Volume 75, Number 44 | March 22 -28 2006

A map showing a possible Lower East Side Historic District.

Museum’s push for historic district meets opposition

By Lincoln Anderson

A proposal by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to create a new city-designated historic district on the streets around its home has sparked a backlash from local property owners who charge they were not informed of the plan even as the museum has been pushing ahead with it.

One of the buildings in the proposed historic district, the old Canal St. Loew’s Theater, a Spanish Baroque-style theater with an elaborate terra-cotta facade designed by Thomas Lamb, constructed in 1926. It functioned as a theater from 1927 to 1957, seating 2,400 and featuring a Wurlitzer organ. Its huge interior is now used for warehousing, and the front lobby is home to a small electronics store.
The proposed district includes more than 20 Lower East Side blocks — from E. Houston to Division Sts. between Essex and Allen Sts., with a small outcropping at the southern end extending over to Eldridge St.

The proposed area includes a portion of the Lower East Side that was placed on the New York State and National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Inclusion on the register, however, while an honor, doesn’t protect historic buildings from being knocked down. On the other hand, buildings in New York City historic districts — which are designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission — enjoy strong protections against demolition.

The strip of the Lower East Side in the proposed district is under intense development pressure. The area has recently seen a new 16-story luxury hotel built at Ludlow and Rivington Sts. and construction start on a 23-story residential tower at Ludlow and E. Houston Sts.

On either side of Orchard St. between Houston and Stanton Sts., low-scale buildings have been cleared creating development sites for pending large-scale projects. And on Ludlow and Rivington Sts., the First Roumanian-American Synagogue was recently demolished after its partial roof collapse, with the property now being listed for sale for more than $15 million.

A block east of the proposed historic district, a 16-story trapezoidal tower named Blue is rising at Norfolk and Delancey Sts.

Tensions were evident at last Thursday’s meeting of the Community Board 3 Parks, Recreation, Cultural Affairs, Landmarks and Waterfront Committee at which the proposal was presented. As Danielle Linzer, the museum’s immigrant heritage associate, handed out maps of the district’s boundaries — “At this stage, it’s not a proposal. It’s merely an informational hearing,” she explained — Sion Misrahi, a prominent Lower East Side property owner, asked impatiently from across the room, “Can we get one of those?”

“There are 450 building owners in the Orchard St. district and I can tell you 425 will not approve becoming a city landmark — and I can get you signed signatures when it’s the time,” Misrahi, a former president of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, said. “They will cost the property owners billions and billions of dollars. To change a window [in a landmarked building], it’s a nightmare — permits, applications, paperwork, meetings.”

“Twenty-one square blocks,” said another opponent, sounding dumfounded.

Henry Kwan, chairperson of Chinatown’s Hoi Ping Association, said, “I only saw the paper a few days ago,” apparently referring to the map Linzer was handing out. “I appreciate history…. But only limit it to some certain point.”

Philip Lam of the United Fukinese-American Association, added, “A lot of people, they don’t like the landmark district — this is like 24 city blocks.” Lam said he knew the owner of the old Jewish Forward building on E. Broadway and that the building’s residential conversion has dragged on for years because its landmark status has made the job harder.

Estelle Rubin, a C.B. 3 member on the committee, scolded the Tenement Museum group at the meeting, saying, “You are requesting support. This is not informational. You have a plan that you have not discussed with your neighbors, and they’re upset. This is disingenuous to say the least.”

“I appreciate your comments,” Linzer told Rubin.

“My comments carry weight,” Rubin, a resident of Grand St., shot back.

Susan Stetzer, C.B. 3 district manager, said that when the proposal was put on the board’s meeting agenda it was as a request for support. Stetzer said there were concerns in the community about the proposal and that she conveyed these to Margaret Hughes, director of the Immigrant Heritage Project at the Tenement Museum.

Alexandra Mann, the museum’s director of public relations and marketing, noted that on Feb. 15 the museum met with community groups to describe the plan, while on April 6 they plan to meet with property owners.

Mimi Holtzman, a resident of 99 Grand St., next door to the museum, wondered if a historic district would affect the museum’s own plans.

“It this happens would the Tenement Museum still be able to build the saloon they want to build on Orchard St.?” she asked.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said the property owners shouldn’t panic that things will change overnight.

“My organization is in support of this,” he said. “But it’s not going to happen anytime fast.”

Property owners grumbled their skepticism.

Bankoff said a recent study by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that landmarking stabilizes property values and that there has been “a slow and steady increase” of the value of landmarked properties versus nonlandmarked properties.

Elizabeth Ruf-Maldonado of the East Village Community Coalition said the coalition supports the plan.

“We agree with the importance of preserving the historic district,” she said. “And we feel protecting history protects the low- and middle-income residents.”

It was clear, however, that the committee didn’t intend to vote on the proposal that night, and in the end they did not.

Afterwards, one local architect and builder, who declined to give his name, said he opposes the historic district, because he feels much of the same desired effect could be accomplished with zoning and bulk restrictions. He plans to build on Orchard St. “There’s going to be some glass,” which will allow for larger windows, he said.

Yet, even though it will have more glass than its neighbors, he still feels the building will blend in with its surroundings.

“I go back 100 years in this neighborhood,” he said. “My mother, my grandmother walked these streets. I feel that there can be new styles and new building types. We spend hours thinking about this stuff — how the street wall [of his building] will line up [with that of the existing buildings]….”

Other cities have successfully blended the old and new, the young architect added.

“Paris has been able to do this,” he said, “but New York never has.”

“We were looking for a sense of support,” Hughes said after the meeting, emphasizing the word “sense.” “We were not at all jumping any steps,” she maintained.

As for the planned saloon Holtzman had mentioned, Katherine Snider, the Tenement Museum’s vice president of public affairs, explained it would recreate Schneider’s basement saloon at 97 Orchard St., which was run by a Bavarian immigrant from the 1860s to 1880s and doubled as a German reform political club meeting house.

Asked to handicap the chances of the proposed historic district, one local preservationist, who requested anonymity, said in an e-mail, “You generally want to have A LOT more support than opposition if you want designation of a district.”

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