CB3 Weighs Protections for Essex Market Vendors

Architectural rendering prepared by Beyer Blinder Belle.

Following Community Board 3’s land use committee meeting last week, we published some fuzzy drawings depicting what a “new” Essex Street Market located on the southeast corner of Essex and Delancey streets might look like. The Economic Development Corp. (EDC) has now posted clearer images on its web site, along with other details from a presentation made to members of the Seward Park redevelopment panel.  As promised, here’s our detailed account of the presentation and the discussion that followed.

At the meeting, EDC officials outlined four possible scenarios, including moving the market, leaving it alone, reconstructing and expanding the building on its current site (while retaining the historic facade) and developing a two market model (by keeping the old building and also creating a new facility across the street).

By the end of the evening, several committee members made it clear their highest priority was not necessarily saving the quirky 1940 building, but rather ensuring the longevity of the small “mom and pop” vendors now occupying the market, as well as future merchants who would otherwise be priced out of a gentrifying neighborhood.

At least two activists on the committee advocated creating a legal agreement which would (in theory) compel the (still-to-be-named) project developer to keep commercial rents in the market affordable in the years ahead and also, perhaps, to establish criteria for selecting commercial tenants.

In May, about 30 people came to CB3’s SPURA meeting to speak out overwhelmingly in favor of preserving the market in its current building, one of four WPA-era structures hastily erected 70 years ago to move pushcart vendors off the Lower East Side’s overcrowded streets.  During the June 27th session, EDC Executive Vice President Alyssa Konon outlined the advantages and pitfalls of preservation. But the bulk of her presentation focused on the upside of relocating the market in a new mixed commercial and residential building on the south side of Delancey Street.

She told committee members the Essex Street Market needed to be considered in the context of the larger SPURA plan.  Echoing a theme advanced many times by city officials in the past year, she said the project must be “sustainable” and “financially feasible.”

Konon said the city is willing to accommodate many of the community’s wishes (including the creation of a significant amount of affordable housing and the retention of a subsidized public market). But using colorful graphics, she explained that more income (primarily meaning market rate housing and retail) would result in a larger number of community “amenities.”

The Essex Street Market breaks even, but Konon said, major capital expenses are anticipated in the coming years to maintain and upgrade a building that was “never meant to be permanent.”  She suggested there’s no guarantee future mayoral administrations would feel compelled to pick up the tab to sustain an aging facility:

We continue to be committed to the Essex Street Market as a public market with a variety of vendors and price points and stall sizes. We see it as a place for affordable everyday shopping, for both fresh and prepared foods. One of the reasons why we want to have this conversation, and it’s an important one, is to think about how we continue to have these policy goals not just tomorrow, not just next year, but into the next decade and the decades after that… We do think there is merit in discussing a new location for the Essex Street Market and upgrading the facility. We’ve been looking at these different options based on ‘how can you create the most amenities for this project, what can we do in terms of long-term sustainability for the public market, for preserving the character of the market, what presents the most entrepreneurial opportunities and improving the physical space for the vendors?’

The SPURA development site. Essex Street Market buildings sit on parcels 2, 9, 8 and 10.

Under the first scenario, the public market would become part of a large commercial and residential complex on site #2, where a vacant Essex Market building now stands.  Neil Kittredge, of the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle, showed committee members very preliminary plans for a new market on the first two floors of the proposed building.

Right now, the market has about 9,000 leasable square feet, not including “prime retail storefront” space leased to the Essex Restaurant, New Roma Pizza (now being renovated), a newsstand and a phone store. Inside, there are 21 vendors and one vacant space (formerly Jeffrey’s Meats).

In a new facility, the city envisions setting aside 15,000 sq/ft for vendors. There could be as many as 65 merchants. Kittredge emphasized that his drawings were not fully developed by any means and were intended simply to facilitate the community board’s discussions.

He said the idea would be to replicate the feel and character of the current market by creating an intimate, informal and loft-like space. Unlike the present market, however, the building would open up to Essex Street. Large glass doors could be pulled up in the summer months, giving vendors direct access to customers on the street.

