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Rezoning the Lower East Side

Julia Vitullo-Martin, October 2008

The Bloomberg administration's proposed 111-block rezoning of Manhattan's Lower East Side would cap the height of new construction in much of the neighborhood at eighty feet while permitting high-density (©Thomas Vitullo-Martin) R8A zoning only along the neighborhood's widest streets—stretches of Delancey and Houston, for example. Does restricting height and density make perfect sense in a neighborhood where so many people want to live and work? Probably not. But City Planning simply may have concluded that the politics of the moment would not tolerate anything more imposing there.

Perhaps the most renowned immigrant neighborhood in the world, the Lower East Side extends roughly from the East River to the Bowery, and from East Houston Street on the north to Grand Street, which has become Chinatown, on the south. Traditionalists think of Fourteenth Street, rather than Houston, as the northern boundary. But ever since Alphabet City (Avenues A, B, C, and D) developed a distinct culture in the late 50s, the area between Houston and Fourteenth has been called by its own separate name, the East Village. To confuse things further, the Latino residents of Avenue C have carved out a district they call "Loisaida," which is Spanglish for Lower East Side.

ENDANGERED LOWER EAST SIDE?
Just as City Planning began the public review of its proposed rezoning in May, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held a press conference to declare the Lower East Side "endangered" and therefore in need of federal protection. "This legendary neighborhood—the first home for waves of immigrants since the 18th century—is now undergoing rapid development," intoned the Trust in its release. "New hotels and condominium towers are being erected across the area, looming large over the original tenement streetscape."

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Yes, exactly. After decades of decline, population and job loss, housing abandonment, violent crime and rampant drug dealing, the Lower East Side started seeing an influx of young residents in the late 1980s, accompanied by the opening of pioneering stores, restaurants, delis, bars, and hotels. By the late 1990s the neighborhood had become chic and safe—surely utterly new characteristics in its centuries-long history.

Activists are right that some recent development is ugly and out-sized, in part because the 1961 zoning is outdated and inappropriate—particularly the community facilities benefit that allows nonprofit developers like New York University to erect huge dorms, in the name of improving the community, on low-rise blocks. The proposed rezoning would reduce by 40 percent the floor area that community facilities were permitted, in effect making community facility zoning equivalent to residential. Thus, NYU could still build a dorm, but the dorm could not be larger than a similar, conventional residential tower. This is an immensely important first step in curtailing inappropriate nonprofit development—and may well signal that City Planning will rethink the zoning subsidy of community facilities in future rezonings.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Meanwhile, preservationists are urging the Landmarks Preservation Commission—which just landmarked two neighborhood buildings—to impose a historic district designation on an area bounded on the west by Allen Street, with an extension that includes Broome Street west to Eldridge Street, on the north by Delancey, on the east by Essex, and on the south by Division, with an extension that includes Eldridge below Canal Street. Such a designation would prohibit nearly all as-of-right demolition, even of buildings in deplorable shape—of which there are many.

Al Orensanz, a local resident and director of the Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts, which is located in a beautifully restored former synagogue built in 1849—Sarah Jessica Parker was married there—scoffs. "It's endangered now? It was endangered then, in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, when the drug addicts stole everything. The neighborhood was uninhabitable. When my brother found this building in 1986, it was totally destroyed, full of garbage and filth."

Orensanz characterizes the present situation as, "Buildings falling apart and prices going up. Decay and gentrification moving simultaneously."

Because the neighborhood hadn't attracted wealthy households since the 18th century (when George Washington lived in a mansion on Perry Street), most of its housing stock was designed for poor, not rich, people. This is the neighborhood of unspeakable poverty and squalid conditions exposed by Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives. Tenements meant for 20 families housed 100 or more, plus lodgers. After decades of grossly inadequate maintenance, many, perhaps most, of these tenements cannot be easily turned into sound housing. "There's nothing glorious about small, dark, dank buildings," says developer (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) Sion Misrahi, a lifelong resident. "People want light and larger spaces, which is what the city government now demands. The smallest apartment you can build today is 450 square feet." Most tenements are both deteriorated and out of code, requiring that sooner or later they be either gut-rehabbed or demolished and replaced.

