Proposed Lower East Side Historic District Picks Up Support; Tenement Museum Stays on the Sidelines

Orchard Street looking north from Grand Street.

Orchard Street looking north from Grand Street.

A coalition that asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission this past June to designate a Lower East Side Historic District has picked up new support and is preparing for a big push in the months ahead.

Among the new supporters are Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson, co-founders of the Tenement Museum. In 2006, Abram led an earlier effort for an historic district and won the support of Community Board 3. After she stepped down as president two years later, the campaign lost its momentum. Late last week, current leadership of the museum indicated they have no plans to become involved in advocating for the new proposal.

In a letter to Landmarks Chairperson Meenakshi Srinivasan, Abram and Jacobson wrote:

Absent the protection a Historic District affords, the Tenement Museum, the nation’s only restoration and interpretation of an “urban log cabin,” could one day find itself surrounded by a sea of modern buildings. That would forever erase the streetscape known to so many immigrant and migrants as their first home in America. By tearing down the physical environment in which tenement life took place, we make preserving the memory and telling the story, all the more difficult.

LES Tenement Museum.

LES Tenement Museum.

New management, however, sees things differently. David Eng, vice president of marketing and communications, told The Lo-Down via email, “The Museum is sensitive to the full range of community interests and is currently letting the LES Business Improvement District (BID) take the lead on this initiative.”

Tim Laughlin, executive director of the Lower East Side BID, made it clear his organization has serious reservations about the plan. In a statement, he said:

We look forward to a continued dialogue about the best ways that we can preserve the unique architectural character of our community. We are eager to review any proposal to that effect. However, it remains our firm belief that a blanket historic district designation is not the right approach for the Lower East Side. Such a regulatory scheme will likely have unintended consequences that could result in the opposite of the desired effect. Small property owners… are already overburdened and struggling to keep their buildings operating. Additionally, costs associated with such a designation will mean that storefront rents will need to increase in order to comply with costly landmark regulations… It is often easier to get things done with a carrot rather than a stick; clearly an overly burdensome and extremely expensive blanket set of regulations is not the best way to encourage small property owners to continue operating their buildings.

Two neighborhood organizations, Friends of the Lower East Side and the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, are leading the new campaign. They’re asking the city to create an historic district in the area below Delancey Street; exact boundaries are under discussion with stakeholders in the community. When we first reported this story in June, a wide range of groups had already signed on in support, including the Historic Districts Council and the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Now organizations such as the Cooper Square Committee, CAAAV, Downtown Independent Democrats and the Lower East Side Dwellers have joined.

Erik Bottcher, a campaign organizer and board member of LES Preservation Initiative, said there can be no more delay in protecting what’s left of the tenement streetscape. “It boils down to this,” he argued. “Either this neighborhood will be here for future generations, or it won’t. If the historic blocks around the Tenement Museum aren’t worthy of a landmark district, then what is?,” he asked.

tenements

In 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the Lower East Side one of the country’s “11 most endangered places.” Robert Tierney, Landmarks Commission chair at the time, acknowledged the concerns and said the city was surveying the neighborhood’s historic sites. The campaign led by Abram attracted significant support, but also opposition. The most vocal opponent at the time was local property owner Sion Misrahi, founder of the Lower East Side BID. The previous plan encompassed a much larger area than the current proposal.

Eight years after the National Trust’s designation, said Bottcher, “Development is encroaching from the north, south, east and west. We don’t feel that waiting another eight years is an option.” He also rejected the notion that historic districts are bad for business. “One only need look north to the East Village Historic District or to the NoHo Historic District to see vibrant, successful corridors that are architecturally intact,” he said. “Experience shows us that property owners actually benefit from being in historic districts.”

