Residents fight institutional sprawl on St. Mark’s

BY ERIC FERRARA |  A lawsuit filed on behalf of neighbors to prevent the demolition of No. 1 St. Mark’s Place was presided over by a Superior Court judge, ending a two-year rift that pitted independent landowners against a corporate behemoth — all over 8-feet of land. Another battle for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation? Not this time; this took place in May of 1856.

Yes, 1856. It seems development was a contentious issue in the “East Village” even in its infancy. Only two decades after E. Eighth St./St. Mark’s Place was carved out of the old Stuyvesant Farm, a dispute emerged over the development of the lot on the northeast corner of St. Mark’s and Third Ave.

According to state records, a small collective of neighboring St. Mark’s Place landowners sued East River Bank to prevent it from building a structure that would extend 8 feet farther than the property lines of the remaining buildings along the north side of the street.

The plaintiffs argued that the original developer of St. Mark’s Place, Thomas E. Davis, required landowners to abide by the unique property line set forth in 1831. Davis’s plan called for the street to be 16 feet wider than other east-west streets at the time. The extra 8 feet of sidewalk on either side was to foster “convenience, beauty and value.” (And, seemingly, to fit as many T-shirt and hat booths as possible.)

The East River Savings Bank’s plan was to tear down a townhouse that complied with the property line and replace it with a financial institution that was, essentially, out of scale and character with the rest of the block — ah, tradition… .

In this case, the judge decided in favor of the plaintiffs. The decision was appealed, but the bank’s plan was never realized and the property was sold soon after.

A few of the structures from that era still stand today along St. Mark’s Place. Numbers 4, 18 and 20 are among the 29 original townhouses that lined both sides of the block in the 19th century. The Beats, hippies and punks arrived much later — only to be replaced, all too soon, by the students, tourists and bubble tea shops.

Ferrara is executive director, Lower East Side History Project

Sources:
“Maxwell vs. East River Bank” — Reports of cases argued and determined in the Superior Court of New York State, Vol. 16 (1860)

“Maxwell vs. East River Bank”  — The New York State Reporter, Vol. 39 (1891)

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