The Fallout from 135 Bowery: Skepticism About Community Agreement, Preservation Architect Resigns
Here’s a followup on the battle for 135 Bowery, the 194 year old federal house that was stripped of its landmark status by the City Council last week.
First American International Bank plans to demolish the 3-story structure, which won protection from the Landmarks Preservation Commission this past summer. District 1 City Councilmember Margaret Chin supported landmarking last year but changed her mind after the bank explained its plan to create affordable office space in a new building on the site.
In a hearing earlier this month, two Councilmembers (including landmarks subcommittee chair Brad Lander) asked a bank executive, Patrick Yau, if he would be willing to sign a Community Benefits Agreement, detailing the bank’s specific commitment to create affordable office space. Yau said he would be open to discussing a binding agreement.
Late last week, we checked in with Chin’s office to find out whether there had been any further discussion about a community agreement. Kelly Magee, Chin’s communication director, told us:
Councilmember Chin put a lot of time and thought into this decision. We wouldn’t go out of a limb for someone that did not have a plan in place, or who we weren’t confident would follow through. The property owner, First International, has said they would be willing to consider a community benefits agreement, but obviously that depends on both sides being willing to work together and negotiate and be reasonable. Councilmember Chin, for her part, is more interested in looking at zoning protections, such as height caps, or a historic district in the area — but this is going to take time for us to assess and research.
Magee also noted that the bank has applied for federal tax credits, which if granted, would set up commercial rents at 20% below market rate.
Preservation advocates remain dismayed about Chin’s reversal on 135 Bowery. But they are encouraged by her promise to continue pursuing height caps. In the past, Chin has urged the City Planning Commission to protect the east side of the Bowery. It’s a proposal the City Planning Commission has adamantly opposed. Simeon Bankoff, head of the Historic Districts Council, questioned what the bank means when it expresses a “willingness to work with the community.” He seemed pleased, however, that Chin’s office is talking about zoning protections on the Lower East Side’s most endangered street.
In an email message to supporters, David Mulkins of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, said:
Our next step is to encourage Council Member Chin to work for a larger vision that would better serve the entire community. We ask her to work with the building owner (First American International Bank) and the preservationists to find another way to preserve 135 Bowery. We expect as much from our Council Member given the clear and overwhelming outpouring of support to save the building by her local constituents! Because Margaret has heretofore been a strong, helpful ally in the Bowery preservation efforts, we trust that she will help find some solution that achieves the goals of all concerned.
Mulkins said he planned to meet with members of Chin’s staff next week about several issues.
Victor Papa of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council told us today he’s deeply disappointed in Chin’s handling of the 135 Bowery situation. “At the very least she should support a Community Benefits Agreement,” he said. But Papa was very skeptical about the bank’s promise of building affordable office space in Chinatown. “It will be affordable for 10 minutes, until everyone forgets (about the ordeal),” he asserted.
Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors are co-sponsoring an application to have the Bowery added to the National Register of Historic Places. They expect the state to recommend approval of that application within a couple of weeks. Activists hope the designation will help persuade the city that both sides of the Bowery should be protected from over-development.
On a related note, Bankoff confirmed last week that Page Cowley, an architect specializing in preservation, resigned from the Historic Districts Council’s board of directors. In the City Council hearing, Cowley testified on behalf of the bank, saying 135 Bowery was not worth saving. Bankoff declined to discuss the matter, indicating it was an internal issue. Cowley did not respond to our request for comment.