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Win Some, Lose Some in the East Village

Fourth Arts Block

Readers who have been involved in our efforts to support the City’s two proposed East Village Historic Districts know that a small but vocal group is looking to halt the plan in its tracks. Those in opposition believe that owners should be trusted to preserve their own properties without governmental interference. While this is a wonderfully idealistic theory, two cases this week of actions being taken on buildings within the currently proposed historic districts in the East Village — before those landmark designations take effect — demonstrate the good and the bad that come with leaving such decisions solely in the hands of private owners.

Let’s start with the good.

62 East 4th Street prior to restoration

Off the Grid covered 62 East 4th Street once before, when we shared news that the Fourth Arts Block (of which it is a part) would be receiving a 2011 Village Award. The building’s unique fire escape and storied history have always fascinated us. Originally built as a hotel 1889, it later became a German music union called Astoria Hall (in the late 19th & early 20th centuries this was an extremely vibrant block, filled with meeting halls & social clubs to service the immigrant community). But 62 East 4th Street is perhaps most famous for having housed Andy Warhol’s porn movie house in the 1970s. Today, the Fourth Arts Block (FAB) manages the building, which houses the Rod Rogers Dance Company.

The building has been hidden under scaffolding for quite some time, as FAB has been renovating the facade. We have anxiously been awaiting the big reveal, so were extremely excited earlier this week when we noticed the scaffolding had come down and the shiny new facade had finally been finished.

62 East 4th Street today

Kudos to FAB on a beautiful facade restoration! We look forward to future renovation phases, which we are told include restoration of the 5th floor and development of the back lot. FAB clearly recognizes the importance of preserving this building for future generations, and was able to adaptively reuse the space without destroying its historic integrity. If only all building owners could be this preservation-minded.

Alas, such is not the case.

331 East 6th Street undergoing demolition

Just a few blocks up, 331 East 6th Street, a beautiful 1852 townhouse (one of the oldest on the block) is in the process of being demolished. While it appears that only the interior is being gutted, the owners have secured a permit to demolish both the front and rear facades as well. This is especially devastating given that this block is one of the most intact in the entire neighborhood, and that the building is only two doors down from the Community Synagogue, a National Historic landmark. In fact, when the East Village was rezoned in 2008, the Environmental Impact Statement identified this block of East 6th Street has being especially historically significant and worthy of landmark protection.

331 East 6th Street prior to demolition

We don’t know exactly what the replacement building will look like.  Whatever it is, it will no doubt contribute significantly less to the history and character of the block and neighborhood than its 150 year old predecessor.  Fortunately at least, thanks to the 2008 contextual rezoning of the neighborhood which GVSHP and a broad coalition of community groups secured along with the Community Board and Councilmember Rosie Mendez, the building will be only about 5 or 6 stories, whereas under the old zoning, a new building could have been more than double that height.

While FAB’s restoration of 62 East 4th Street shows that sensitive owners can and will preserve, the destruction of 331 East 6th Street shows that not all property owners think alike. This only highlights the urgent need for landmark protections in this neighborhood.

We’re thrilled that the Community Board 3 (CB3) Landmarks Subcommittee voted last Wednesday to support the two proposed East Village Historic Districts, and we are hoping that the full Parks Committee will back-up that support when they meet this evening to vote. If you’re interested in letting CB3 know how important landmarking is to the neighborhood, come to tonight’s meeting and let your voice be heard!

For more information on our efforts to preserve the East Village, visit our Preservation page.

6 responses to “Win Some, Lose Some in the East Village

  1. Don’t build historic districts on the back of the religious institutions who actually serve the people of this neighborhood. It is an unreasonable infringement of our basic rights to force land mark status on houses of worship. We have a unanimous agreement from all of the religious leaders of the East Village *against* the forced land marking of their houses of worship. They represent hundreds of people who are members of their congregations. Will you listen to them? Does CB#3 care about these important places, or do the preservationist lobbyists with their grant money and political clout trump the needs and desires of the majority? We call on our Community Board #3 and our neighbors to REJECT PRESERVATIONIST’S DICTATES!! SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE!!

    1. Father Calin,

      Landmarking is greatly needed in this neighborhood. One only needs to walk along the Bowery north of Houston Street (large, out-of-scale luxury hotels and condos) to realize what can happen to a historic neighborhood if it is given over to developers. I encourage you to walk by St. Ann’s Church on 12th Street just west of 3rd Avenue to see what can happen when a beautiful historic church falls into the wrong hands (in this case, NYU).

      Every historic district ever designated has initially been met with some degree of skepticism, usually by a small but vocal contingent. Yet there is irrefutable evidence to show that the majority of private property owners thrive under landmark designation. While there is a vocal opposition to the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District, the support has outweighed the opposition at every public hearing so far. That said, we must refute your claim that all religious leaders in the East Village are against landmarking. The Father’s Heart Church on East 11th Street, which was recently landmarked, supported the individual designation of their building and has found their experience working with the Landmarks Preservation Commission so far to be overwhelmingly positive. This and many other landmarked churches throughout the city have found that designation does not restrict their ability to fulfill their mission or to meet the needs of congregants and the community.

      The idea that landmarking infringes upon the separation of Church and state is also not true. Are you currently exempt from working with the city? No. As it stands, your church is regulated by the Department of Buildings (DOB) and you must file a permit with the DOB if you wish to make alterations. Therefore the notion that you are currently free to do whatever you wish but that you will be overwhelmingly constrained under landmark designation is simply not true. All landmarking does is add one more small step to the process, and ONLY when the proposed changes affect the exterior of the building. The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) does not force you restore your building, nor does it regulate its interior. The LPC is also not concerned with how you use the building. You are free to alter the interior of your church as you please and to carry on your religious practices as you so desire. You are also free to alter the exterior of your church as long as the Commission deems the alterations appropriate. In fact, the question of whether landmark designation interferes with the separation of church and state has gone all the way to the Supreme Court, and it has been found incontrovertibly that it does not. There are literally hundreds of churches and synagogues that are landmarked or located in historic districts in New York City.

      Designation also brings certain technical guidance and financial benefits which are not available to non-designated properties. Built into the landmarks law is a hardship provision which guarantees that any owner, including non-profits and religious institutions, can be relieved of the obligations of landmark designation if they can show that they are not financially able to fulfill them or that to do so would interfere with fulfillment of their mission. GVSHP has and will continue to offer guidance and assistance to the church in navigating the LPC process and in seeking funding for exterior work.

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