EAST VILLAGE — A holy war is brewing in the East Village.
A proposal to create a new historic district has driven a wedge between preservationists wanting to protect about 300 properties, and religious leaders who fear adding landmark status would saddle congregants with financial hardships.
The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission is moving forward with a plan to protect the area bounded roughly by East Second and East Seventh streets between First Avenue and the Bowery, as well as the stretch of East 10th Street beside Tompkins Square Park.
Community Board 3's landmarks subcommittee, which ultimately voted to support the proposal Thursday during a contentious public hearing, listened as about three-dozen people argued for and against the plan.
The staunchest opposition came from religious leaders representing a handful of houses of worship located inside the proposed district, including the Congregation Mezritch Synagogue on East Sixth Street, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection on East Second Street, and St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Roman Catholic Church on East Seventh Street.
Officials from the three congregations argued that having their properties included in the historic district could push their parishes into the red by adding layers of beaurocracy to any required renovations to their building, as required by the designation.
The LPC's stringent process for renovating the exterior of properties included in an historic district forces owners to navigate "bureaucratic red tape" that can hinder them from pursuing more affordable reconstruction plans, said Fr. Michael Suvak, of the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection.
"This modest proposal has caused many tears in our parish," said parishioner Richard Wright at the hearing. "It is dividing and conquering the emotions of our community right now."
While designated properties can benefit from grant money to help with these renovations, Suvak said receiving the funds can often take years, during which time the cost of construction balloons.
"Such landmarking will cause irreparable harm to the houses of worship in this community," added a representative from St. Stanislaus, reading a statement from the church's clergy which noted that paying any additional fees under the designation would be "unconscionable."
Rabbi Pesach Ackerman, of Congregation Mezritch Synagogue, said such longstanding institutions like his should be left alone.
"We do not need outside help," he said. "We've been established since 1892 as a congregation … Let us have our church as our home, and not to put a damper on it."
Still, scores of local residents spoke in favor of the historic district, saying that designation is the only way to prevent the East Village's immigrant and cultural history from being replaced by glass-and-steel high-rises.
"Many found refuge here after escaping war and persecution, started a new life, and made the East Village home," said Anna Sawaryn, a lifelong neighborhood resident and member of the Coalition to Save the East Village.
"All these different cultures and movements are woven into the fabric called the East Village. … There are blocks where time has stopped."
Others cited the encroachment of colleges like New York University, which built the neighborhood's single highest building on East 12th Street for a student dormitory, as reasons for the designation.
"Every time you tear down an old building in this neighborhood, it's replaced by a big glassy building filled with people who have no roots in this neighborhood," said architect Leo J. Blackman, a 25-year East Village resident.
Preservation groups, like the Historic Districts Council and Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, argued that the proposed district should be expanded even more, while trying to ease concerns among the religious community.
"Opposition is often based on misconceptions and misinformation," said GVSHP's Andito Lloyd, noting that religious institutions can apply for hardship provisions if they can't afford certain renovations.
"While landmarking is not perfect," added GVSHP's Elizabeth Finkelstein, "we strongly support it because it's the best alternative at this point."
The proposed historic district will be discussed again by a joint committee of Community Board 3 on Thursday, July 14.