Volume 19 Issue 53 | May 18 -24, 2007

Back to the future of L.E.S.; District plan revives

By Alyssa Giachino

Neighborhood preservationists are revving their engines again on the Lower East Side, this time with a broader coalition of support, reviving a proposal to designate a historic district that ran into determined opposition last year.

A new group calling itself the Lower East Side Preservation Coalition is interested in designating a 20-block area as a historic district through the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The proposed district would run from E. Houston St. to just below Canal St. and encompass the commercial and residential strip along Allen, Orchard, Ludlow and Essex Sts.

Longtime residents are alarmed by the area’s rapid development, and fear that the legacy of generations of immigrant families may be wiped away by new projects.

“There have been concerns by neighbors that the neighborhood is losing its historical fabric,” said Margaret Hughes, director of the Immigrant Heritage Project at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Hughes said the neighborhood’s immigrant, labor and social service history should be protected.

“Through the buildings, those stories can be told,” she said.

The preservation coalition has sent out letters in English and Chinese to more than 400 property owners in the area, offering to meet with them to discuss suitable design guidelines that would protect the building facades, most of which date from the late 19th century.

“We’re more than willing to sit down with people and see what their concerns are,” Hughes said. “We can give additional support and have additional conversations.”

The coalition made a brief presentation at the May 10 Community Board 3 Parks, Recreation and Landmarks Committee meeting, and plans to return in July to make a full presentation and ask for formal support for the project.

A year ago, the Tenement Museum introduced the proposal and was met with fierce opposition from property owners.

To bolster support for its proposal, the museum has formed the new coalition. Other coalition members include the Historic Districts Council, Eldridge Street Project, East Village Community Coalition, Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association, Artists Alliance, City Lore, Jewish Museum and the Central Labor Council.

Meanwhile, over the past year, development has continued on the Lower East Side. New hotels and condominiums are sprouting throughout the area, many looming large over the older five-or-six-story buildings.

“There is terrifying development going on in the area,” said Simeon Bankoff, director of the Historic Districts Council. “We usually talk about development eroding an area. This is not eroding. It is eradicating it, it is smashing it down flat.

“There is surprising architectural detail that shows how successive waves of immigrants arrived, lived and went to school in this area,” he said.

The district is already honored by its inclusion in the National Historic Register, under the National Park Service. The national registry, however, does not include regulations limiting development, and the coalition members feel the best way to ensure preservation is through city designation as a landmark area.

“If it’s not landmarked, we will continue to see the types of development we see now that are out of scale and out of character with the existing neighborhood, as long as the market will bear it,” Bankoff said.

Few property owners have joined the coalition.

Sion Misrahi, a Lower East Side real estate developer, believes that landmarking will do more harm than good. He said historic district status would drive up costs for small property owners who can ill afford the delays often associated with bureaucracy involved for minimal changes like replacing broken windows.

“The Lower East Side is about the little guy, always has been, always will be,” Misrahi said. “It’s going to really harm the individual entrepreneur dramatically.”

Misrahi predicts landmarking would attract outside developers who would “swallow up” small property owners, putting rent-stabilized and rent-controlled apartment dwellers at risk of displacement, as well as discouraging new merchants from moving in.

“We have plenty of other areas that can be zoned landmark. It doesn’t have to be the commercial strip,” Misrahi said. “The city needs growth and the growth has to come in areas that are supported by public transportation.”

Coalition members dispute claims that historic district designation would drive up costs. Bankoff said the historic district would encourage investors with long-term interests, as opposed to speculators interested in fixing a building up for a quick sell.

“It will not raise costs perceptibly more than being a good steward of your building will,” he said. “If you have let your building deteriorate and you want just a quick fix, then yes, it will raise costs.”

Bankoff pointed to other historic districts in the city that have benefited from landmarking, which advocates say improves property values over time.

“There have been some very successful commercial and residential areas that survived being landmarked and prospered,” he said.

The Blue Moon Hotel has been touted as the kind of development that is sensitive to the neighborhood’s historical value while transforming a tenement for new use. Owner Randy Settenbrino added three new floors to the five-story building, but preserved the original exterior architecture and incorporated many historic elements into the rooms.

“Everything that’s of genuine value costs more. That’s just the way the world works,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that what’s here should be disregarded. The workmanship that’s here from 100 years ago is more valuable that a glass structure.”

The coalition has won the support of Councilmember Alan Gerson, who wrote a letter to the Landmarks Commission endorsing the project.

“The Lower East Side community is reeling from the destruction of precious examples of its cultural heritage,” Gerson wrote. Noting that his own family lived in the neighborhood, he added, “Should the Lower East Side tenement streetscape be lost, New Yorkers and national and international visitors will lose an important link to the rich cultural history of immigrants and migrants to New York City.”

State Senator Martin Connor sent a letter last week to the Landmarks Commission also expressing support for the plan.

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