City Council Votes to Strip 135 Bowery of Landmark Designation

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By Alan Krawitz

Despite strong opposition from preservationists, community activists and local residents alike, the City Council voted last Wednesday to strip the circa 1817 Federal style row house located at 135 Bowery of its landmark status. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission had designated the site as a landmark in June.

The vote to de-designate 135 Bowery was won by a landslide (49 to 1), with only Council Member Rosie Mendez voting against the measure.

The decision came as little surprise to area preservationists who were still reeling from a City Council Land Use Subcommittee hearing and vote on Sept. 15 that denied the landmarking of the historic row house by a vote of 4 to 1.

Council Member Margaret Chin said at the subcommittee hearing that she had changed her support for landmarking once she was made aware of the poor condition of the building, as well as the assurances from the property’s owner, First American International Bank, that it would build a seven-story commercial building on the site offering below-market rents to help stimulate business development in the area.

The question of whether or not 135 Bowery could be saved and ultimately preserved is one that has divided preservationists and the building’s owner from the onset. The building’s owner produced engineering reports that indicated the building had been repeatedly altered over the years and would need extensive renovations in order to be fully integrated as part of any new development.

“We saw reports, and some of our staff members were inside the building, and it was in an utter state of disrepair—it was really quite dilapidated,” said Kelly Magee, communications director for Chin’s office.

On the other side of the divide, preservationists pointed to the fact that the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) had already designated the building as a landmark. They also provided Department of Buildings reports at the Sept. 15 council subcommittee hearing indicating that the building could, with proper renovations, be preserved.

The LPC declined to comment for this story.

“First American Bank is a certified community development institution…which means they’ve satisfied the government’s requirements for investing in underdeveloped and low-income areas,” said Adam Rothkrug, an attorney representing First American Bank. “They are currently pursuing tax credits for subsidized office spaces for Chinatown businesses.”

Rothkrug said the bank has agreed to try to reuse some of the materials from the row house or to attempt to preserve as much of the façade as possible. “We’re not just going to put up a glass tower,” he said.

Asked about the landmarking of 135 Bowery, Rothkrug said he felt that the building should never have been landmarked to begin with. “We were shocked when the LPC went ahead with the landmarking process. We thought that after our engineers concluded their reports and after Council Member Chin’s staff toured the building and saw the deterioration, we figured LPC would just drop the issue,” Rothkrug said.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council (HDC), a city preservation organization, said the landmarking was a longshot following the council’s subcommittee vote. If 135 Bowery is demolished, it will be the second historic site lost in the area this year, following the recent demolition of an 1825 row house at 35 Cooper Square.

In a phone interview, Bankoff said he was “not happy” and “very disappointed” with Chin’s decision to reverse her support for the site and side with the property’s owner. Chin had testified in June in favor of landmarking the property.

Bankoff did say that Chin, whose district includes the Bowery and Lower East Side, has a generally good record on preservation issues. He hopes that, despite this setback, HDC will be able to work with the council member on future preservation issues.

Local preservation groups including the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative (LESPI), the Historic Districts Council and the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, which sponsored an online petition of more than 500 signatures to save 135 Bowery, did little to conceal their disappointment over the City Council’s vote.

“City Council’s de-designation of 135 Bowery was a serious blow to the historic Bowery and Lower East Side. This structure was one of the true gems of early New York—a basically intact 1817 Federal style building, a type that once predominated in early New York. Surviving examples of these buildings are rare and irreplaceable,” wrote Richard Moses, who heads the steering committee for LESPI.

Moreover, comments posted to local Bowery blogs repeatedly asked why First American Bank’s commercial development could not be built elsewhere in Chinatown. “There are plenty of other viable sites for commercial development along the Bowery,” wrote one man on Bowery Boogie.

In the meantime, preservationists say that despite the long odds, they will continue the fight for 135 Bowery. They have scheduled a meeting this Wednesday at the Merchant’s House Museum.

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