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Bowery Building Owner, Pol Oppose Landmark Status

The Federal-style rowhouse at 135 Bowery dates back to 1817.
The Federal-style rowhouse at 135 Bowery dates back to 1817.
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Robert K. Chin/nychinatwon.org

LOWER EAST SIDE — The fate of a nearly two-century-old Bowery building has pitted preservationists against the historic rowhouse’s owner.

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Committee voted in favor of designating the three-and-a-half story, Federal-style building at 135 Bowery in June, calling the 1817 structure one of the “rare reminders of an important era of the city’s history,” according LPC chairman Robert Tierney.

However, the designation does not take effect until the City Council votes in favor of the landmarking — a move currently being opposed by both the owner and the local City Councilwoman.

The 22-foot-wide property — noted for its Flemish bond brickwork, high-peaked roof with pedimented dormers, and chimney — was originally home to a prominent soap and candle merchant who signed a 1792 agreement that established the board preceding the New York Stock Exchange.   

The building was purchased in 2007 by the First American International Bank with the eventual intention of redeveloping it into a seven-story building that would act as the bank’s Manhattan headquarters.

The new owners, who bought the building for $5 million, disputed the LPC’s determination of the property’s historic and architectural significance, noting that numerous alterations through the years made it “a shell of the original structure,” according to a letter to the commission.

The bank also said it spent $400,000 in real estate taxes, architectural services and interior work toward the redevelopment, prior to the landmark designation.  

The bank did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The LPC nonetheless moved forward with the landmarking — but now Councilwoman Margaret Chin has expressed concerns with the designation, despite initially supporting it last year.

Chin's office said the bank has indicated a willingness to develop affordable office space for small businesses at the address, and that landmarking the property would make the plan more difficult, if not impossible.

“Margaret feels there is a good opportunity here for small businesses in Chinatown,” said a Chin spokeswoman. “There is limited affordable commercial space in Chinatown, and we are looking at the bigger picture.”

That position doesn’t sit well with local preservationists who have waged a campaign to save as many buildings on the Bowery as possible, following a failed push to prevent the demolition of an 1825 property at 35 Cooper Square earlier this year.

“Here we are in 2011 in the city of New York in Manhattan, and we have a building that has survived for almost 200 years from a time of the earliest development of the Bowery,” said Mitchell Grubler, a Bowery resident who also chairs the landmarks committee for the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors.

He noted both the property’s physical and historical importance as home to a soap and candle maker.

“The mere fact that we're talking about trades that really don’t even exist anymore adds to the significance of this building to the history of the city.”

BAN recently circulated a petition urging Chin and the rest of the City Council not to overturn the designation, citing the lack of measures in place to limit development on the Bowery’s eastern flank.

“Landmarking is the only way to have the roots of our city preserved, and that block itself is one of the best-preserved blocks,” said BAN vice chair Michele Campo of the stretch where 135 Bowery sits, between Broome and Grand streets.

“It went through the arduous process and was designated, so to strip this [designation] away or to decertify it — it is bad for the total.”

The preservationists also wondered about Chin’s decision to withdraw her support for the landmarking, questioning the building owner’s true intentions.

Grubler said that when BAN questioned Chin’s office about the owner’s future plans for the property, it could not provide specifics about job creation and rent prices.

“There was no detail, which leads me to believe it’s all just a line to influence her,” he said.

Grubler also worried about what the councilwoman’s “flip-flopping” on the issue could mean for future preservation pushes on the Bowery.

“If she opposes this designation, I think it does not bode well for continued cooperation on the part of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to want to designate anymore buildings in Council District 1,” he said. “Why should they?"