Decision Day for Chinatown BID and (Maybe) 135 Bowery Landmarking

135 Bowery. Photo by Robert K. Chin.
File photograph; Council Speaker Quinn and Councilmember Chin at the New Amsterdam Market.

City Councilmember Margaret Chin may well have reason to cheer this afternoon. According to a media advisory released by Speaker Christine Quinn last night, the City Council will vote today on a proposal, sponsored by Chin, to create a Chinatown Business Improvement District.

It’s an idea Chin has been been championing for well over a decade, long before she became Lower Manhattan’s representative at City Hall.  Victory looks to finally be in her reach, assuming the Council’s Finance Committee votes in favor of the proposed BID in a morning hearing.  The panel’s approval would clear the way for a vote of the full Council in the afternoon.

Not everyone will be cheering the outcome.   Many property owners and community activists have voiced strong opposition and vow to keep fighting the BID, even after today’s vote (legal action is one option under consideration).

There’s a possibility another controversial issue, the landmarking of 135 Bowery, will also be voted on by the full Council today. Last week, the Landmarks Subcommittee, acting largely on Chin’s recommendation, overturned the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s decision to protect the nearly 200-year-old federal house.

Preservation activists are furious with Chin for siding with the owner of the building, Patrick Yau, one of the leaders of the pro-Chinatown BID campaignLast week, we posted a brief story on the 135 Bowery hearing.  This morning, we have a more comprehensive recap:

Photo by Robert K. Chin.

The subcommittee voted 4-1 last Thursday to reverse the Landmark Preservation Commission’s decision to protect the post-Civil War structure, located on a mostly intact stretch of the endangered Bowery.

It was a crushing disappointment for preservationists, who have been struggling to save the Bowery from over-development. It’s was also a difficult day for Chin, who (as noted) is already fending off criticism from opponents of the Chinatown BID, and now finds herself at odds with another very vocal Lower Manhattan constituency.

Chin had initially supported landmark designation for 135 Bowery, but changed her mind after he owner outlined plans to build a 7-story office tower, providing below-market commercial space to small businesses. In halting remarks during the hearing, she said:

I have a strong record of working with preservationists and organizations and advocates in trying to preserve the historic character of Bowery and trying to get protection on the east side of the Bowery, the same as the west side of Bowery. In this building, after I had the opportunity to meet with the owners, they came to meet with me early this year, they laid out (a) presentation for me… It put me in a very tough position. As the City Council person who’s elected to represent this district, I do have to look at the larger picture and I do have to find balance. We try to preserve a lot of historic buildings.  It’s a building that offered an opportunity to a community that’s trying to recover after 9/11… Chinatown has not recovered as fast as other communities in Lower Manhattan. This project will offer opportunities for small business owners for affordable commercial space and creating jobs, and that’s important… I cannot support designation of this building. I just hope that the advocates will see my point of view on this and that we will have opportunities to continue to work to preserve the historic character of Bowery, but on this building we will have to differ.

In testimony before the subcommittee, a lawyer representing the bank detailed what he called a “compelling case against designation.” Adam Rothkrug said 135 Bowery had been altered many times in the past two centuries, making it a poor candidate for preservation and an unsafe eyesore.

Page Cowley, an architect hired by the bank, said walls inside the building had partially collapsed, original architectural details had been stripped away and the building’s original configuration had been substantially changed. “We believe that appearances can be deceiving,” she asserted. “Very little if any of the original facade remains… We do not believe this structure is a worthy example for individual designation.”

Patrick Yau, head of First American International, said his Sunset Park-based institution is a community bank “dedicated to serving new immigrants and the under-served amongst ethnic Chinese Americans in New York City.”  After buying the building for $5 million in late 2007 and spending money on interior demolition, Yau said he was shocked to receive a notice from the Landmarks Commission indicating that landmarking was a possibility.  He called the preservationists “special interests,” a characterization that didn’t sit well with the activists or with Brad lander, the subcommittee chairman.

Jenny Fernandez of the Landmarks Preservation Commission stood by the decision to protect 135 Bowery, which the LPC noted is “characteristic of the Federal style with its Flemish-bond brick work, its minimal wood cornice, and its high peaked roof with dormer windows.”  She said a Building Department forensics expert concluded that the facade is stable and is not in need of replacement. Referring to Page Cowley’s analysis, Fernandez said “we respectfully disagree with several aspects of her report.”

Supporters of landmark status for 135 Bowery were considerably less diplomatic.  Simeon Bankoff of the Historic Districts Council said losing the building would be “a crushing blow” and criticized the owner’s “effort to circumvent the landmarks process.” David Mulkins of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors unfurled a huge panoramic photo illustrating that this particular block represents “the most well preserved stretch of the Bowery.”


Lower East Side historian Joyce Mendelsohn told Council members, “you’re being asked to bail out a bank.” She argued that the bank could have avoided its dilemma before purchasing 135 Bowery, if officials had bothered to review LPC records showing that the building has long been listed as a potential candidate for landmarking.

Kent Barwick, former head of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, said the 135 application was “carefully researched” and the LPC “applied its high standards (for designation) wisely.”  Another public speaker, Aaron Sosnik, added, “siding with banks and developers over the community is shameful.” He called the Council proceedings a “betrayal by our elected officials.”  Michelle Campo, a resident of the Bowery, said emphatically “I am dismayed, and I am a voter.”

Several witnesses pointed out that the bank has had the option for some time to apply for “hardship status” and to receive funds to offset increased costs associated with landmarking.  Rob Hollander, an East Village community activist, asked whether the owner had signed ‘a legally binding document” assuring the community that promises of building affordable offices would be kept (the answer was no).

Lander, the subcommittee chair, emphasized that the Council has the right to review LPC decisions. He also noted that a “lot of deference is given to the local Council member” in these types of cases. Lander said he has found Chin to have “enormous integrity” and that she “values preservation as well as job creation.”   Agreeing with another Councilmember, James Sanders, he said the bank should consider entering into a Community Benefits Agreement, detailing its commitment to provide affordable commercial space.

Rosie Mendez, who represents the East Village (including part of the Bowery) was the only Councilmember opposing a revesral of the LPC’s decision.  Calling Chin both a “colleague and friend,” she made it clear her vote in this matter was not an easy one. But Mendez explained, “our community has lost enough character and enough history. I’m sorry I disagree with Margaret.”

In an email to supporters this week, David Mulkins of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, strongly indicated that the fight is not over yet. He said activists were dismayed that Chin missed so much of the testimony (she was chairing another committee meeting at the same time).  He added:

Councilmember Chin did not really address the merits of the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation of 135 Bowery, perhaps because she herself had submitted testimony favoring its designation at last year’s hearing.    She chose instead to position the issue as a Sophie’s choice in which affordable office space and jobs could be created only if the building is sacrificed for the construction of a tower… The community’s widespread anger and disillusion over this issue is not likely to go away unless a just solution can be worked out that results in the survival of this historically significant building.  Having recently lost 35 Cooper Square, the Bowery must not lose yet another of its historic resources just as it prepares to be named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Yesterday afternoon, Chin’s spokesperson, Kelly Magee, said they were hopeful the full Council will vote today, but it’s uncertain whether Speaker Quinn will take up both the Chinatown BID and the 135 Bowery matters in the same Council meeting.  We’ll have updates this afternoon.