Follow-up: Debating the Fate of the Essex Street Market

Our obsessive coverage of the Seward Park redevelopment talks continues today with a closer look at the future of the Essex Street Market. As we reported last month, quite a few Lower East Side residents objected to language in a early draft of Community Board 3’s guidelines, stating: “The Essex Street Market should be relocated to a superior site on a major street to accommodate a larger market with more goods and services.”  In response to community-wide feedback, the guidelines have now been changed to say (proposed additions are in blue):

If the existing Essex Street Market is to be relocated, it should remain public and be moved to a superior site on a major street to accommodate a larger market with more goods and services. The existing Essex Street Market should not be closed or demolished before the new, larger market is open. Every effort should be made to retain the then current tenants of the Essex Street Market during the change in location and facility. Such efforts should include providing special consideration as to rents (e.g., rent increases should be comparable to existing contracts and commensurate with what would be expected in a public market), assisting tenants with moving and relocation costs (e.g., through the creation of a fund or by way of a requirement in the RFP), and assuring that the new market space is move-in ready before tenants are relocated.

When CB3’s SPURA task force meets Monday night, a number of residents passionate about keeping the market intact, in its current location, are expected to speak out. During the public session, they intend to call on the community board to fight any plan moving the market to another location on the development site.

In the past few days, officials with the NYC Economic Development Corp. (which operates the market) briefed vendors on the redevelopment talks and answered questions.  EDC representatives explained that the conversations are very preliminary and any potential move is years away. According to merchants in attendance, city officials promised to preserve the below-market-rate rents vendors pay at the ESM, even if a new public market is built.

In the past year-and-a-half, CB3’s task force has not discussed the Essex Street Market in great detail.  The assertion that the “market should be moved” was apparently inserted into the guidelines on the advice of John Shapiro, CB3’s planning consultant.  Shapiro has told committee members the 1940 market building lacks modern amenities (such as a conventional loading dock) and cannot be easily expanded.

Noting widespread community support for an “expanded public market,” he has recommended constructing a new facility on another SPURA parcel. In a phone interview earlier this week, EDC spokesperson Julie Wood said the city agrees with Shapiro’s assessment.  A lack of storage space, narrow aisles and irregular entrances are all shortcomings that could be addressed in a modern building.

But Wood emphasized that the EDC is committed to  the market, which has seen a resurgence in recent years, even if the SPURA redevelopment plan collapses. “In the event that there’s no plan, the market would stay in its current building,” she said.

The Economic Development Corp. is not shy about touting the Essex Street Market as a success story. Just last week, news articles cited it as a model for La Marqueta, a city-owned facility in East Harlem that just opened a kitchen incubator.  After falling on hard times in the 70’s, the city pumped about $1.5 million into renovating the Lower East Side building (a project that was completed about 10 years ago). Today there are around 25 merchants, catering to a clientele that is ethnically and economically diverse.

As the New York Times put it in a 2006 feature, “The Essex Street Market exists as an urban planner’s vision of commercial utopia — the sort of retail space now all but non-existent in New York, where increasingly segregated social classes come together to share if not the actual experience of affluence, then the readily purchasable signifiers of it.”

But as the SPURA debate heats up, many people fear change. It would be impossible to replicate, in a new building, the things that make the Essex Street market unique, they argue. Others believe a thirst for profit could end up ruling the day. Fourth generation butcher Jeffrey Ruhalter is suspicious of the city’s intentions, hinting that the EDC might be unable to resist intense pressure to sell the parcels to the highest bidder.

In spite of the recent turnaround, it’s obvious to everyone that the Essex Street Market is an under-utilized resource. Of the four market buildings that extend from Broome to Stanton streets, two are mostly vacant. Efforts to make better use of the facilities have not gone so well. Several years ago, the city was embroiled in an ugly legal fight with Henry Rainge Megill, an entrepreneur who had leased Essex Market “Building B,” with the intention of creating an “International House of Good Eats.”  More recently, there was talk of turning the same building into a performing arts center and adding a 12-story residential tower on top of the existing structure. The idea went nowhere.

In a CB3 presentation last year, EDC Vice President David Quart outlined some of the issues that will have to be dealt with if the market buildings are to be re-developed.  For one thing, he said, the lots are narrow and oddly shaped. For another, a complex network of subway tunnels beneath the market buildings could limit new construction on the parcels.

For some residents, the important thing is retaining the distinctive “retail mix” that makes the Essex Street Market special. Others are determined to preserve the quirky,  low-slung red brick buildings, which housed 475 former pushcart vendors on opening day — January 10, 1940. But, even in the neighborhood, the buildings are not universally loved.

