SPURA Guidelines Call for “Relocating” Essex St Market

Essex Street Market, 1939.

This photo is one of several historical images highlighted in a nice little slide show at the top of the Essex Street Market’s web site. The market, run by the city’s Economic Development Corp., is celebrating its 70th birthday this year.  But some people fear the future of this unique public institution could be in doubt.  This is because Community Board 3’s draft guidelines for the redevelopment of the Seward Park development site (of which the market is a part) call for its “relocation.” The guidelines that a CB3 committee reviewed earlier this week stated:

The Essex Street Market should be relocated to a superior site on a major street to accommodate a larger market with more goods and services. The existing Essex Street Market should not be closed or demolished before the new, larger market is constructed. Every effort should be made to retain the then current tenants of the Essex Street Market during the change in location and facility.

In the last few years, the market has enjoyed a resurgence, as new vendors have joined a handful of traditional grocery stores, butcher shops and other merchants who have operated out of the 1940’s era building for decades. Recently, they successfully lobbied the EDC to begin Sunday hours.

So why mess with success?  John Shapiro, an urban planner working with CB3 says the market has many limitations, which ultimately will hamper its financial viability. For one thing, he’s told committee members, the market is too small and cramped. For another, the buildings cannot be “modernized.”  There’s a science to successful shopping centers, Shapiro explained, which places a heavy emphasis on layout, vendor locations and traffic flow.

At this week’s meeting, committee members agreed that the language in the guidelines should be changed.  A new draft removes the assertion that the market should be relocated, stating:

If the Essex Street Market needs to be moved, the existing market should not be closed or demolished before the new, larger market is constructed….

In all fairness, the CB3 committee has not discussed the market in detail, at least not during public meetings. During most sessions, they have been consumed with the contentious issue of affordable housing. But in the past few days, some residents have been talking about lobbying the community board to keep the market intact. There’s even been discussion about possibly seeking to protect the buildings through landmarking.

The Essex Street Market consists of four buildings. The structure currently in use by the market is on site number 9. Site 10 is used by the Community Health Care Network. Site 2, located south of Delancey, and Site 8 are both mostly vacant. As development sites, the parcels have various problems. For example, a network of MTA tunnels beneath the buildings would likely make any construction project extremely expensive and, possibly, infeasible.

But, at the same time, commercial tenants would likely be salivating at the prospect of opening stores on the sites, which are adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge and right on top of a major subway station. Some residents worry that the markets could be replaced with chain stores that lack the character and quirkiness that makes the Essex Market unique.