Jewish Conservancy Advocates For New Home as Redevelopment Nears

400 Grand Street.

As we reported yesterday, six remaining tenants at 400 Grand Street, which will be demolished next year to make way for the Essex Crossing project, are fighting for relocation rights.   But another tenant in the building, the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, is also concerned about its future.

400 Grand Street.
400 Grand Street.

The conservancy, part of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, established its first dedicated home in a 650 square foot storefront at 400 Grand in 2011.  The space had previously been occupied by Ruby’s Fruits, a Lower East Side institution.   But the building will likely be emptied and torn down next year in preparation for new residential and commercial development set to rise on nine long-neglected sites in the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.

Wednesday night, Jewish Conservancy Executive Director Laurie Tobias Cohen asked Community Board 3’s land use committee to support her campaign for a new space in the Essex Crossing project.   She told panel members that her organization, founded in 1998, is dedicated to providing historic preservation funding to the LES’s synagogues and to make it “possible for the touring public to enjoy and learn about the history of this vibrant, contemporary and profoundly historic… community.” Cohen added, “I’m coming here just to make sure you folks know that we exist, know that we are threatened with losing our home and to say we would be grateful” for a place in the new development. 

The conservancy's ribbon cutting in 2011 was attended by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and other elected officials.
The conservancy’s ribbon cutting in 2011 was attended by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and other elected officials.

Two committee members were at least somewhat unreceptive.  Harriet Cohen, a Grand Street resident, said she was perplexed why the conservancy chose to move into a building that was slated for redevelopment. She recalled hearing from city officials that the new tenant was aware the space was only temporary. Lisa Kaplan, another committee member, agreed, saying she believed Ruby Baumgarten, the previous tenant, was asked to shutter his business because the redevelopment site was being cleared.  Dominic Berg, one of the leading members of a community task force working with the developers, told Cohen Essex Crossing seemed like a strange fit for the conservancy.  “It seems odd to me that you would want to go into a new development instead of finding another place in a more historic location,” berg said. “I feel like it would really conflict with the message and the programming you’re presenting.”

Other members, however, argued that it is appropriate for the community board to advocate on behalf of the organization. Tim Laughlin, executive director of the LES BID, said the conservancy is a “unique place,” and he told Cohen, “I think there are ways that we can think creatively about how to assist you in this situation.”  Herman Hewitt, a longtime board member, added, “I think we have a community organization that we should, like everybody else, try to help.”  Jamie Rogers, a board member (but not a member of the land use committee) noted that the developers have plans to bring an Andy Warhol museum to Essex Crossing and suggested that CB3 should be thinking about how to work with other cultural institutions, including ones with local roots. “I think the committee should start to think about how to advocate for groups that will approach the… developers and come up with priorities and criteria,” he said.

Cohen, the conservancy’s director, explained to committee members why the organization chose to lease a doomed building and to invest $125,000 (mostly from private fundraising) in the renovation of the space.  She said, it was not at all clear in 2009 when the deal was signed that the Seward Park project was going to happen (the community had been fighting over a development plan for 45 years).  While she did not mention it Wednesday night, UJC officials have told The Lo-Down in the past that they hoped a new visitor center would, one day, be established in Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the distressed synagogue on Norfolk Street.  Restoration plans stalled (see our previous coverage for details), dashing the conservancy’s long-range plan.   In response to Berg’s skepticism about finding space for the visitor center in the new project, Cohen said, “one of the things that is distinctive about the conservancy is that we relate to the existing Jewish community on the Lower East Side… We don’t relate to the community as something that is static and only from the past.”

Cohen has reached out to Delancey Associates, the development company building Essex Crossing.  A considerable amount of space has been set aside for community facilities.  There has been little conversation, at least in public view, about plans for local cultural offerings in the project.  In response to an inquiry from us this past fall, a spokesperson for the developers said they were “committed to starting a dialogue” with the conservancy.