Historic District Protections in Neighborhood Increased Tenfold
On October 9, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved an East Village Historic District. The district covers 325 19th and early 20th century buildings between the Bowery and Avenue A, St. Mark’s Place and 2nd Street. In fact, combined with the much smaller East 10th Street Historic District designated in January, this year we were able to help increase the historic district protections in the East Village tenfold – from forty buildings on three blocks to four hundred on nearly twenty.
In spite of this, the East Village still lags far behind nearby neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, SoHo, NoHo and Tribeca in terms of landmark designations, and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) intends to work hard to ensure that the East Village Historic District is the first step, rather than the last one, in expanding landmark protections in this neighborhood.
The new East Village Historic District includes many key sites which GVSHP and allied community groups fought to landmark and preserve: Congregation Mezritch Synagogue at 415 East 6th Street, the East Village’s last remaining tenement synagogue which came very close to demolition in 2008; the Russian Orthodox Cathedral at 59 East 2nd Street, for which plans had been filed to build a condo-tower above; Community Synagogue at 323 East 6th Street, built in 1847 as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Matthew, from which many of the General Slocum Disaster victims came; and 101 Avenue A, an elaborately-detailed late 19th century tenement with a ground floor gathering space that was the site of labor rallies in the 19th century and the groundbreaking Pyramid Club in the late 20th century.
The designation of the East Village Historic District follows the rezoning of almost the entire East Village in 2008 and 2010, an effort spearheaded by community groups including GVSHP, the Community Board and Councilmember Rosie Mendez. The rezonings have helped tremendously to prevent out-of-scale high-rise development, especially of dorms and hotels, and to encourage preservation of existing buildings.
Landmark designation goes a long way towards ensuring that historic buildings are preserved, while allowing necessary changes and reasonable in-character additions and new development. Tax breaks are available for restoration work on privately owned historic buildings and grants and loans for non-profits and religious institutions, which GVSHP can assist in seeking. The landmarks law’s hardship provision ensures that owners who cannot afford to maintain their building and non-profits that find landmarks requirements financially prohibitive or interferes with fulfillment of their mission, are not forced to abide by any requirements which they cannot fulfill. However, because private and non-profit owners generally thrive under landmark designation, this provision is rarely necessary or used.
This is important progress, but there is so much more work to be done. The City is still refusing to act on the proposed South Village Historic District which it promised to consider in 2009, even though a rezoning of the adjacent Hudson Square neighborhood, which would increase development pressure on the area, is likely to be approved. Plans to change the zoning for Chelsea Market to allow two huge towers to be erected above the complex are awaiting final approval by the City Council and because the City approved NYU massive expansion plans for the Central Village, we have had to go to court to seek to stop this plan.
However, among all these challenges, progress is being made. A wonderful slice of the historic East Village is now under landmarks regulation, which will help keep its historic character and integrity intact for generations to come.