REBOUNDING LOWER EAST SIDE
New development is not only essential to the city's economy, it's good for the cause promoted by the National Trust—holding onto the area's cultural heritage. But instead of serving that cause by inviting in the heavy hand of economy-killing government regulation, the neighborhood has been doing it by attracting new residents who patronize and support the old institutions.

Rabbi Azriel Siff, who heads Congregation Chasam Sopher, a reform synagogue founded by German Jews in 1853 and nearly abandoned 110 years later, says that over 200 congregants attended the most recent Yom Kippur services. "Two old-timers argued about whether this was the biggest crowd since 1940 or since 1960," he laughs. "I didn't care. It was more worshipers than I had ever seen—many of them new to the neighborhood. A beautiful mixture of young and old."

Still, it's sad that a neighborhood that hosted over 500 houses of worship at the turn of the 19th century now has only twenty-five to thirty active congregations. What's promising is that the area's residents are revitalizing, indeed reopening, closed churches and synagogues. About eight blocks due (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) north of Chasam Sopher sits St. Brigid's, the Irish Famine Church, closed two years ago by the Archdiocese of New York over the bitter protests of parishioners. Impressed by their dedication, a donor recently offered to pay the full capital cost of restoring and saving the church. This doesn't happen in endangered neighborhoods full of expiring institutions. It happens where old residents and new see a future together.

Similarly, many traditional merchants have carved out successful niches by building on their heritage while welcoming their new neighbors—the "post-ethnics," as they're called, who buy multimillion-dollar penthouses or gorgeous lofts that rise where old-law tenements once stood. On a beautiful Friday morning, Russ & Daughters Appetizing Shop on Houston Street is packed with customers young and old ordering the whitefish, salmon, and caviar admired by Martha Stewart. Over half of the customers are not Jewish—just part of what Niki Russ Federman, fourth-generation co-owner, calls their "expansive" neighborhood. The new neighbors, she says, "get this place and understand that it's something special. We're trendy even though we're not trying."

Lower East Side tour guide Philip Schoenberg, an NYU-trained historian who goes by the name Dr. Phil, points out that Ms. Federman's father, Mark, did something very important: he bought his building. Munching on prized Dutch herring that has only a four-week season, Dr. Phil speculates that property ownership is the best way for small business owners to ensure longevity. "For awhile it looked like there was more of a future for tourism than Judaism on the Lower East Side," he says. Now both are doing well.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

The National Trust believes that building "threatens to erode the fabric of the community and wipe away the collective memory of generations of immigrant families."

Perhaps. But Rabbi Siff has a different view of the future. "The changing neighborhood is helping us. We welcome them all. We're here to stay."

DESTROYING OR BUILDING A NEIGHBORHOOD?
The Department of City Planning seems to agree with LES activists who denounce overdevelopment, saying that its rezoning will help solve the problem of the "out-of-scale tower developments threatening to erode the established built character."

There's a certain irony here. The unsightliest of the out-of-scale tower developments aren't the new ones—some of which, like Bernard Tschumi's Blue Building or even the Switch Building, are startlingly attractive—but rather the masses of government-financed low- and middle-income housing projects built in the '50s and '60s. Looming over early twentieth-century tenements, the projects give the neighborhood a jagged look that might be helped by the addition of some eighty-foot buildings. But by calling for a cap, the Bloomberg administration is spurning the private sector's interest (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) in meeting the market's demand for much-needed housing and commercial space. Still, overall the rezoning is better than what the neighborhood has now—and even with the cap, City Planning is not reducing residential density except for a small section immediately south of Tompkins Square Park.

New Yorkers often disagree about what's good or bad for a given neighborhood, but surely this neighborhood needs investment, or its buildings will continue to crumble.

WHAT’S NEXT
The City Council must decide by December 1 whether to approve the rezoning. Opposition is not limited to preservationists, some of whom would prefer to see even lower building caps and no high-rise development at all on Houston and Delancey; activists from neighboring Chinatown have accused the city of "racist" planning because the rezoning stops at their borders. The hearings before the council are likely to be raucous.

 

October 2008
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