The Fate of 135 Bowery: Activists, Chin Face Off Today

135 Bowery.
135 Bowery.

This morning, the Wall Street Journal files a report on 135 Bowery, an 1817 row house that was declared a New York City landmark in June but now faces a new threat. As we reported last month, City Councilmember Margaret Chin is seeking to overturn the decision by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. An excerpt:

“There is opportunity on the site to build commercial space that is so needed in the Chinatown community for the small businesses,” Ms. Chin said in an interview Wednesday. At a hearing in June, Ms. Chin’s chief of staff expressed support for the designation. A spokeswoman for Ms. Chin said that he hadn’t been authorized to speak her behalf. Ms. Chin said in an interview that she signaled her support initially but she was ultimately impressed by the developer’s plans to use the site, which could include a new seven-story building offering retail and office space at below-market rates.

Meanwhile, the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors sent out an urgent appeal to its supporters this morning, imploring them to attend today’s City Council hearing. The email message was accompanied by a plea from Simeon Bankoff of the Historic Districts Council.  In “The Case for 135 Bowery,” he makes the following points:

Built circa 1817, the Hardenbrook Somarindyck House at 135 Bowery was designated as an individual New York City landmark on June 28, 2011. In moving to protect this building, the Landmarks Preservation Commission noted the building’s age and style, the integrity of its historic form and materials and its significance as a rare survivor from the period of the lower Bowery’s history as an elite neighborhood in the post-Revolutionary War era. The house was also linked with prominent New York families for over 150 years.

At the Public Hearing, several community groups and residents spoke in favor of its designation, including representatives of local Council member Margaret Chin. The owner opposed the move, claiming that the house was in too poor a condition to reuse. With the consent of the owner, the LPC assessed the property with Department of Buildings Forensic Engineer Timothy Lynch, who opined that it was in good enough condition to be preserved.

The owner also claimed that redeveloping the property would be prohibitively expensive and it would be a financial hardship for him if the building was landmarked. The City Planning Commission reviewed the site and found that there are approximately 5,224 sq. feet of air rights available for transfer and seven potential receiving sites for them. Furthermore, unlike the owners at 334 Bowery or the First Avenue Estates, the owner has not filed for an allowable proposal under the hardship proceedings of the Landmarks Law, which could permit him to greatly alter or even demolish the building if he could prove financial hardship.

Instead, his strategy seems to be based on getting the City Council to overturn the designation – which would allow him to develop the site into a small commercial tower. CM Chin has indicated to community members that she is leaning towards advocating to overturn the designation; feeling that the economic development potential of the project would have more benefit to the community than the preservation of its past. Furthermore, the owner has approached the CM’s office in order to try to partially open the new development to community-oriented businesses. HDC strongly opposes the denial of landmark status for 135 Bowery.

· The building deserves to be preserved on its historic, architectural and cultural merits. It is a rare survivor of an early and under-represented era of NYC’s history, especially on the Bowery. Lower Manhattan residents and community members have long desired that the Bowery’s remarkable history be protected and have recently – with the help of supporters like CM Chin – gained some headway in preserving a few of the Bowery’s historic buildings. Losing an almost 200 –year-old structure would be a crushing blow to neighborhood revitalization and preservation efforts.

· This is an attempt to circumvent the Landmarks process. If the reason why the building can not be preserved is economic in nature, there is a well-documented hardship process to address and correct that. A summary de-designation is bad public policy and a waste of meager city resources.

· The Landmarks Law was established for the direct betterment of the city. Although the LPC works closely with owners, there is no designation requirement for direct owner consent. Denying a landmark designation simply because of owner objection would undermine the designation process and may have a chilling effect on future designations. If the Council acts to overturn this designation, it should be for the demonstrable enhancement of the community.

· The Landmarks Preservation Commission is already loathe to designate a property over an owner’s opposition. In this instance, it was due in large part because the local CM was in support that the LPC took decisive action to protect this 194-year-old building. Turning back this designation is bound to have a chilling effect on designations throughout the city where owners are not joyously in favor of preservation regulations.

We’ll be covering today’s hearing. Look for updates this afternoon. If you’d like to attend, it’s being held at 250 Broadway, in the 16th floor conference room, at 11 a.m.