By Carol Yost
There has been a proposal to landmark some buildings near where the 14th Street Tech Hub is going to be. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) would actually like to include far, far more buildings than the ones now under consideration. In any case, the threat of gentrification arising from the imminent creation of the Tech Hub is cause for alarm, and the landmarking is one effort to prevent it so that developers won’t swoop in, demolish old buildings and put up luxury condo concoctions at great heights (now allowed because of the recent upzoning). The concern is to preserve historic architecture and the old neighborhood feel, along with not letting housing and retail prices skyrocket along with giant new buildings.
Included for consideration is the Strand Bookstore at 828 Broadway (corner of East 12th Street), a longstanding neighborhood icon in a city of rapidly disappearing independent bookstores, and where even huge bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble have had to cut back. Nancy Bass Wyden, who is the third generation in the Bass family to own the bookstore—founded by her grandfather more than 90 years ago—wants her store to be left alone. She fears that landmarking, with its restrictions, would make it more difficult to make changes she feels are necessary. She worries that landmarking could lead to the demise of the Strand, which her grandfather and father kept running through thick and thin.
Andrew Berman, Executive Director of GVSHP, thinks she has nothing to worry about, and says he can prove it; he believes that landmarking would help stop high-rise building and soaring rents.
Wyden and Berman testified at a recent hearing on the matter. There will be another one on Tuesday, February 19th, at 9:30 am, at 1 Centre Street, 9th floor, and anybody who cares should go and try to testify. Look at what Wyden and Berman say in the statements that follow.
STRAND OWNER NANCY BASS WYDEN STATEMENT
The Strand has been in business in the Village for over 91 years. It was my grandfather’s, my dad’s and now mine. My dad and my grandfather both worked until they died, working six days a week for most of their lives. During the Depression, my grandfather slept on a cot in the basement of the store and sent his two kids into foster care because his wife died and he had no money.
We’ve been at our current location on Broadway for 62 years. My dad, who started working here at age 13, saved up his money for 68 years to buy the building that the store occupies 20 years ago. He knew, even at the young age of 13, that if he did not, there would soon come a time after he inherited the business when he would not be able to afford the rent and would be forced out, much like he saw in the late 1960s with the 47 neighboring bookstores of 4th Avenue’s Book Row.
My dad had seen that story play out time and time again outside the Village, too. In 1950 there were 368 bookstores in New York City. That eroded to 249 bookstores in 1981, and today, there are only a precious 79 bookstores to serve Manhattan’s 8.5 million inhabitants. Many of those bookstores only sell specialty genres like Christian books, cookbooks, and mysteries.
Our margins are small and wages are only increasing. We operate in a fragile environment. After working here all of my life, I know what it takes to keep the store continuing. We are at a point where we cannot absorb any unnecessary expenses. This designation will rob us of the flexibility we need to change with the needs of our customers in the Village.
Unlike Amazon, we have never asked for taxpayer-funded subsidies, tax breaks or special favors. We do want the government to spare us new changes to our business that already operates on tight margins. I’ve reached out non-stop to the mayor’s office, to this committee, to Councilwoman Rivera; yet when the richest man in the world and the Strand’s main competitor asks for a tax break in New York, he gets handed $3 billion dollars. Maybe I’m naïve, but I really hope that is not the way the world really works. Landmarking our building will only—and let me repeat—only make it harder to for us to survive and pass our treasured family-owned business down to my children and hopefully, to theirs.
We’ve been told that no one wins against the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but the Strand will not go down without a fight. We need your help. Please join us at the next public hearing on Tuesday, February 19th, at 1 Centre Street, 9th floor, at 9:30 am, and support us in this fight. You can learn more about the hearing and other updates by following @strandbookstore on social media, or by emailing us at nancyprotectthestrand@
—Nancy Bass Wyden
ANDREW BERMAN OF GREENWICH VILLAGE SOCIETY FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION STATEMENT
There is no denying that 828 Broadway and its neighbors are historically significant and worthy of designation. However, there is also no denying that they are the tip of the iceberg of the buildings which warrant consideration in this area, and unlike many of the other buildings in the area, none of these seven are endangered currently, or likely to be anytime soon. We are urging the Commission to take a step back and consider this area in its entirety, which is facing ever-increasing development pressure due to, among other factors, the City Council’s recent approval of the mayor’s upzoning on 14th Street for a “Tech Hub,” and to prioritize those buildings which do face a more immediate danger.
The concerns expressed about the impact of landmarking upon a business are not really borne out by the facts. Literally thousands of small businesses not only survive but thrive within historic districts. In fact, a recent survey we conducted found lower rates of retail vacancies in historic districts than in their non-landmarked surroundings. I understand the natural trepidation about an additional layer of bureaucracy that a landmarked property must deal with, and certainly agree with the sentiment that cherry-picking these seven buildings, as Councilmember Rivera and the mayor agreed to as part of their Tech Hub deal, is not the way to go. Were 828 Broadway not to be landmarked now, it would likely survive for quite some time to come. But that is not guaranteed. And for it to not be landmarked due to misinformation about landmarking’s impact upon businesses would be a shame.
What we hope the Landmarks Preservation Commission will do is drop the deal they made with Councilmember Rivera to only consider these seven buildings, look at the endangered area south of Union Square in its entirety, and consider all of its worthy historic resources for potential landmark designation, prioritizing those buildings and areas which face the most immediate threats.