Activists, Chin at Odds Over Landmarked Building

135 Bowery.

In late June, neighborhood preservation activists felt they had reason to cheer.  They had, after all, just received word that the Landmarks Preservation Commission had voted to protect 135 Bowery, a federal style row house built in 1817.  It turns out those celebrations were premature. In the past few days, the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, in partnership with the Historic Districts Council, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Presrvation, the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, has been circulating a petition, urging the City Council to “uphold the landmarking of 135 Bowery.”

The reason for their concern? The building owner, First American International Bank, is reportedly asking for an economic “hardship exemption,” in a bid to demolish the historic row house — or to get the City Council to intervene. Any property owner has the option of seeking an exemption at any time. But activists are particularly concerned in this case because the City Planning Commission and City Council have not yet voted on 135 Bowery’s landmarking.

(The Council’s approval is not required but lawmakers have the power to overrule the LPC or amend any of its decisions).

135 Bowery can be seen on the rid side of this image, circa 1895.

The petition, which as of this afternoon had been signed by 211 people, reads as follows:

Whereas the New York City Council enacted the Landmarks Preservation Law in the City of New York and… Whereas the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, in compliance with that law and its provisions, including holding a public hearing, found the Hardenbrook-Somarindyck House at 135 Bowery to be a building that has a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation and… Whereas for those reasons the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission acted in compliance with the law to designate the Hardenbrook-Somarindyck House at 135 Bowery an individual landmark… We, the undersigned citizens of the City of New York urge the New York City Council to respect the determination of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and vote to affirm and uphold the designation of the Hardenbrook-Somarindyck House at 135 Bowery as a New York City landmark.

Preservationists met recently with City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who spoke in favor of protecting 135 Bowery during a LPC hearing last year. They did not like what they heard.  This is because Chin has had a change of heart — based on the bank’s redevelopment proposal, which calls for creating affordable space for commercial tenants in a new building.

This afternoon, Kelly Magee, Chin’s spokesperson, explained her position on 135 Bowery. While Chin is generally supportive of saving historically significant buildings, in this instance, Magee said, she believes there are “better uses for this site,” adding:

The owner has expressed his willingness to set up affordable office space for small businesses. Landmarking would limit changes to the building and make this more difficult. Margaret feels there is a good opportunity here for small businesses in Chinatown. There is limited affordable commercial space in Chinatown and we are looking at the bigger picture.

Preservationists, however, are not at all convinced that demolishing what they consider one of the Bowery’s most important buildings is the answer. Kerri Culhane, a well-known architectural historian, noted that this particular block of the Bowery (between Grand and Broome streets) is almost completely intact, making each building on it especially significant.

The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors and the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council have spearheaded an effort to have the Bowery (including 135 Bowery) listed on the National Register of Historic Places (Culhane prepared a detailed history of the Bowery for that application). She pointed out that because New York state officials have already declared the street “eligible” for the National Register, building owners have access to generous tax credits.  “The owner could apply for these tax credits right now,” she said.

The campaign to save 135 Bowery has been joined by some prominent supporters in the preservation community. Among them: Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation, an influential organization which does not usually get involved in preservation issues below Houston Street.

David Mulkins, chair of BAN, said the notion that 135 Bowery might not be protected “reprehensible.”  In an email to supporters he warned that the bank would be applying tremendous pressure on the City Council to “strip the building of its landmark designation.”

We have placed a call to First American International Bank. We’ll let you know what (if anything) they have to say about the situation.

 

  • David Mulkins

    A rare Federal-style survivor from the early 1800s, 135 Bowery is located in the most iconic and well preserved stretch of the historic Bowery, the city’s oldest thoroughfare.   Situated across the street from the landmark Stanford White designed Bowery Savings Bank, this Grand to Broome Street block is the Bowery’s most photographed area, it even shows up in the opening credits of the signature
    Mae West film, SHE DONE HIM WRONG. 
    Tap dance, streetcars, minstrelsy, the term “Jim Crow”, Yiddish theater, vaudeville,
    songwriters Stephen Foster and Irving Berlin, Beat literature, Abstract Expressionism,
    and punk rock all have a seminal connection to the Bowery.
    Last May, the city allowed the destruction of 35 Cooper Square, the oldest building by over 30 years on that historic and unique square.   With the Bowery poised for
    designation to the National Register of Historic Places, is the city going to allow
    the wanton, needless destruction of yet another of the street’s oldest structures?
    The Bowery is the convergence point for five different historic districts:
    Chinatown, Little Italy, Noho, East Village, and the Lower East Side. Keeping the
    historic low-rise character of the Bowery is thus in the economic interests of
    all these tourist friendly neighborhoods.   Save the Bowery.   Uphold the landmark
    designation of 135 Bowery!

  • ——-m

    Landmark preservation status involves quite an arduous process.  Once this title is attained a building, or area, should not be dispossessed of it.    Most certainly not by the elected official who spoke in its favor at the LPC hearing!!

  • Anonymous

    The short-range investment interests of yet another big bank is not comparable to a neighborhood’s long-range viability for both commerce and residential living. We need to insure that we preserve sections of the Bowery for small businesses that are thriving here now and to keep the tourist-attracting uniqueness alive. It makes no sense to demolish this piece of history. We must keep our communities diverse in terms of small businesses to offset the one-note of high end affordable hotels. This mono economy is not smart.
    The slim offers of “affordable” office space don’t cut it when stacked against the prospects of generous tax credits right now and the maintaining of the uniqueness of this neighborhood for the future.This one needs to be preserved. 

  • Gfpervin

    This building was considered worthy of landmarking by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Their ruling should be honored, not slapped down by yet another ploy to turn the Bowery into a “developer’s haven” at the expense of history and the local community.  We have heard of “affordable space” before that turns out to be affordable only for those who have enough money, and hardship is hard to understand when the developer had enough money to buy the building in the first place.  The tax credits should go a long way to helping the developer. 

  • Elliott Hurwitt

    Councilmember Chin’s claim that there’s a lack of affordable office space in Chinatown is nonsense, the area is full of undeveloped, underdeveloped, and just plain rotting, falling down properties — the only question here is whether or not this one particular bank can maximize its profits by continuing the horrendous disfigurement of the Bowery and the rest of lower Manhattan that we’ve seen recently.  Another modern 7-story building?  Good lord, they’re all so hideous, will this never end? 

    So we’re supposed to feel sorry for a bank?  Am I the only one who’s noticed how ruinous the banks have been for the American people the last few years?  Also, the kind of promise they’re making here, real estate developers and other corporate interests are always making these verbal promises (“just let us build this arena, and there will be lots and lots of affordable housing built with it”), and then that housing is never built, because they’re just a bunch of greedy bullshit artists.  Unless they can be made to SIGN A CONTRACT to that effect, their word is worth NOTHING.Who is this First American International Bank, anyway?  Are they donors to political figures in our community?  Why do their interests trump those of the local residents?  Something about this doesn’t smell right …