Volume 20 Issue 13 | August 10 - 16, 2007

C.B. 3 says historic district is key to L.E.S. future

By Sruthi Pinnamaneni

The Lower East Side Preservation Coalition, an alliance of neighborhood groups, made a leap forward in its efforts to create a 20-block historic district on July 24, when Community Board 3 gave its stamp of approval to the project. 

The proposed historic district encompasses 450 buildings in the area bordered by E. Houston, Canal, Allen and Essex Sts. Preservationists, developers and residents have made arguments for and against the designation, and a key issue remains its long-term effect on affordable housing in the area. 

“We want to do what we can to preserve the look and quality of the neighborhood,” said Dan Arnheim, director of marketing and public relations at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. “But we also want to preserve it as an area where people live and businesses flourish.” The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which celebrates the neighborhood as the first home to generations of immigrants, founded the Lower East Side Preservation Coalition in 2006.

Other organizations in the coalition range from affordable housing advocacy groups to arts societies. But what binds them together is their goal of preventing what they see as the loss of the neighborhood’s character.

“Right now, the chances of landlords spending the money to do gut renovations are slim to none,” said Mary Spink, executive director of the Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association. “By landmarking the area, we can at least prevent them from tearing down the building.” 

But some developers and landlords say that’s the crux of the problem: Unable to afford renovations, property owners will either increase rents or sell their buildings to larger management companies. 

“Any small landlord who needs to spend $10,000 to replace a window will sell that building so fast your head will spin,” said Sion Misrahi, a Lower East Side real estate developer who spoke out against landmarking during the community board meeting. 

But after listening to several speakers, C.B. 3 expressed strong support for the proposal, with 24 out of 27 members present voting in favor of it. 

“The community board just voted the small landlord and the rent-stabilized tenants right out of the neighborhood,” Misrahi said. 

But while the two sides continue to disagree on the maintenance expenses and bureaucratic oversight that comes with landmarking, Janet Foster, associate director of the urban planning and preservation program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, said it’s very difficult to predict the long-term effects of landmarking on neighborhood rents.

“The Landmarks Preservation Commission is not meant to be concerned about renters,” she said. “They are concerned about the history and significance of a building and what it says about our common past.” 

While the coalition is waiting for L.P.C. to vote on the measure at a public meeting, the group is holding forums and creating a “master plan,” a renovation guideline for all the buildings in the proposed historic district. 

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