MANHATTAN — Community members on Tuesday implored the city to halt a property owner’s bid for a two-and-a-half block rezoning that would allow a restaurant or bar to take over a space pegged for community use, arguing the move would further deprive the neighborhood of a dwindling resource.
Community Board 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer invoked the loss of Rivington House while testifying before City Council’s Zoning and Franchises subcommittee on the proposed rezoning to allow a retailer in a space at 255 E. Houston St. that for decades served as a day care, arguing that surviving community facilities in the Lower East side need to be preserved.
“It is essential that we retain our community facilities, particularly to serve the most vulnerable in our community. We have recently lost Rivington House, Cabrini and Bialystoker nursing homes because of gentrification,” said Stetzer, referring to a handful of local nursing homes that have shuttered in recent years. “We cannot afford further loss.”
Controversial landlord Samy Mahfar of SMA Equities — who has a history of alleged tenant harassment in the neighborhood — is pushing for a commercial overlay on a residential stretch of East Houston Street that would let him put a retail tenant in the ground floor of his mixed-use development, which was occupied for 40 years by the Action for Progress Daycare.
Under the current zoning, the ground-floor space may be occupied by a community facility such as a house of worship, a school or a doctor’s office. The proposed commercial overlay would allow a far wider range of uses, such as a restaurant or a grocery store.
But the area was intentionally coded for community use during the 2008 East Village rezoning to protect the area from other commercial uses, said locals and officials who turned up at Tuesday’s hearing — while surrounding areas that allow commercial tenants are already overrun by nightlife and eateries.
“There is by no means a shortage of places to eat and drink in my neighborhood — however, facilities for those living in the area have become harder and harder to find,” said Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who encouraged the subcommittee to reject the application.
A legal representative for Mahfar said the the property owner had tried to fill the space as a community facility, but was unable to find a tenant able to pay the market-rate rent — needed revenue in order to put below-market-rate units in the residential portion of the building, said the rep.
“In order to provide lower [affordability levels], it is important to have as many revenue streams as possible,” said Nick Hockens of Greenberg Traurig LLP, who said 20 percent of the residential units would be geared towards residents earning 60 percent of the city’s area median income, or roughly $48,000 for a three-person household.
Stetzer, however, provided written testimonies from the operators of several not-for-profit community groups —The Educational Alliance, Henry Street Settlement and University Settlement — stating the groups had never been contacted regarding the space and would be interested in renting it as a facility.
Representatives for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the East Village Community Coalition, the Association of Latino Business Owners and Residents also testified against the overlay — while neighborhood resident Paul Young argued the rezoning would likely usher in a liquor-slinging establishment, inviting "vomiting and pissing on the street" in a swath of East Houston Street that is still mercifully quiet.
Despite Community Board 3 and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer voicing their opposition to the rezoning, the City Planning Commission had deemed the application "appropriate" and contextual with the surrounding area. The subcommittee, however, will have the final say as to whether the application is approved.
The subcommittee did not vote on the item on Tuesday, and subcommittee chair Donovan Richards did not specify when a decision would be made.