Lower East Side Preservation Campaign Picks Up Steam

From the Villager

Back to the future of L.E.S.; District plan revives
By Alyssa Giachino

Neighborhood preservationists are revving their engines again on the Lower East Side, this time with a broader coalition of support, reviving a proposal to designate a historic district that ran into determined opposition last year.

A new group calling itself the Lower East Side Preservation Coalition is interested in designating a 20-block area as a historic district through the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The proposed district would run from E. Houston St. to just below Canal St. and encompass the commercial and residential strip along Allen, Orchard, Ludlow and Essex Sts.

Longtime residents are alarmed by the area’s rapid development, and fear that the legacy of generations of immigrant families may be wiped away by new projects.

“There have been concerns by neighbors that the neighborhood is losing its historical fabric,” said Margaret Hughes, director of the Immigrant Heritage Project at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Hughes said the neighborhood’s immigrant, labor and social service history should be protected.

“Through the buildings, those stories can be told,” she said.

The preservation coalition has sent out letters in English and Chinese to more than 400 property owners in the area, offering to meet with them to discuss suitable design guidelines that would protect the building facades, most of which date from the late 19th century.

“We’re more than willing to sit down with people and see what their concerns are,” Hughes said. “We can give additional support and have additional conversations.”

The coalition made a brief presentation at the May 10 Community Board 3 Parks, Recreation and Landmarks Committee meeting, and plans to return in July to make a full presentation and ask for formal support for the project.

A year ago, the Tenement Museum introduced the proposal and was met with fierce opposition from property owners.

To bolster support for its proposal, the museum has formed the new coalition. Other coalition members include the Historic Districts Council, Eldridge Street Project, East Village Community Coalition, Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association, Artists Alliance, City Lore, Jewish Museum and the Central Labor Council.

Meanwhile, over the past year, development has continued on the Lower East Side. New hotels and condominiums are sprouting throughout the area, many looming large over the older five-or-six-story buildings.

“There is terrifying development going on in the area,” said Simeon Bankoff, director of the Historic Districts Council. “We usually talk about development eroding an area. This is not eroding. It is eradicating it, it is smashing it down flat.

“There is surprising architectural detail that shows how successive waves of immigrants arrived, lived and went to school in this area,” he said.

The district is already honored by its inclusion in the National Historic Register, under the National Park Service. The national registry, however, does not include regulations limiting development, and the coalition members feel the best way to ensure preservation is through city designation as a landmark area.

“If it’s not landmarked, we will continue to see the types of development we see now that are out of scale and out of character with the existing neighborhood, as long as the market will bear it,” Bankoff said.

Posted Under: Community Boards, Designation, HDC, Lower East Side

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