of the revenue generated by the retail component. Perl had worked up detailed blueprints for the project — which he showed The Villager on Monday. Yet he stressed, it’s over.

“I’m not going to pursue it,” Perl said. “Even if you did something great, there would be too many people pissed off in the process. There are so many competing interests for what people want to achieve. One project could not encompass all of those.”

Perl said he would have needed the support of, if not of the mayor, then the local councilmembers, particularly Alan Gerson, who represents the district, as well as Rosie Mendez.

“He had various interests to consider and it wasn’t clear this was something he could fully support,” Perl said of Gerson.

“And the rezoning would make that project less viable,” Perl added. “I’m not speaking against the downzoning — but it would affect the value of this project.”

Perl fears it may be another missed chance to revive the arts on the Lower East Side. He noted he personally brokered the deal to bring the famed Living Theater back Downtown in a new space on Clinton St.

“We’ve lost a lot of performing arts spaces to this real estate market,” he said.

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