As Development Heats Up, Landmarked Lower East Side Historic District Isn’t Any Closer to Happening

Posted on: July 21st, 2016 at 9:33 am by

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Bargain District signage, August 2010

With the city’s so-called “backlog” initiative firmly in the rearview, it’s time to refocus.

You’ll recall that several local grassroots preservationists continue the battle to protect an historically-significant swath of Lower East Side territory. Led by the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative and Friends of the Lower East Side, the consortium of area groups is pushing to instate a landmarked Historic District south of Delancey Street before it’s too late. Development pressures continue to chip away at the fabric of the neighborhood (e.g. Essex Crossing), and such designation would create landmark protections for the largely low-rise character of the neighborhood. Arguably its greatest asset.

There is some momentum. It was reported last November that Tenement Museum co-founders Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson currently support the landmarking measure.

That the Lower East Side Partnership (formerly, Business Improvement District) doesn’t support the designation of a broad historic district is not surprising. Its function from the very beginning – founded in 1991 by Sion Misrahi to re-brand the area as a “bargain district” – is to prop up the neighborhood stakeholders. Landmark status for these streets below Delancey would effectively limit the take; it won’t be as easy to knock down century-old tenements and/or make building modifications.

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Executive Director of the Partnership, Tim Laughlin, previously provided the following statement explaining their opposing position, arguing that a “blanket” designation would do more harm to the mom-and-pop landlords in the neighborhood.

We look forward to a continued dialogue about the best ways that we can preserve the unique architectural character of our community, we are eager to review any proposal to that effect. However, it remains our firm belief that a blanket historic district designation is not the right approach for the Lower East Side. Such a regulatory scheme will likely have unintended consequences that could result in the opposite of the desired effect.

Small property owners, in particular those that only own a single building, are already overburdened and struggling to keep their buildings operating. Additionally, costs associated with such a designation will mean that storefront rents will need to increase in order to comply with costly landmark regulations. We remain committed to seeking a path forward that achieves the goal of preserving cornices and exterior facades without having negative impacts on storefronts and commercial activity. It is often easier to get things done with a carrot rather than a stick; clearly an overly burdensome and extremely expensive blanket set of regulations is not the best way to encourage small property owners to continue operating their buildings.

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Still absent from the list of supporters, though, is the Tenement Museum, which, coincidentally just began renovating its 103 Orchard facility. The organization had initially proposed such a district ten years ago, yet reversed course amid pressure from building owners. It’s a glaring absence. Looks like they’re doubling down. The institution is instead throwing in its lot with the Lower East Side Partnership.

“We are aware of the full range of community interests and we are currently letting the LES Business Improvement District take the lead on the initiative,” noted Jon Pace of the Tenement Museum in a dated press statement.

Touting the slogan, “Revealing the past, challenging the future,” the museum’s position doesn’t totally compute. Its whole bread-and-butter deals with neighborhood preservation and history. What’s more, don’t you find it ironic that the museum co-founders Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson just threw their collective weight behind the proposal?

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Rendering of 100 Norfolk St, sitting on the ashes of Ratner’s

The LESPI, for its part, continues the quest. “In the months ahead we’ll continue to build on our support for a new district, which now includes more than 35 organization supporters and 500 petition signatures,” President Richard Moses tells us.

“We’re hoping that the BID and the Tenement Museum will come around to see that historic buildings bring people to an area, and make them want to stay there.  The alternative to preserving the historic buildings – mass demolitions then construction of faceless glass boxes – has never been a draw.”

Meanwhile, it’s also worth mentioning that there is already a Lower East Side Historic District in what’s now considered the East Village. That area was earmarked back in 2012.

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