Kittredge also outlined plans for an outdoor market on Broome Street, which could be expanded on weekends to the east and west, creating a dynamic “market district” beyond the confines of the building itself.  He indicated there would be more public gathering spaces, areas for public events and room for smaller pushcarts.

In the basement, there would be on-site garbage receptacles and storage (two things the market lacks now). As for the other options, Konon told the committee there are major drawbacks. Since it’s not feasible to build on top of the current market, she said, leaving it intact would mean foregoing the opportunity to build apartments on Site #9.

Earlier this year, CB3 passed very specific planning guidelines, detailing proportions of market rate vs. affordable housing it wanted to see on SPURA.  Since the plan assumed apartments would be built on a “redeveloped” Essex Market site, this delicate balance could be upset if the parcel is removed from the SPURA project.

Option 3 (which panel members did not like very much) would involve keeping the Essex Street facade, but creating a new mixed use building behind it.  In this scenario, about 3,000 sq/ft now occupied by tenants would be lost, to make room for a lobby for the residential units on the upper floors, for garbage and for other facilities.

The fourth option the city outlined involved leaving the present market in place but also creating a new facility (identical to the one envisioned in the renderings).  Konon said the viability of this scenario is questionable, since the city and community would be sacrificing both apartments on Site #9 (where the current market is located), as well as market rate retail revenue in space occupied by the second public market.

In other words, this scenario would reduce the project’s “revenue” producing aspects, while adding public “amenities.” Tito Delgado, a former SPURA site tenant, was the first to speak up after the presentation ended.  Explaining his dilemma, Delgado argued in support of building a new market:

I love the Essex Street Market but it is not the building. It is the mom and pop vendors who live in the neighborhood… My problem with keeping it where it is now is, not that I don’t love it, but I love my community more in terms of keeping people from being homeless. There are hundreds of people doubled up and tripled up, people who were displaced from this area 43 years ago. We owe it to them to get some affordable housing built there.

But Damaris Reyes, executive director of the neighborhood preservation organization GOLES, suggested there might be another way to accomplish both goals:

At the last meeting I did suggest the possibility of two markets, both on Site 9 and Site 2, both of them newly built and renovated… I think it’s a good compromise. We won’t lose any housing. We can expand the market. We can build on the history. And I think we will provide opportunities for entrepreneurs, for folks in this neighborhood that have been displaced through the years. If you walk through Delancey and Clinton, a lot of places are not there anymore.

Another affordable housing activist on the panel, Harvey Epstein, was critical of the city for forcing the community to choose among priorities, essentially pitting people with different objectives against one another:

I am concerned about pitting the idea of affordable housing against a public market. I really feel that by saying that you set up a really inappropriate dynamic. We have a plan, whether you have adopted it or not… In this community, by saying we’re going to be losing affordable housing, if the market is preserved, you have created an untenable dynamic… When we started this conversation the city said to us they were going to let us know what commitments they were going to be making to us. We’ve kind of laid our cards out, we’ve said this is what we want… I’ve asked for at least two years, ‘what are you going to commit to in the ULURP (a land use document detailing how SPURA will be developed)… I really want to hear that… I want to hear what you’re committing to this community (specifically)… At this point we’re committing further to something. You might say, ‘we can’t do this, we can’t do that.’ That’s what I really need to hear before I make any tradeoffs in our community, because I feel like we’re giving more up without getting anything from the city (in return).

Konon told Epstein the city could not be more specific now because a lot of information they need to make decisions won’t be available until after an exhaustive environmental review is conducted.  That review will begin in the fall and stretch through much of next year.

Next month, the committee and the city will begin to discuss what will be studied.  So at the next meeting, or fairly soon afterward, Konon indicated, the city would start to telegraph at least some of its intentions. David Quart, a senior vice president with the EDC, agreed that it’s too early for the city to commit on a lot of details. But he added:

What we are committed to is that (the Essex Street Market) remain a public market in perpetuity. So whatever else happens within that building, the other uses, we would ensure that the new space is a public market and that it doesn’t become some sort of free-for-all, privatized or whatever a private developer would want to do with it. It’s essential to us. I think it’s something we can all agree on. we all want to preserve an Essex Street Market.

