The owner of 75 Essex St., a new focal point of the Lower East Side preservation wars, says he now hopes to develop the property himself and has put plans to sell it on the back burner. Last night, longtime Lower East Side businessman Shalom Eisner, appearing before the landmarks subcommittee of Community Board 3, said he might be willing to drop his opposition to landmarking the building if certain conditions can be met. Eisner added that he has a meeting at the Landmarks Preservation Commission Tuesday to discuss building above the existing structure by utilizing the property’s unused air rights.
“I think we can be on the same page,” Eisner told subcommittee members and representatives from Friends of the Lower East Side, a group that filed an application with the commission earlier this year to protect the former Good Samaritan/Eastern District Dispensary building. “I think everyone can be happy.”
Last month, Eisner went before the full community board to express his strong opposition to landmark designation, saying it would hurt the value of his investment. After purchasing 75 Essex in 1985, Eisner said he’d endured decades of crime and disinvestment on the Lower East Side and only wanted to protect his family’s financial future.
The property backs up to a portion of the large Essex Crossing development project, which is scheduled to break ground in the spring of 2015. Last week, a spokesperson for the development team told The Lo-Down that, while there were discussions several months ago about purchasing 75 Essex, the idea was dropped because they “did not see a way forward with the parameters the owner was seeking.”
CB3’s subcommittee last night considered the issue for a second time in as many months. The full board decided a second go-around was necessary because Eisner had not been notified about the original hearing. In explaining his change of heart, Eisner said the Essex Crossing team wanted to give him a “fire sale price” for the 12,000 square foot building. “It was definitely out of the question,” he explained.
The building has been on the market for several years, most recently for $21 million. While there are more than 17,000 square feet of air rights, transferring them to another parcel might not be feasible. The property is surrounded by the Essex Crossing project (which must adhere to very specific height restrictions) and the Seward Park High School campus. Eisner said he is talking with several potential partners about building on top of 75 Essex. It’s an open question, he added, as to whether the Landmarks Commission would allow it.
In a repeat of last month’s vote, the subcommittee approved a resolution in support of the landmark application. Preservationists were cautiously optimistic regarding Eisner’s plan and offered their assistance in securing grants available to owners of historic buildings. Others in attendance last night expressed deep reservations about supporting the landmarking campaign, especially if Eisner ends up deciding it’s ill-advised.
A leader of the Friends of the Lower East Side group, Joyce Mendelsohn, said the 1890 building, designed in the style of a freestanding Italianate palazzo, is not only architecturally significant but a testament to the neighborhood’s legacy of caring for those less fortunate. She spoke passionately about the importance of preserving it for generations to come, as redevelopment takes place on surrounding parcels. “I believe you have all of the right intentions in the world,” she told Eisner, but added that “things change” and that there’s concern about what would happen if and when he decides to sell the property.
Another speaker was Marcia Haddad
A community board member, Morris Faitelewicz, said he could not support the resolution before the subcommittee. Eisner, he said, has showed his dedication to the community over the course of many decades. Noting his close relationship with the 7th Precinct, Faitelewicz said Eisner is frequently called out by police officers “in the middle of the night” when a crime takes place, in his role as a community liaison. He argued that it would be foolish to “landmark the whole neighborhood” and that “you have to think about the people impacted.”
Erik Otema, who described himself as a broker and a friend of Shalom Eisner, argued against the “Request for Evaluation” submitted to the Landmarks Commission. “His intentions are noble,” he said of Eisner. He pointed out that the building, which houses the family’s sports apparel business (Eisner Brothers), “is pretty run down” and argued that “something really nice could be done there.” Another supporter, longtime Bowery property owner and developer Jan Sasson, said landmarking would remove 60% of the building’s value because the air rights would be rendered useless. His remarks touched off a back-and-forth regarding the Landmarks Commission’s appetite for approving new construction on top of protected buildings.
Linda Jones, subcommittee co-chair, asserted that the commission needs to help make sure the addition is appropriate. Preservationists said they believed that state and federal programs would make a landmark-protected 75 Essex eligible for a 40% break in property taxes. Eisner made it clear he’s skeptical the Landmarks Commission will approve a plan that will meet his financial needs, but said he’s willing to look into the possibilities. Regardless, he said, the building’s future is secure because he would only consider selling after a 6-8 story addition is completed.
Jones brought up another possible solution: working with city agencies to shift some air rights to a new 24-story tower that will be a centerpiece of the Essex Crossing development. While it’s not allowed under current zoning, she suggested the de Blasio administration might be amenable to adding a few floors to the new complex, especially if new affordable housing could be created as a result.
We’ll let you know what we hear following Tuesday’s meeting at the Landmarks Commission.