In other neighborhoods, the campaign to save these types of WPA-era structures has been contentious. In backing a 2008 plan to rebuild the South Street Seaport, the EDC approved the dismantling of the 1939 “New Market Building,” where the old Fulton Fish Market used to be housed. The plan was temporarily derailed when the developer, General Growth Properties, declared bankruptcy.

Dominic Pisciotta, CB3 chairman, told me earlier this week the current thinking is that the Essex Street Market would be more viable on the south side of Delancey Street. He said the committee has “definitely heard the concerns” from residents and takes them seriously.  Some of those concerns may very well be dealt with on Monday.

But Pisciotta said other issues related to specific development sites, will be addressed if/when the guidelines are approved.  At that time, the community board would get to work on site specific plans for SPURA.  So it’s during the next phase of the community planning process that detailed Essex Market plans would be discussed.

5 comments to Follow-up: Debating the Fate of the Essex Street Market

  • CLamb

    The AIA Guide to New York CIty has this to say in its guide book: “The Department of Markets no longer exists in the City’s table of organization but this indoor market does. Art Moderne in red brick and industrial steel sash.”

    It not only has historical and cultural significance as well as architectural labeling, but it still stands in a neighborhood listed as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in America (National Trust for Historic Preservation).

    The named arguments in favor of relocation are not issues. The market does not need a loading dock; it is comprised of small vendors, similar to any small food purveyor in New York City. Nor does it need a studied traffic flow. Room for expansion already exists in the non-used buildings of the Essex Street Market.

    As noted, the EDC states obstacles to developing the site, including the narrowness of the lots and the subway lines.

    While it’s reasonable to take inventory of the City’s land and managed properties, I believe it’s unfortunate that the Essex Street Market became part of the long-standing SPURA land debate. The market is a thriving, essential destination in our LES neighborhood. It need not be considered for a new, large scale development.

    Cynthia Lamb

  • JP Bowersock

    I think ESM ought to be left out of the SPURA thing altogether. It isn’t part of the SPURA lots, after all. And the reasons for moving it look shifty to me. It would do better BELOW Delancey? Says who? It’s current location is pretty prime. Moving it is NOT doing the market any service, no matter how anyone tries to spin it. Moving the market opens up a prime site for somebody else. Obviously the guy pushing for the move is Shapiro – and what a surprise, he’s an urban planner. I bet he finds it galling that the market is thriving on a major intersection without a regular layout, a loading dock or even windows. That’s the sort of makes thing that makes modern urban planners seem unnecessary. I’m sure this guy is chomping at the bit to help “fix” that.

    At least those of us who don’t want to see the market ruined know who is working against us: John Shapiro, the guy who worked to get the line that the Essex Street Market “should be moved” into the proposal in the first place. To what end? Sweetening the deal for developers under the guise of “modernizing” the market? Part of why I enjoy shopping there is its uniqueness and old school vibe. If I wanted an organized modern (boring) shopping experience I could just walk over to Whole Foods. I find myself at the Essex Street Market far more often. So much for there being an alleged “science” to laying out a market.

  • I must say I am taken aback by JP Bowersock’s attack on a man who has been so helpful in bringing all sides together on the SPURA issue. To my knowledge Mr. Bowersock has not attended a single CB3 SPURA meeting, yet he attacks our facilitator. His comments are unfair and unworthy of the writer who I know is capable of more fairness.

    It is possible to favor retention of the Essex Street Market, without making such an unnecessary and wrong-headed attack.

  • JP Bowersock

    I think it’s wonderful that an urban planner of Shapiro’s expertise and renown is working to develop the SPURA site. That’s exactly the kind of person you want on your team when you’re looking to develop empty lots and wasted space.

    But he happens to be exactly the kind of person best kept away from historic sites like the Essex Street Market, because he’s been trained to see everything “wrong” with them. He’s an expert at planning to raze such places so that “better” can be built. He’s made it clear that’s his intention with regard to the ESM.

    I’ll rest easier if there’s any way to push along SPURA development without letting this guy get his hands on the Essex Street Market. Even if his intentions are pure as the driven snow he’ll wreck it. Because part of what makes the market so cool flies in the face of that to which Mr Shapiro has dedicated his professional life. And I fear getting him to appreciate that is as likely as a virtuoso concert pianist developing a fondness for the Velvet Underground.

  • Now that Mr. Bowersock has attended a meeting to see how it goes and how Mr. Shapiro has gracefully and honestly moderated the discussion, I hope he realizes that it is not the facilitator’s job to “get his hands on the Essex Street Market.”

    Sentiment in favor of retention of the market was strong, and language was inserted into the guidelines expressing the committee’s desire to retain the market. Now those who care about this issue need to stay engaged during the site planning phase.