Activists, Chin at Odds Over Landmarked Building

135 Bowery.
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.