Whenever we see another ‘For Sale‘ sign in our neighborhoods, it is often the cause for worry or fear. Concerns naturally arise that another out-of-context tower might obliterate the skyline, or another new development might destroy the unique character of our retail spaces.
But sometimes it could be a lot worse, and the hard work we have done has made a difference. Such is the case at 3 East 3rd Street, offered for sale again, this time by Marcus & Millichap, as announced by a banner recently strung across the front of the building.
New York City records say this unique 3-story, 40 foot-wide structure was built around 1900. But we here at GVSHP were actually able to identify the building as being much older, based upon the presence of flemish bond bricks and historic photos showing the building was originally two houses with gambrel roofs (sloped in front and back) and dormers. These are tell-tale signs of federal era houses, which dates the building to between 1790 and 1835; tax records we examined indicate it was probably built in 1830-31 . According to a Certificate of Occupancy record we found, by 1940 the two houses had been merged and converted to a rooming house with 29 furnished rooms. Most recently, the building has served a similar use, serving as a short stay dorm. Columbia University was promoting a weekly short stay here at $250 a week and noting the average room sizes are 8’ x 14’, with shared bathrooms.
3 East 3rd Street has since been emptied for potential sale as development pressure in the area continues to grow. To the northwest of the site the Bowery Hotel stands, while to the immediate west on the Bowery the Urban Muse condos rise 15 stories, where the Salvation Army building once stood.
But thanks to the advocacy of GVSHP and many others, what could happen at 3 East 3rd Street site will not be as egregiously out of context as it could have been. Under the old zoning for this site, there were no height limits on new construction and the zoning encouraged dormitory or hotel construction. The old zoning, which was in place since 1961, was R7-2 and C6-1. Both of these are height factor, or non-contextual, districts. These districts allow the development of tall, slender buildings surrounded by open space. They do not require that buildings be built to the street line, and they place no fixed limit on building heights. You can see how dramatically out of character development permitted in that manner is by merely looking around this property at the 17 story Bowery Hotel and another 13 story tower going up next to it.
Under the new zoning which GVSHP and our allied community groups, Community Board #3, and elected officials helped secure for much of this site and much of the East Village in 2008, new construction must have a street wall between 55 and 60 feet high, with overall building height limited to 75 feet. In the new zoning district residential development is favored over dorm or hotel development, and the height caps limit the possibility of the transfer of air rights.
That’s the good news. The bad news is about half the site still has the old, bad zoning for the neighborhood which remains on the Bowery. And these altered but historic buildings, which are approaching to centuries old, can (and likely will) be demolished at any time.
But it’s not for a lack of trying on our part, or the part of many others.
Fresh off the measure of success we did achieve with the approved 2008 East Village rezoning, GVSHP and our partners worked hard to advance further neighborhood protections. When the LPC unveiled a preliminary proposed East Village Historic District in 2011, we pushed hard to get the district’s boundaries extended considerably, to include, among other sites, 3 East 3rd Street. The LPC did ultimately agree to include an additional 17 of the properties we proposed in the proposed East Village Historic District (which was designated in 2012), but, unfortunately, 3 East 3rd Street was not one of them.
And when the City refused to include the Bowery corridor (which extends 100 feet in from the property line, and includes about half of this site) and the 3rd and 4th Avenue corridors in the 2008 East Village rezoning, we also pushed hard to get zoning protections extended to these areas. In 2013, the city agreed to rezone the Third and Fourth Avenue corridors, but refused to consider rezoning the Bowery. That is why the Bowery retains its high-density zoning without any height limits and where dorm and/or hotel development is encouraged.
So whatever happens at 3 East 3rd Street, it can’t be as bad as it once could have been (a large, high-rise tower covering the entire site, likely all dorm or hotel). But it also likely won’t be as good as it could and should be, which is the preservation and restoration of these nearly two-hundred year old buildings.
Of course our neighborhood zoning could get even worse if the Mayor has his way — he’s seeking to lift most of the zoning height limits we currently have.
Want to stop that? Write City Councilmembers today and urge them to reject the Mayor’s ‘Zoning for Quality and Affordability’ proposal.