A packed public hearing held yesterday by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on the proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District drew enthusiastic support and passionate opposition. Local elected officials and preservation organizations spoke in favor of the plan. A smaller group led by neighborhood churches argued that it could threaten their very survival.
The district would be bounded roughly be East 2nd and East 7th Street, and 1st Avenue and Bowery. It would establish official landmark status for more than 300 buildings, preventing any aesthetic alterations to those sites without the consent of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
A string of local politicians sent representatives to voice support for the proposed district. In a letter read by a spokesperson, New York City Council member Rosie Mendez expressed, “personal and community pride that my district includes the entire proposed historic district,” and her appreciation for “the rich tapestry of a story that the buildings tell.”
Speakers described the cultural importance of preserving structures that reflect continuous and diverse waves of immigration beginning in the second half of the 19th century. Some described tenements that were first home to transplants from Europe, then Beat generation bohemians and Hispanic immigrants. Others highlighted the value of time-honored religious institutions, like Congregation Mezritch Synagogue, the last operating tenement synagogue in the East Village.
Voicing “a preponderance of support” from Community Board 3’s landmarks subcommittee, Carolyn Ratcliffe advocated for the preservation of New York buildings that embody “the nation’s history as well.” The proposed district also received the endorsement of Borough President Scott Stringer, State Senators Tom Duane and Daniel Squadron and State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, among others.
Local preservationists were also on hand to offer support. Richard Moses, president of the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative collected more than 1000 signatures in support of the district’s immediate formation, saying, “development pressures are intense and increasing all the time.” Andrew Berman, executive d of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, added that the proposed district represented “just a fraction, but an incredibly important fraction, of this [area’s] history.”
But occupants of some buildings within the planned district expressed many reservations. Members of the clergy and congregation of the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection, an Orthodox church located at 59 East 2nd Street, described the financial pressure that maintaining the building exactly in its current state would require. “Our parish is successfully responding to the need for preservation,” said Father Christopher Calin of the Cathedral, who also stated that the civil oversight of a religious building impinged upon that institution’s First Amendment rights. If the landmark status causes the church any undue financial burden, Calin told the Commission, it would be “a sin for which you will be held accountable.”
Reverend Bogdan Socha, Pastor of Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Roman Catholic Church at 101 East 7th Street, also said his Church was “being forced into being landmarked against its will.” He also contended that the information about his church, including its name and building specifications were erroneous, demonstrating “major disregard and contempt for the Polish community” that comprises the congregation.
Edward Shapiro, whose family owns a small 2nd avenue building within the proposed district, objected for different reasons. His family has been in the neighborhood for generations, but many fled conditions in tenement buildings that would now be landmarked. “Trying to preserve all these buildings that our forefathers saw as inherently defective doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “The bricks might change, but the spirit will remain the same.”
There was no vote yesterday. A decision from the Landmarks Commission could come at any time, but is likely weeks or months away.