Yesterday afternoon a group of vocal protesters gathered along East 11th Street, facing a row of historic brick buildings they’re intent on saving from demolition at the hands of one of the city’s most prolific developers. The structures in question are a streak of five residential buildings, all of them five-story, Old Law tenements that, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, have changed little since they were built between 1887 and 1892.
GVSHP and the other preservation groups that organized yesterday’s protest– including the Historic Districts Council, the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative and the East Village Community Coalition– are appealing to the city’s Landmarks and Preservation Commission to come through with an eleventh-hour historic district designation that would thwart plans for a 300-room hotel.
The buildings have nicer facade details than most– including what GVSHP describes as a “massive cornice with a crowning plinth and large, decorative brackets”– and familiar fire escapes zigzagging across the brick fronts, ranging in hues from classic, dark red to a lighter buff. But aren’t buildings like these a dime a dozen in the East Village? If there were a competition for your eyes, they wouldn’t stand a chance against historic Webster Hall, that blood-red Renaissance Revival behemoth located directly across the street.
But just try to imagine the East Village without brick tenements like the ones extending from 112 to 120 East 11th Street. State Senator Brad Hoylman, the only elected official who attended Monday’s protest, said, “This is the fabric of our neighborhood.”
East Village residents and affordable housing advocates and others who were there in solidarity were called to action after news broke that the Lightstone Group was planning to demo the historic buildings.
It all happened in the span of just a few months after the property, which wraps around the 11th Street buildings and 85 East 10th Street between 3rd and 4th avenues, was scooped up by the Lightstone Group for $127 million (the buyout was finalized in April). Just a month later in May, it came to light that Lightstone, described by The Real Deal as “among the city’s most active developers,” had plans to build a Marriott hotel on the site.
It’s all part of Marriott’s massive $1 billion investment aimed at setting up of their new line of Moxy Hotels in New York City, which the company has described as an “affordable chic” hotel brand “designed to capture the rapidly emerging millennial traveler.” There are a number of Moxy locations already open around the world, and one in New Orleans opened this summer with plans for “acupuncture happy hour and visiting DJs” and even an artist residency program. The Moxy website claims that a new location at “NYC/Manhattan/Greenwich (11th Street)” is opening sometime in late 2018. (B+B reached out to Marriott for comment but hasn’t received a response.)
The protestors seemed particularly peeved at the Millennial detail. “[They] obviously care nothing of our history,” Senator Hoylman said.
“It’s an insult to my generation,” Kelly Carroll of the Historic Districts Council argued. “Young people move to and visit New York, particularly this neighborhood, because of its authenticity.” The Moxy, she said, is “anti-East Village” and represents the encroachment of “mediocrity” on the city. “It’s an example of tasteless, moneyed people missing the point.”
There’s no sign that Lightstone’s demolition application has been approved by the Department of Buildings just yet, however Berman told reporters at the protest yesterday that the “100 people who lived here” had already been evicted, and that the preservationists are currently trying to reach tenants to find out exactly what happened.
The protest called attention to the fact that these buildings provided affordable housing, including rent-stabilized units which have been on the decline in this neighborhood (and across the city) thanks to prospecting landlords and rent increases that lead to deregulation. Not all of the 76 units split between the five buildings extending from 112 and 120 East 11th Street are rent-stabilized, but according to the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB), three of the four buildings contain some rent-stabilized units. The remaining units, however, are market rate. According to StreetEasy, a one-bedroom was leased out in May of this year for a whopping $3,250 a month.
While the loss of the historic buildings and affordable housing to a corporate hotel franchise was disturbing enough to protestors, how the whole thing went down with the Landmarks Preservation Commissions was another major point of contention.
“The process in some ways is even more disturbing,” Berman explained during a phone call last week with B+B. “This was brought to the commission’s attention with the knowledge that it was in imminent danger, and in the course of two months they didn’t even respond.”
