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Proposed East Village Historic District Sparks Heated Debate

By Serena Solomon | June 27, 2012 10:36am
The boundaries of the proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District.
The boundaries of the proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District.
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Landmarks Preservation Commission

NEW YORK CITY — A contentious and packed public hearing at the Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) Tuesday drew both critics and supporters of a proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District that would lend protections to hundreds of historic buildings.

The district, which was first proposed by the LPC last summer, would cast a wide net of protection over some 330 buildings located along Second Avenue and its adjacent side streets, between East Seventh and East Second streets.

However, some building owners, many of them religious institutions, are opposed to the idea of becoming landmarks, claiming that the added cost and inconvenience when it comes to altering a protected building would be too great a burden.

The Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation handed out stickers at Tuesday's hearing to supporters of the proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District.
The Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation handed out stickers at Tuesday's hearing to supporters of the proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

The hearing did not end with a vote from the LPC. A date for a future vote has not been set.

"The East Village is one of the most historically significant areas of New York City," said Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, an organization advocating for the historic district's creation.

Berman stressed the importance of protecting the area as a symbol of the city's mercantile history and to honor the waves of immigrants that have called the neighborhood home. Berman also pointed out the East Village's more recent bohemian past when the neighborhood nurtured artists, painters, writers and musicians in the late 20th century.  

Local politicians, such as Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, and State Senators Tom Duane and Daniel Squadron, also submitted statements supporting the area's protection.

The East Village/Lower East Side Historic District would create a sideways and jagged L-shape between the Bowery and Avenue A, and from St. Mark’s Place down to East 2nd Streets.

If the LPC votes to approve the district, building owners would require special permission to alter the façade of a protected structure as well as being limited to building materials used in repairs and renovations. Buildings would also be protected against demolition.

Religious institutions are arguably important parts of the proposed district, as its boundary juts out to include churches such as the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection at 59 E. 2nd Street. However, many from those congregations spoke out opposing their inclusion.

Elizabeth Wright, a parish council member with the cathedral argued her church would be inhibited from carrying out its work in the community if landmarked.

"We are asking that an exception be made for houses of worship due to financial distress," she said, in the case where approval was eventually extended to the district.

Wright also pointed out that while the district would be protecting the neighborhood's immigrant history, it would be doing so at the expense of its newest arrivals who sometimes rely on the social services provided by these institutions. 

Wright referenced an Upper West Side church, West Park Presbyterian, which was landmarked against its will in 2010, and claimed financial hardship. At the time the congregation could not afford the millions needed in repairs and had considered selling its air rights to help fund its community work. Landmarking prevented that plan from taking place.

The facade of 68 East Seventh Street, built in 1835, would be protected if the proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District was approved.
The facade of 68 East Seventh Street, built in 1835, would be protected if the proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District was approved.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

Last year the same church had to raise funds to install a boiler so its congregation would not have wear coats to services during the cold winter weather.

Anthony Donovan spoke as a local resident, but also works with many religious institutions through a local interfaith organization.

"It's simple, if you are imposing these regulations upon others then you pay the extra costs," said Donovan.

The LPC does run a grant program providing funds from $5,000 to $50,000 for restoration work to eligible owners of landmarked buildings, according to commission spokeswoman Elisabeth de Bourbon. However, funding is not guaranteed.

Donovan also pointed to the public relations efforts run by many preservation groups, which those opposing preservation said they could not afford. For weeks the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has been sending out press releases on the proposed district and handed out orange and blue stickers to supporters at the hearing.

East Village resident and architect Leo Blackman said the fears of local religious institutions "are not founded in fact."

Blackman pointed out churches that have been demolished in recent years to make way for new developments, such as St Ann's on East 12th Street, which was replaced by NYU dorms.

"We learned that religious leaders cannot be trusted to protect their patrimony for all of us," he said.