If you’ve walked down Elizabeth Street below Canal lately, you might have noticed the plywood on the east side of the block, alongside the former storefront of South China Garden, the popular restaurant that closed a couple of years ago, and Jing Fong, Chinatown’s largest restaurant. What’s going on here? For many years, Chinatown property owner Alex Chu has been planning to build a hotel on the site, which extends through to 50-52 Bowery. In 2009, the Real Deal reported that Chu, president of Eastbank, planned a 27-story tower with hotel rooms, apartments and retail. Like so many other development proposals, it’s taken a long time to come to fruition.
But a recent posting on the web site of the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center signaled that the long-delayed project was about to get underway:
A new 20-story hotel is planned for 50 Bowery, located just south of Canal Street near the Manhattan Bridge entrance. The new tower replaces two low-rise buildings at the site, and stretches through the block, from Bowery to Elizabeth Street. Demolition is active from May through approximately August 2013, with foundation work to follow through late 2013. Superstructure construction will take place through May 2014. Though the new hotel name has not yet been announced, it will house 220 hotel rooms when it opens in mid-2015.
We contacted the Construction Command Center, a city/state agency, and learned that the information detailed above came from “a project representative who attends the LMCCC weekly construction coordination meeting.” But after a bit of checking, we’ve concluded Chu may have to wait a bit longer. Yesterday Kelly Magee, a spokesperson for the Department of Buildings, told us that an application to demolish 50-52 Bowery has been received and is being evaluated, but it has not yet been approved.
Officials are looking at the method to be used in the demolition. An inspection will occur before any work begins, Magee said. It should be noted that the building next door to the future construction site, the former Citizens Savings Bank, is a city landmark, so there will be a need to proceed cautiously.
Last January, the Buildings Department rejected an application from Chu’s architect, Peter Poon, for a 20-story tower because it was incomplete. A representative for the developer declined to comment about the project when we contacted the office yesterday. Presumably, the proposal is being revised and will be re-submitted to the city sometime soon.
Some people in Chinatown are not at all excited about the prospect of a new 20-story hotel on lower Bowery. Mitchell Grubler is a resident of Confucius Plaza, located right across the street, and a leader of Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, a preservation organization that recently celebrated the inclusion of the Bowery on the National Register of Historic Places. “A 20-story building in any area which is considered the historic core of Chinatown is precedent-setting,” he said. “It’s enough already with the hotels.” A 19-story Wyndham Garden Hotel opened at Bowery and Hester streets last year.
The building at 50 Bowery is unrecognizable today but it is an important historic site. Atlantic Garden, opened in the 1860’s, was the largest and most famous entertainment venue of its kind, a German beer hall-concert venue, that morphed over the decades, changing along with the Bowery, enduring for a half-century. In recent times, the facades on both Elizabeth and the Bowery have been altered and the interior gutted, making the building unsuitable for historic preservation. Author David Freeland wrote about Atlantic Garden in his book, “Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudville.” In an interview this morning, Freeland said the remnants of the building represent “what’s left of New York’s first all-in-one entertainment center, a predecessor to today’s amusement parks (it was possible to drink a beer, go bowling, listen to a concert and visit a shooting range at Atlantic Garden).” He added, “It may be just a remnant but it is the oldest remnant of its kind in all of Manhattan.”
Jing Fong, the sprawling dim sum restaurant, occupies a building just to the south of the development site and the property is also owned by Chu and his partners. The restaurant has already vacated an annex within 50 Bowery, but the most recent plans do not appear to call for the demolition of Jing Fong’s main space. The other day, one of Jing Fong’s dining room supervisors told us the restaurant has a long-term lease, but employees are concerned about what the future holds.
People in Chinatown have been hearing about these plans for years. Dating back to 1986, Joseph Chu, Alex’s father, told the New York Times he dreamed of building a hotel on the site:
Mr. Chu is still keen to fulfill a long-time vision for Chinatown. He owns land off the Bowery that houses the Canal Arcade, a sprawl of 33 stores… Mr. Chu wants to build a 400-room, $40 million hotel on the site. Standing in his way are the lengthy leases his tenants hold. He says he has interested a number of investors and has had talks with Holiday Inn as a possible operator. But he has not yet freed the land. ”I am waiting,” he said. ”I am trying.”
Now, a new generation is waiting and trying.