The next step for the coalition is seeking a new resolution of support from Community Board 3. You can see the full list of supporters below:

Angel Orensanz Foundation
Art Loisaida Foundation
Association of Latin Business Owners and Residents
Bowery Alliance of Neighbors
City Lore/Place Matters
Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center
COalition for a District Alternative
Committee Again Anti-Asian Violence
Congregation Kehila Kedosha Janina
Dixon Place
Downtown Independent Democrats
Dwell Church
East Village Community Coalition
Friends of the Lower East Side
Friends of Terra Cotta
Historic Districts Council
L.E.S. Dwellers
Lower East Side History Project
Lower East Side Neighborhood Gardens
Lower East Side Preservation Initiative
Museum at Eldridge Street
National Trust for Historic Preservation
New York Landmarks Conservancy
Sara D. Roosevelt Park Community Coalition
Seward Park Conservancy
Seward Park Preservation & History Club​​​​​​​​ Studio Castellano Architect ​​​​​​​​​
​​​Cooper Square Committee​​
Hernandez Houses Resident Association​​​​​​
Orchard Street Block Association ​​​​​​
Two Bridges Neighborhood Council ​​​​​​​​
Victorian Society New York
10th Street and Stuyvesant Street Block Association​​​

(Historians/Founders/Authors:)

Ruth J. Abram, Co-founder and first President, Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Marilyn Appleberg, author, East Village – Lens on the Lower East Side

Prof Hasia Diner, Director, Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, NYU

Prof. Andrew Scott Dolkart, Director, Historic Preservation Program, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

Holly Kaye, Founder and first Executive Director, Lower East Side Conservancy

Joyce Mendelsohn, author, The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited

Marci Reaven, Curator of history exhibits, New-York Historical Society

Clayton Patterson, photographer and Editor-in-Chief, Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side

Elissa Sampson, Visiting Scholar, Urban Geography, Cornell University

6 comments to Proposed Lower East Side Historic District Picks Up Support; Tenement Museum Stays on the Sidelines

  • Anon resident

    Unacceptable response “New management, however, sees things differently. David Eng, vice president of marketing and communications, told The Lo-Down
    via email, “The Museum is sensitive to the full range of community
    interests and is currently letting the LES Business Improvement District
    (BID) take the lead on this initiative.” Why the ongoing new management every 2 years at the Museum? They have hired a new Director of Development who has no clue about historic preservation. Then again, Julie Davidson couldn’t tell you where Kossar’s or Yonah Schimmel is.

  • Leo

    Tim Laughlin and David Eng – that dreaded response to the impact of a historic district has been proved wrong so many times that even REBNY should be ashamed to use it. Retail uses ALWAYS pick up once an area has been Landmarked. Have you visited NoMad recently? Or Gansevoort? Or Ladies Mile? How can any sentient New Yorker spout the big lie that LPC regulations kill business, when they do the exact opposite, over and over again? You are just voicing the concerns of developers who want to make the LES unrecognizable & unaffordable (by tearing down existing affordable housing in tenements, and replacing them with more tall glass luxury condos) and make an obscene profit doing so. You guys don’t represent the neighborhood, only the assholes preying on it. SHAME!!!

  • Rebecca Lee

    Yes to Leo’s comment.

    When a new development is built and it “creates value,” REBNY celebrates.
    When an older development is preserved and it “creates value,” REBNY protests.

    Dear REBNY: We dare you to explain why this is!

  • RoBow

    What is the BID thinking? People who live in luxury condos buy stuff online and on trips to Europe, etc. They don’t shop in the neighborhood.

    It’s the local people in the long-term buildings who buy things on their block. If the BID wants to snatch money away from local businesses, then sure advocate for luxury housing. Idiots!

  • HunnyC

    I disagree with ANewDayontheLES… As a former LES biz owner i can’t speak how the BIDs doing right now, but I think Bob Zuckerman was quite effective during my time in bridging business and residential communities. He did some good things. I’m also for a historical district as long as it’s a smart plan and frankly, we have to stop thinking that all businesses with liquor licenses should be demonized.

  • I am Evelyn Salt

    Don’t trust the BID. They’re for business development, part of the Shelly Silver political machine.