Volume 78 / Number 16, September 17 - 23, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

The White House flophouse, second from left, has been included in the extension of the Noho Historic District, but its owner hopes to develop the site as a nine-story hotel.

Noho flophouse flap takes a twist with hotel plan

By Albert Amateau

The City Council gave final approval on Sept. 3 to the three-block extension of the Noho Historic District, including a four-story lodging house on the Bowery that dates from about 1916 and still has 22 permanent tenants.

The extension area — which started out as an enclave for well-to-do families — is bounded on the west by Lafayette St., on the east by the Bowery, on the north by E. Fourth St. and on the south by Bond St. It includes 56 buildings and a midblock parking lot to the south and east of the existing Noho Historic District. The extension passed the council with only three dissenting votes after the owner of the White House, the lodging house at 338 Bowery, withdrew objections to the building being included in the district.

But the building’s owner, who is affiliated with the hotel developer Sam Chang, intends to make a hardship application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to demolish the White House and replace it with a nine-story hotel.

“We withdrew opposition to the district after City Councilmember Alan Gerson’s extraordinary efforts at bringing us, the community and the Landmarks Commission together to understand the unique structural issues,” said Patrick Jones, land use lawyer and spokesperson for Metro Sixteen Hotel LLC, the Chang affiliate that owns the building, in an e-mail. “The [White House] may be in worse condition than any other [building] in the district — the anomalous flophouse is on its last legs,” added Jones.

Gerson said he wanted to preserve an important part of the neighborhood and protect the mostly elderly residents remaining in the building, which is located near Great Jones St.

“They are living in some of the worst conditions in the district and they deserve better,” Gerson said.

The White House owner has agreed to improve living condition at 338 Bowery immediately to the extent possible and has agreed to work with community groups and councilmembers to explore ways to find alternate homes for existing residents, Gerson said.

But neither the owner nor Gerson was more specific about permanent homes for the tenants. Gerson suggested the possibility of a buyout that would help tenants pay for assisted-living accommodations. Jones said tenants had testified at a City Council hearing that they wanted to relocate and that they viewed the redevelopment of the White House as their best opportunity.

“We have begun working with Gerson’s staff on how best to accomplish this,” Jones said of plans to relocate the tenants.

In a letter to Gerson, the Landmarks Preservation Commission laid out the timeline for a hardship application that could take between six and nine months for final approval, but there could be no assurance on how the commission would decide.

Zella Jones, president of the Noho Neighborhood Association, said the association’s priority was to include the White House in the Noho Historic District Extension, but that at the same time neighbors wanted to make sure the building’s residents would have places to live.

“We were between the devil and a hard place,” Jones said. “The developer said conditions were so bad that the building couldn’t be rehabilitated. So we worked on an agreement to support taking the White House out of the district if they agreed to a whole bunch of conditions for the redevelopment. But just before the council met, the developer said, ‘Whoa, this is too much. We’ll stay in the district,’” Jones recalled. The association finally agreed that it wouldn’t object to the hardship application if the developer agreed to take care of the tenants, she added.

At least, with the property included in the district, if Landmarks granted the hardship and approved the demolition, any replacement would be subject to a certificate of appropriateness review by the commission, she said.

But other preservation advocates said they would oppose the developer’s hardship application.

“It’s precipitous,” said Simeon Bankoff, director of the Historic Districts Council, regarding the agreement. He questioned the wisdom of agreeing to support a hardship application before the application is drafted and submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said he was skeptical about the developer’s commitment to the welfare of low-income tenants in the building.

“I also don’t buy the either/or proposition that you have to demolish the building or leave the tenants without a place to live,” he said. “There have been several restorations of old hotels that provided apartments for the original residents.”

Berman noted that despite the owner’s contention that the building is not in good enough condition to preserve, the White House Web site markets the building as a “really cool” student hostel where single rooms rent as low as $26.79 per night, doubles can be rented for $50.80 and triples as low as $67.30.

Other Web sites describe the White House, or Whitehouse, as a “cubicle hostel” and as having “the tiniest hotel room in the world.”

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