Update, Oct. 20, 6:13pm: This post has been updated to include comments from the mayor’s office and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Elected officials, community activists, labor union members, and preservationists gathered on East 11th Street yesterday to protest a development plan that would demolish five 19th Century tenement buildings to make way for a 300-room hotel. The protest, organized by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and other local groups, attracted several dozen demonstrators who called for Mayor Bill de Blasio to halt the demolition of the buildings.
The five Old Law tenement buildings at 112-120 East 11th Street were acquired by the development firm Lightstone Group in April for $52.1 million. Lightstone applied for approval to demolish the buildings in August, and in September filed plans to build a 13-story, 311-room hotel on the properties.
The hotel planned on the site will reportedly be part of Marriott International’s Moxy Hotels line, an “affordable chic” brand aimed at millennial travelers. The list of Moxy Hotel locations on the brand’s website includes an entry for an 11th Street hotel but doesn’t list an opening date. Lightstone Group is working with Marriott to develop three other Moxy locations in New York, which represent part of Lightstone’s $2 billion foray into the hotel business.
Protesters gathered next to Webster Hall late yesterday afternoon to voice their opposition to the hotel project. The tenements’ beaux-arts facades, now covered in scaffolding, loomed across 11th Street. Speakers at the rally lamented the affordable housing that would be lost with the buildings’ demolition, as well as the fact that the development would use non-union labor. City Council Member Rosie Mendez, State Assemblymember Deborah Glick, and State Senator Brad Hoylman each took turns addressed the gathering, along with leaders from a number of labor unions and community groups.
Andrew Berman, executive director of GVSHP, said the buildings were now empty and that tenants, some of whom occupied rent-stabilized units, had been moved out over the last few months. Berman said that some of the former tenants had been relocated and that GVSHP is working to contact others. GVSHP and other groups staged an earlier protest at the site back in August.
“I don’t have a problem with hotels. I have a problem when a hotel replaces affordable housing,” Council Member Mendez said in her speech to the crowd.
Erik Bottcher, representing the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, spoke of the tenement buildings’ place in the essential fabric of the East Village. “I don’t think any of us think that the city should be frozen in amber, that no development should occur anywhere,” he said. “But there are some neighborhoods that are so special that they should owe it to future generations to make sure that they stay intact. This is one of those neighborhoods.”
In June, GVSHP attempted to block the buildings’ demolition by calling on the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the structures as part of a historic district. In its letter to LPC, GVSHP pointed out that the city had previously identified the corridor as eligible for the creation of a “Potential East 11th Street Historic District” during rezoning in 2008. The city’s 2008 stance on the East 11th Street corridor’s potential historic status — and its subsequent decision not to designate the buildings — played a central role in many of the protesters’ complaints.
A spokesperson for LPC said that the 2008 assessment was part of an Environmental Review determination, which are “not part of LPC’s designation process and are more inclusive to ensure that any impact to potential historic resources is considered.” LPC conducted its own review in 2016, during which the commission “determined that the nine buildings submitted for historic district consideration lack cohesion and a distinct sense of place in terms of age, scale, typology and their siting on only a portion of the block and, therefore, do not rise to the level of a historic district.”
Council Member Mendez said she had contacted the LPC on multiple occasions regarding the buildings’ historic status, but had not yet heard back. “It is outrageous that we don’t even get a response,” she said.
“We asked the city what changed since 2008. We didn’t get an answer,” Berman said. “But you know what’s the only thing that’s changed over the past eight years? The owner of the building.”
Berman and other speakers at the rally raised concerns about links between Mayor de Blasio and David Lichtenstein, Lightstone Group’s founder and CEO. The mayor appointed Lichtenstein to the board of directors of the city’s Economic Development Corporation in 2015. Lichtenstein also made a shadowy $50,000 contribution to a Democratic state Senate campaign earlier this year through top De Blasio fundraiser Ross Offinger (who is now under federal and state investigation for unrelated campaign finance activities) that only became public after investigation by the Albany Times Union.
“The Landmarks Preservation Commission makes independent decisions based on its criteria and expertise,” Melissa Grace, the mayor’s deputy press secretary, told Beford + Bowery.
State Senator Brad Hoylman, who called the proposed development “so bad on so many levels” in his speech at the rally, told Bedford + Bowery that he wants the city to reexamine the demolition permits. (The mayor’s office later clarified that a demolition permit has not been issued for the site.) Hoylman said that he had reached out to the mayor’s office but had not received a response. Hoylman also had a message for Lichtenstein: “I appeal to the developer, who has an important role to play as a member of the Economic Development Corporation, to reconsider the plans. I’d like to see them replace the affordable housing, at the very least, not demolish all or a portion of these buildings, keep the neighborhood character, and use unionized labor in any plans moving forward.”
Mayor de Blasio, who campaigned as a champion of affordable housing, was the subject of harsh criticism. Speakers complained that the mayor’s office failed to adequately address their concerns before the city approved the demolition plans. “It should have never gotten to the point where the buildings being demolished was even a question,” Berman said. “When we made them aware that there was a threat to them, instead of saying, ok, now’s the time to act, they instead issued the demolition permit.”
(The mayor’s office later clarified that a demolition permit has not been issued for the site.)
“It’s reprehensible how [De Blasio] can say he’s doing all these zoning changes to create affordable housing, but then not doing anything to preserve the housing we have,” Council Member Mendez said after the rally.
“Bloomberg was more transparent,” she continued. “Bloomberg was less petty. This mayor exacts little revenges when things don’t go his way. He says one thing, but does another. I just want some consistency here. At least I got that with Bloomberg. I may not have liked all of his policies, but I knew what I was getting, so you know how to deal with it[…] But here, you think you’re getting something else and then you get blindsided with something like this that is so outrageous.”
“We see all around us decisions being made by an administration that says one thing and does another,” Assemblywoman Glick told the crowd.
Hoylman, too, had pointed words for the mayor’s office regarding the demolition of the tenement buildings. “It’s ironic and, frankly, sad that this administration is supporting it,” he said.