West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 20 | October 17 - 23, 2007

The Lower East Side Traditions and Transitions
A special Villager supplement

Villager photo by Elizabeth Proitsis

Construction is a constant on today’s Lower East Side.

Construction is a pain in the pocket for merchants

By Matt Townsend 

Sloan Mandell thought he had found the perfect spot to open his jewelry store when he rented a space on Orchard St.

In the first week, his store, Exhibitionist, cleared $5,000 in sales.

“We all thought we were going to be rich,” Mandell said of himself and his partners. 

The following week the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place. 

“After September 11th, no one was spending money,” Mandell said. 

But Exhibitionist survived and the street eventually thrived as a mixture of high-end boutiques and the long-standing bargain stores of the street’s old shopping district.

“This was a hot block at the time,” Mandell said. “Not hot like American Apparel, but as one of the last indie fashion outposts.” 

Then in 2004 developer Morris Platt followed through on his plans to construct a large building from the east side of Orchard St. to the west side of Ludlow St. between Houston and Stanton Sts. Platt acquired several adjacent one-story buildings in the area. After Mandell and other tenants vacated, the developer razed the buildings and started construction. 

That was more than three years ago and now the site still consists of a gigantic hole between Orchard and Ludlow Sts. Some support beams appear to be the only sign of progress. The building has been approved by the city to be built 26 stories tall with a mixture of hotel rooms and condominiums. Recent permits also show the number of stories listed as 26.

How long the construction will take is unknown, but the delay will mean that the sidewalk will be blocked for much longer than first thought, and major construction still lies ahead. Residents and business owners on this block have already dealt with more than two years of closed sidewalks on both sides of the street. On the same Orchard St. block, construction on a 19-story, high-end hotel just north of the Platt development on the west side of the street began in early 2005 and has taken longer than expected. The hotel is now slated to be finished by early next year. 

In contrast, The Ludlow, a 23-story apartment building on the corner of Ludlow and Houston Sts., began construction in January and has almost been completed. The building’s leasing office recently opened.

Sion Misrahi, whose realty company helped Platt attain the land for the project and will be selling space in the new building blamed the city’s Department of Buildings for the prolonged length of the project.

“If they [business owners] are upset, be upset at the Buildings Department because it takes so long to get anything approved,” said Misrahi, who owns several buildings on Orchard St. and in the surrounding area. “They like to fine you for every little thing, because that’s money.” 

The construction and sidewalk closures have hurt businesses. The hair salon Kropps and Bobbers moved to Ludlow St. five months ago because of a decrease in business. Its former Orchard St. space still remains vacant along with two others on the street.

The restaurant Core recently left a space north of the hotel and has been replaced by the Irish pub The Sixth Ward.

“Construction is always a concern, but we felt that once the hotel is done, things will get going again,” said Ray Burns, who along with his partners owns The Sixth Ward and the bar 200 Orchard that sits across the street. 

Along with a decrease in foot traffic, the construction also created a rodent problem. Jake O’Keefe, who works as a manager at Zozo’s restaurant on the corner of Orchard and Stanton Sts., said when the construction started he dealt with a rat problem he’d never seen before. 

“We couldn’t stop the rats,” O’Keefe said. “We had to call an exterminator every week for a while.” 

The construction has also spread a lot of mud and debris onto the street. 

“This is the grossest street on the Lower East Side,” O’Keefe said. 

Mandell could have moved his store to another location but decided to stay. Instead of leaving the street, he and his lawyer worked a deal with Platt to move into a space across the street from what has been a huge pit for the past year and a half. He estimated that decision has cost him 40 percent of his walk-in business. 

“It’s costing me more and more as times goes on,” Mandell said. “To have six people walk in on a Saturday just isn’t that good. Just the fact that I have to think about making a $3,500 rent is absurd.” 

Despite all the complaints, there is one business owner who doesn’t mind the construction. Sammy Benzaken has run the fabric store Elegant Woolen and Silk, Inc., on the block for 23 years. He said that when his lease recently ended his landlord decided only to raise it a small amount and keep him on a month-to-month lease.

“When construction is finished, it will be a different ballgame for me,” said Benzaken, who worked at a fabric store on Orchard St. for nine years before he opened his own.

Benzaken saw his business dip in the late 1990s with the arrival of cheap imports and an increase in rents that drove many bargain-type retailers from the area. 

“It used to be a place that people from all over New York came to buy,” Benzaken said. “Now I might get one or two customers who are walking down the street.”

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