In Defense of the Essex Street Market

Quite a few people were rushing to submit comments about Community Board 3’s proposed SPURA guidelines in time for yesterday’s deadline.  One issue that’s gotten some Lower East Side residents pretty riled up in recent weeks is the future of the historic Essex Street Market. The guidelines, which lay out general principals for the redevelopment of the 7-acre Seward Park site, call for the relocation and expansion of the market. One resident, Seward Park Co-op shareholder Cynthia Lamb, shared with us the letter she wrote to CB3:

Dear CB3 SPURA Committee Members:

Thank you for reaching out to the neighborhood for input on the SPURA development site. I would like to speak with regard to the SPURA CB3 Guidelines and the Essex Street Market.

The Essex Street Market is a one-of-a-kind market in New York City. It represents the best of New York in that it has developed into what it is today both naturally and historically. With its pedigree as the site built to house the pushcart vendors, it’s described by walking tour guides and gourmets as a “historical landmark.” Unfortunately, the landmark designation is not official, and its future is uncertain. The same landmark protection sought by the Fulton Fish Market buildings at the South Street Seaport (designed by the same architects as the Essex Street Market during the height of the New Deal era) should be sought for the Essex Street Market.

The Essex Street Market has been growing and thriving, with small businesses taking the risk to set up creative shops within the nooks and crannies of the market, and sons continuing businesses started by their fathers or grandfathers. Vendors have gained local and national press. The vendors are as diverse as our local community.

The current wording in the CB3 guidelines for the Essex Street Market does little to protect the market if indeed the condition that “if it is to be relocated” comes to pass. I strongly urge that this language be changed to state that the Essex Street Market will remain in its current building and location.

The current guidelines state that if relocated the market should be moved to a “superior site on a major street.” There is no magic formula for retail success; it’s difficult to predict what site could be considered superior. However, the current market has proven successful. I believe that a move to a new building would be a callous treatment of a living and vital piece of our history, our neighborhood.

Further, I advocate expanding the market to the currently un- and underused buildings that are part of the original Essex Street Market complex. This would accomplish the goal of accommodating “a larger market with more goods and services.”

Next, the guidelines state that “Every effort (such as special consideration as to rents) should be made to retain the then current tenants of the Essex Street Market during the change in location and facility.” This statement is not practical and is too ambiguous. Further, it states nothing about the vast capital costs of rebuilding shops and the lost business days during the transition, even with two buildings operating during that time. These same vendors have already spent capital costs creating and upgrading their stalls in response to the market’s recent makeover. Additional capital costs will put some vendors out of business at the Essex Street Market.

I have spoken with the vendors about this, both long-term, multi-generational establishments and newcomers. I am greatly concerned by their responses. They appeared to have little or mixed information as to what possible changes are being discussed. Several vendors expressed doubt their business would survive a move or that they’d be able to afford the rents in a new location, however well-intentioned promises are of efforts to maintain current rent rates.

The Essex Street Market is part of the life blood of the Lower East Side, a historical site where our past and present co-exist with the variety of vendors meeting the needs of our diverse neighborhood. This did not come about from top-down planning, but developed over time, reflecting the neighborhood itself. The Essex Street Market could have only happened on the Lower East Side; to lose this treasure would not only be a loss to our neighborhood but to the City of New York.