Berman and others representing the local preservationist groups behind Monday’s protest alerted the LPC in a letter dated June 9, 2016: “We are writing you to urge you to consider the designation of a historic district at East 11th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. It is imperative that this be considered expeditiously as several of the historic resources in this potential district, specifically 112-120 East 11th Street, are planned for demolition.”
It’s especially confounding how the LPC failed to act considering that the environmental impact study conducted prior to the 2008 East Village rezoning classified East 11th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues as home to a “known architectural resource,” Webster Hall, and deserving of a more all-encompassing landmark designation. The report outlines a “potential East Eleventh Historic District.”
“We knew that given that they hadn’t acted since 2008 to landmark this site, that it would probably take some convincing,” Berman explained. “But we thought that hopefully it wouldn’t be that hard given that they themselves had decided that it was landmark eligible years back.” He added that “all they had to do was calendar the buildings”– meaning that a temporary hold would be placed on any demolition permitting while the LPC reviewed the potential landmarking. “It’s not like we were asking them to do something unprecedented, but they refused to act in this case.”
The LPC has not responded to B+B’s request for comment, but the commission did respond to Curbed:
“The agency has recently evaluated the potential historic district and found that the nine buildings submitted as the potential district lack cohesion and a distinct sense of place in terms of age, scale, typology and their siting on only a portion of their blockfronts. Therefore, the agency found that these buildings do not rise to the level of architectural significance necessary for designation as an historic district, and do not merit further consideration as a potential New York City Historic District.”
A major theme at the protest included harsh criticism of the Mayor for what the preservationists see as yet another failure to protect the loss of affordable housing in the midst of a housing crisis. “This demonstrates the disinterest of the Mayor,” Kelly Carroll told the crowd. “These tenants were injuriously removed at very short notice, which certainly falls short of this administration’s catchphrase of preserving affordable units.”
Preservationists have also pointed to a New York Post story that draws a link between Mayor de Blasio’s top fundraiser, Ross Offinger– who is currently under investigation for allegedly violating campaign finance laws– and a $50,000 contribution made by the developer David Lichtenstein to the Nassau County Democrats. The donation was previously described as “untraceable.” Berman noted at the protest that de Blasio had appointed Lichtenstein to the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) last year. The EDC is an arm of the administration that the Mayor’s office touted as playing an important role in “[leveraging] the City’s assets to create good jobs and drive growth, ensuring equitable and sustainable development across all five boroughs.”
State Senator Hoylman pointed out the incompatibility between Lichtenstein’s role in ensuring so-called “equitable” development and his spearheading of the Moxy Hotel project.
“Given the role of the developer and his position on the Economic Development Corporation, I think he’s in a unique position to do the right thing here– he’s someone who obviously cares about the city,” he said. “I think that he should have a bigger frame of reference as to the city’s goals in preserving affordable housing, [and] our goals in preserving the character of our neighborhood.”
I asked Berman what, if anything, the Mayor could do at this point even if he were to act. “He can get the Landmarks Preservation Commission to intervene and he can get his friend who owns the building to reverse this plan,” Berman suggested.
But maybe this whole debacle suggests that there’s simply something screwy about the process of landmark designation itself. Berman wasn’t so sure. “The pace of designations [at Landmarks Preservation Commission] definitely seems to have slowed down in recent years,” he acknowledged. However, he argued that it’s not the step-by-step that’s to blame, but the composition of the commission itself.
Senator Hoylman, however, suggested that actually there might be something wrong with the LPC’s process. “This could have been a part of the East Village historic district– it was considered and rejected,” he said. “It seems rather random that these buildings suddenly would be removed from the conversation so summarily without even an explanation, so I think we are owed some answers.”
At this point, it would take some dramatic action to stop the hotel plan from going through, but Hoylman promised the protestors, “We’re not going down without a fight.” The preservationists also promised that the East 11th Street development is something they’ll be following very closely. “I think New Yorkers are really bothered that they’re seeing more and more of their city slipping away,” Berman explained. “And this is the perfect example of that.”