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West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 4 | June 27 - July 3, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Some of the sculptures at the Irreplaceable Artifacts lot at E. Houston St. and Second Ave.

Artifacts guy wants hotel to replace Houston lot

By Alyssa Giachino

To some, Evan Blum is known as a pioneer of salvaging beautiful pieces of America’s architectural and decorative history — such as antique doorknobs, gargoyles, claw-foot tubs and marble columns — carefully extracted from elegant homes to adorn the residences of today.

But to others, Blum’s name is forever associated with the tremendous collapse of a 125-year-old building on the Lower East Side that damaged an adjacent residential building when he undertook an unlicensed renovation in 2000. Blum’s building housed his Irreplaceable Artifacts business, and was loaded down with stone mantelpieces, garden ornaments and statuary. Although about seven workers had been inside the building at the time of the collapse, they all managed to get out safely. As a result of the incident, Blum was convicted on a misdemeanor count of reckless endangerment.

Shortly after the building collapse in July 2000, the city declared the property unstable, and partially demolished it that same night. Since then, Blum has acquired hundreds of new treasures for his Demolition Depot store and warehouse on 125th St, a favorite spot for antiques collectors. He’s been praised as a pioneer of salvage and a champion recycler with a keen eye for artistically crafted pieces.

Meanwhile, the site at 14 Second Ave. has been unoccupied for the last seven years, tied up in litigation between Blum and the city. The Department of Buildings has been nipping at his heels, issuing a dozen complaints since 2000, including one this February. Most were related to Blum’s failure to maintain adequate fencing around the property, and all have been resolved.

Now, Blum has emerged from the wreckage with a new plan.

He is proposing to build a 10-story hotel on the site, at the northeast corner of Second Ave. and E. Houston St., though details of what he envisions are still vague.

At Community Board 3’s Land Use Committee meeting on Tues., June 19, an attorney for Blum announced the plan for the hotel, because it needs certification by NYC Transit and the City Planning Commission as to whether a transit easement on Second Ave. is necessary for him to proceed.

The transit easement refers to NYC Transit’s potentially needing part of the site for a stairway or other access to the future Second Ave. subway, or even just to post signage. Given that the construction of a Second Ave. subway appears to be on the horizon, it is possible that NYC Transit will need some access to the site.

If NYC Transit and City Planning certify that a traffic easement is needed, they would notify the Department of Buildings, thus halting the approval of any building permits until the easement question is resolved.

While presenting the preview of the hotel proposal to C.B. 3’s Land Use Committee, Blum’s attorney was met by passionate testimony from tenants of the neighboring Cube Building urging committee members to block it based on Blum’s previous record.

“Given the history of Mr. Evan Blum, it’s very hard to have a positive take on any proposal coming from him,” said Valerio Orselli, executive director of Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, which manages the Cube Building. “He has a very cavalier attitude when it comes to laws and regulations in the city of New York.”

Tenants at the Cube were evacuated for about a month in 2000, so that the damage to its south wall could be patched. In 2004, their lives were further interrupted by ongoing repairs to permanently stabilize the building.

“The main concern is really that Mr. Blum has traumatized the tenants,” Orselli said. “He caused them to become homeless on a temporary basis, and these are families that used to be homeless.”

The Cube is a cooperative, established in 1988, as permanent affordable housing to bring families off the streets. Many of the occupants of the 22 units are original tenants.

Blum, however, believes he has been unfairly demonized. The city moved so quickly to demolish his property that he was unable to rescue any of the prized artifacts inside, some of which he claims were looted, and Blum questions whether the demolition was necessary at all.

“The building didn’t collapse,” he said. “That was part of the myth. When the city stepped in, they just made it worse. It could have been rectified had they given us the opportunity.”

Despite the contentious history, Blum hopes to move forward with his proposed hotel.

“We intend to do something really nice and interesting and beautiful that the neighborhood could be proud of, as opposed to the crap that is being built around the neighborhood,” he said.

Blum described the project as “more philanthropic in nature, rather than a self-serving commercial interest,” and said it would be “geared toward the arts.”

The hotel would also venture into new gastronomic territory.

“We will be attempting to build the finest vegan restaurant in the city,” Blum said. “It’s something I’ve practiced for many years and it’s finally gaining more stature in society. I think it’s important that one evokes these principles.”

Barden Prisant, chairperson of C.B. 3’s Land Use Committee, was surprised when The Villager told him of the hotel’s philanthropic nature and the vegan restaurant, since neither had been mentioned at the committee’s meeting last week.

Prisant suspects that Blum’s motives have less to do with philanthropy and holistic food but are designed “in hopes of defanging any opposition.”

But he said the history of recklessness, and the passionate objections of tenants, will influence the community board’s opinion.

“Our motion was pleading with NYC Transit and City Planning to not do anything that would possibly facilitate his construction of new development,” Prisant said.

Steve Herrick, executive director of the Cooper Square Committee, said he’d like the city to acquire Blum’s site through eminent domain. He said that, in addition to concerns about Blum’s safety record, “There’s the separate issue of a 10-story hotel that’s out of scale with the neighborhood.”

Another potential complication for Blum’s project is the rezoning of the East Village and Lower East Side, which is currently being formulated. Though the avenues will be zoned for commercial use, which includes hotels, height caps may limit how tall he can build. Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, said he believed the height limit under the rezoning would be 120 feet — enough for a 10-story hotel.

Blum would have to vest the building’s foundation — or have it constructed before the rezoning is approved — requiring a building permit, in order to be grandfathered under the current rules, allowing him to build higher. Approval for the rezoning is unlikely to happen until late 2008.

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