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Guggenheim to Convert Rat-Infested East Village Lot Into Community Space

By Patrick Hedlund | January 14, 2011 12:41pm

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

EAST VILLAGE — A derelict lot on East 1st Street that has become a haven for rats will be transformed into a temporary community space under a plan proposed by the Guggenheim Museum.

The vacant lot at 33 East First St., between First and Second avenues, has long been a source of frustration among neighbors on the block who have worked for years to bring some type of arts programming to the rodent-ridden eyesore.

Now, the Guggenheim is floating a plan to build a two-level structure there in late 2011 that would act as a short-term community center, gathering space and think-tank before moving to other major international cities, representatives from the museum told Community Board 3 Thursday.

A description of the project.
A description of the project.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Hedlund

The structure — which would include a second-story "toolbox" level hovering above an open ground-floor space — is "first and foremost really about people," said David van der Leer, assistant curator for architecture and urban studies at the Guggenheim.

He explained that the public pop-up center could host everything from workshops and lectures to cooking demonstrations and art classes, using local community input to shape the programming.

The city-owned lot also connects to the under-renovation "strolling" park space along Houston Street that would contain even more features, including a café and public bathrooms, and visitors would have access to the space from both East 1st Street and Second Avenue, representatives said.

The project, which could begin preliminary construction as early as April, would open in August and last through mid-October before heading to a city in Europe and finally Asia. It would be open to the public five days a week, from Wednesday to Sunday, from about noon to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends, representatives said.

"It sounds like a great project," said a member of Board 3's parks committee, which unanimously voted to approve the project. "The problem is that it's going to leave."

The neighbors who have been working with the city to run the rodents out of the lot, which is an active "rat warren" due to the unstable ground there, lauded the plan and what it would mean for the future of the site.

"I really can't emphasize how bad it is now," said Robert Graff, president of the East First Street Block Association, who has helped organize fundraisers with other neighbors on the block to establish cultural space on the property.

He explained that the rat problem is so bad that the television network Animal Planet even came to the lot recently to film a special on the rodents.

"It's an embarrassing condition," Graff added. "It's unhealthy."

Aside from its community benefits, the Guggenheim project would also finance the excavation and resurfacing of the lot, addressing the rodent issue while preparing the site for future use as community space.

The lot, which is sandwiched in between two buildings, viewed from across the street.
The lot, which is sandwiched in between two buildings, viewed from across the street.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Hedlund

An architect and neighbor who has been involved with the local planning effort requested that the Guggenheim leave whatever site features it can behind — like a foundation or "cleat" — for use in any future projects on the lot.

"I think this could be really exciting. It will really fast-track our plans," said Ann Shostrom, an artist who's lived in the co-op building next to the rundown lot since 1986 and has helped spearhead community efforts to refurbish the site. "It's been an intractable problem for so long."

The project, which is a collaboration between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and car manufacturer BMW, will use a Tokyo-based architecture firm to design the structure and represents a broader exercise in urban planning, van der Leer said.

But for residents in the area, the project simply marks a huge step forward in confronting the critters that have run roughshod over their block.

"You can smell it coming up the street," Graff said.

The temporary gallery space next to the lot recently played host to a benefit to raise funds for the project.
The temporary gallery space next to the lot recently played host to a benefit to raise funds for the project.
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