Asked who would own the expanded market (right now the EDC operates the facility), Quart said, that would need to be worked out in the months ahead. He stated that the RFP (Request for Proposals), that the city eventually drafts will include a section requiring the site’s developer to pick up the costs of building a new market.

He did not explain, however, how the city would go about guaranteeing that ongoing maintenance expenses and vendor subsidies would be paid for. Konon said the city would ask the consultant hired to prepare the environmental review to study two options: (1) keeping the market in its current location; and (2) creating a new market across the street.

Several committee members asked whether it would also be possible to evaluate the impact of building two new markets. The EDC officials said they were fairly certain that, in studying the first two options, the “two new market” scenario Reyes proposed would also be accounted for, but they promised to get back to CB3 with confirmation of that.

Although the committee seemed to be more focused on protecting the vendors and sustaining the market’s affordability, there were a few people in the audience advocating for the building itself. Cynthia Lamb, founder of Save the Essex Street Market, said more than 2,000 people signed an online petition in support of preservation.

Noting that the city officials neglected to acknowledge the building’s historic value in their presentation, she argued, “it’s extremely important. The historical nature of the Lower East Side is disappearing.” Earlier in the evening, Essex Street cheesemonger Anne Saxelby said there seems to be a (misguided) effort to separate the market’s “use” from its “space.”  She compared the market to the Tenement Museum, recounting that organization’s dedication to restoring 97 Orchard, which has become one of the LES’s most popular tourist destinations.  Without the original building, Saxelby said, much of what makes the market special would cease to exist:

Who would have thought. It’s a pretty dumpy, ordinary old building but, through this institution, has become great and unique not just for New York but for the entire world. It’s really rare when that happens, when people decide to save something like this and pay attention to it and elevate it to the status where it actually becomes an institution that people can learn from… It’s living history. It’s actually more important and more viable in some ways than the Tenement Museum because it’s still home to over 30 thriving businesses and it’s only getting better with each passing year. I think the Essex Market is already fantastic, bt with the help of the Community Board and the EDC and the support of everyone in the community we have the chance to really to recognize the true value of the market both in economic and historic terms. The market is one of New York’s most prized possessions and with a little forward thinking we can fully realize its potential.

David McWater, the committee chair, said he was sympathetic to the pleas to save the building, but was convinced that, down the road, the old market will inevitably become a “political football” susceptible to the city’s annual budget cutting axe.  “I would like to preserve the building but I don’t think there’s a practical way to do it,” he explained. “I think we try to recreate something that has the flavor (of the present building) and to try to do the best we can to be faithful to what that time period was all about.”

McWater said his biggest priority is protecting the vendors during the renovation and/or move to a new facility. It’s essential, he said, that their moving costs are covered by the city and/or SPURA developers.   Epstein and Reyes argued, however, for a more comprehensive approach.

Jeffrey Ruhalter, facing financial difficulties, closed his meat market, an Essex Market original business.

Right now, the EDC offers vendors below-market rents (most of them pay about half what a private landlord on the Lower East Side would charge).  But there’s no guarantee locking in these affordable rates now or in the years ahead. While it was not the deciding factor in his decision to call it quits, Essex Street Market butcher Jeffrey Ruhalter faced a 29% rent increase earlier this year.

The EDC cited citywide budget woes for the hike. Ruhalter’s highly publicized ordeal has focused new attention on this fact: there is no mechanism in place to preserve Essex Market subsidies today or in the future. Epstein said the committee should draft a proposed “community benefits agreement” spelling out rental rate parameters, criteria for selecting vendors and the overall mix of products that should be offered in the market.

McWater said, “I agree with you in principal but I’m not sure I want to box the city in so early on.” He said the EDC had been responsive to community concerns in recent years, after an earlier period in which city officials made engaging the neighborhood a very low priority. Reyes responded, “All the more reason we have to have agreements and make them concrete, because agreements, contracts with the community, need to be in place and outlive (city) administrations.”

There was no decision about the proposal to establish market operating principles at last week’s meeting. The next SPURA conclave takes place Wednesday, July 27th at 6:30 p.m., at University Settlement, 184 Eldridge Street. If you have opinions about any SPURA issues, you can send them to Community Board 3 at the following email address: spura@cb3manhattan.org