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Effort to Limit Heights on Bowery's Eastern Side Gains Momentum

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

LOWER EAST SIDE — Local advocates have been ramping up their efforts to preserve a portion of the Bowery they see as vulnerable to overdevelopment that could threaten the stretch's celebrated history.

The busy downtown thoroughfare was recently selected as one of two Manhattan areas warranting preservation in the Historic District Council's inaugural "Six to Celebrate," a list that includes half-a-dozen citywide treasures nominated by community groups for protection.

"It's an extraordinary, historic strip that has undergone a shocking amount of transformation in the last 10 years," explained Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the HDC, noting that while the west side of the stretch enjoys height limits from overlapping neighborhood historic districts, the east side remains ripe for high-rise development.

"It has actually been neglected [among] many of the very vibrant neighborhood preservation efforts."

Local elected officials, including powerful State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, have publicly come out in support of a grassroots plan to cap heights on the east side of the Bowery to conform more closely to the 120-foot height limits on the western edge.

"I believe that the east side of the Bowery deserves the same type of zoning to ensure that new buildings are of a size and scale that maintain the Bowery as the unique New York City thoroughfare that it is today," Silver wrote in a letter to City Planning Commission chairwoman Amanda Burden.

However, the city has remained unmoved, declining as of yet to consider the Bowery's eastern side.

"The Bowery is a wide, centrally located street, which continues to support a mix of commercial, residential, community and cultural uses, and has excellent access to mass transit," read a statement from the Department of City Planning.

"As the Department considers citywide policies on rezoning, we work hard to balance the varying needs of a broad and ever-expanding city and continually seek to strike a balance among uses, constituencies and planning strategies."

The neighborhood group Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, which nominated the stretch for inclusion in the "Six to Celebrate" list, is floating a plan supported by Silver that would limit building heights to 85 feet, or about eight stories, on the block's eastern side.

"We're talking about one half of one street, and that one half has as much cultural and historical significance as most neighborhoods in the city," said BAN co-founder David Mulkins. "What we're asking for is very little."

The plan does not seek to rezone the block, just cap heights and provide protections for significant buildings as on the western side of the street, which is covered by the Special Little Italy and NoHo Historic districts. 

"As the Lower East Side gets hotter and hotter, one of the things that makes it so attractive is this almost seminal understanding of the neighborhood's history of entertainment, its history of popular culture," Bankoff added, of its reputation as a hotbed for theater, dance, music, literature and contemporary art over the past two centuries.

"There's an unconscious understanding of the Bowery that has leaked into the culture," he added. [The buildings] are physical remnants of that."