East Houston street is currently a hotbed of development, as any casual stroll down the street will reveal. Endless scaffolding, boarded-up properties, fences, and signs announcing new things to come line the sidewalks of lots previously occupied by local shops, community facilities, and residential buildings. Although a 2008 rezoning was implemented, ostensibly to preserve the existing buildings and the affordable housing that many of them contained, developers who bought up a sliver of land at 255 East Houston Street may get a special rezoning through of their own.
On Tuesday the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises met to review a rezoning proposal that would change the residential-only zoning to mixed-used commercial, which would let plans for a 13-story mixed-used commercial building through. The proposal has been met with widespread criticism by elected officials and community members, not in small part due to the fact that the rezoning request comes from none other than the notorious landlord Samy Mahfar, and his group SMBRO Rivington. Mahfar’s faced repeated accusations of tenant harassment and was taken to court last year by some of his rent-stabilized tenants. Now, with Mahfar’s rezoning proposal under review, many community leaders are ringing the alarm bells and gathered up their forces at City Hall to argue against the rezoning on Tuesday.
Among the big guns who presented testimony that opposed the rezoning were Susan Stetzer of Community Board 3, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Association of Latino Business Owners and Residents, and residents who lived nearby the proposed development. All of them had an ally on the City Council– Council Member Rosie Mendez, whose district includes the area in question.
This isn’t the first time Mahfar’s proposal has seen review. Back in 2008, 255 East Houston Street, fell under a rezoning that prohibited commercial use in the area and would have only allowed for the establishment of a community facility on that particular plot. In February 2016, Mahfar submitted a rezoning request to allow for a commercial overlay in the area, and presented it to the Community Board 3 in March. They weren’t impressed, and voted unanimously voted against the proposed rezoning. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer also advised against it, citing fears that the development would threaten the neighborhood’s eclectic nature.
Nonetheless, Mahfar’s proposal was accepted by the City Planning Commission in July, which argued that the proposed rezoning would be in context with the rest of the area, specifically a commercial overlay on East Houston Street between First Avenue and Avenue B.
The area is actually rife with development projects. As Bowery Boogie reported, 287 East Houston was acquired in 2014 for $15.2 million and is slated to become an 11-story condo development. Then there’s the Houston Essex Realty Corp, which released a preliminary plan last year to build a 41,000 square-foot residential complex on top of the existing Provident Loan Society Building. Don’t forget 179 Suffolk Street (right next door to 255 East Houston), which has been turned into a 10-story residential building, as well as The Adele, Jones LES , and 76 East Houston street, which formerly housed Billy’s Antiques, has become a two-story commercial building.
It’s not that the community wouldn’t like to see the lot in question transformed into something useful, argued Andrew Berman, of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. But ruling in favor of Mahfar, he said, “Would be the death knell of there being any community facility space there […] We want zoning that will help preserve the character of the neighborhood, keep smaller buildings, and help maintain the diversity by ensuring affordable housing, which the city said is a priority.”
During the presentation of the proposal, Mahfar’s camp argued that a rezoning would benefit the community. “The rezoning would encourage redevelopment and increase market rate and affordable housing in the area,” his attorney, Nick Hockens said. Their plans call for 88 market-rate units and 18 affordable units, although Hockens couldn’t state what the average rent of those would be when asked by Mendez. He also added that the new project would have “plenty of green features.”
Mahfar’s reps insisted that there would be no new bar or “something loud” occupying the ground floor of the project. Instead, the paint store Sherwin Williams had apparently expressed interest in moving in. Other options would be “a fresh food store, or maybe a diner or a simple restaurant.”
The attorney emphasized that the development group had tried and failed repeatedly to find a community facility that would be willing to move into the space, many of them were resistant because of the neighborhood’s noisy reputation. “The demand for a community facility is not there,” he said. “We’ve negotiated with two schools, but that didn’t work out.”
Mendez, however, was skeptical and insisted that she would put Mahfar’s people in touch with interested non-profits.
Many more witnesses criticize Mahfar’s team, accusing them of misleading the hearing with their assertion that community-serving tenants were hard to come by.
Paul David Young, a resident who lives next door to the proposed development, said that were an approval of the rezoning go through: “[It would] be seen as an emblem of sleazy New York politics.”
Young, who lives right next door to the proposed project at 253 East Houston and co-owns the building, said he had not been contacted at all by the developers regarding the rezoning proposal, and that he had questioned his neighbors, who were also unaware.
Harry Bubbins of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, also offered his two cents on the development. “This is not the kind of rezoning this community is looking for or needs,” he said, arguing that it would be negligent for the city to approve “an applicant with such a checkered history.”
Bubbins also invoked the city’s historical approach to the neighborhood. “When this area was rezoned in 2008, the Community Board specifically sought to keep a commercial overlay from these blocks in order to encourage the retention of community facility uses here,” he continued. “And yet the City Planning Commission and the Mayor are only too willing to accommodate a developer whose actions have had such a harmful impact upon low-income tenants, as well as neighborhood residents who need access to affordable childcare.”
Action for Progress Daycare, which was formerly housed at 255 East Houston until it was displaced in 2010 due to significant damage that was sustained after a neighboring construction project damaged the building.
The loss of the contested Rivington House was repeatedly invoked during the hearing as well. A significant reason for the wariness surrounding this proposal lies with James Capalino’s lobbying group, which was hired by Mahfar. Capalino was connected to the sale of the Rivington House, which transformed the former nursery home into luxury condos.
The subcommittee did not vote on the proposal on Tuesday, and did not announce when the vote would actually take place. However, a spokesperson for Council Member Mendez said that a vote would occur by mid-September at the latest.