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Bowery Building Set as Landmark, or Maybe Not

Bowery Building Set as Landmark, or Maybe Not

The Wall Street Journal 9/15/2011

By LAURA KUSISTO And JOSH BARBANEL

A three-story Federalist building on the Bowery that dates to 1817 may be demolished, after the local City Council member who appeared to support the designation of the building as a landmark ultimately decided to oppose it.

The building, though cited in 2005 court documents as a massage parlor and brothel, was designated as a landmark in June by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The commission noted its unique Federal style and status as a rare surviving house from the post-Revolutionary War era.

But the City Council has a right to review designations and has in rare cases rejected them. After members of her staff showed initial support, Margaret Chin, the council member for District 1 where the building is located, said on Wednesday she will urge her council colleagues at a meeting Thursday to vote against making the building a landmark.

“There is opportunity on the site to build commercial space that is so needed in the Chinatown community for the small businesses,” Ms. Chin said in an interview Wednesday.

At a hearing in June, Ms. Chin’s chief of staff expressed support for the designation. A spokeswoman for Ms. Chin said that he hadn’t been authorized to speak her behalf.

Ms. Chin said in an interview that she signaled her support initially but she was ultimately impressed by the developer’s plans to use the site, which could include a new seven-story building offering retail and office space at below-market rates.

After learning that Ms. Chin was leaning toward overturning the designation, preservationists and some locals stepped up a campaign to save the building.

The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors has created an online petition. The alliance and others are also lobbying the City Council to confirm the building as a landmark and supporters of the designation plan to turn out in large numbers at Thursday’s meeting of the landmarks subcommittee.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said he is skeptical of the owner’s promise to fill the building with below-market tenants.

“We’ve got this owner saying, ‘Trust me, let me knock this building down and I promise that what will be built up will be good for the community,'” said Mr. Bankoff. “We’re saying that this is a building that is almost 200 years old, that really is important to the city of New York and to the Bowery and should be preserved.”

First American International Bank, a small local bank, purchased the then-vacant building in 2007. Adam Rothkrug, a lawyer for the building’s owner, said when his client purchased the building it was in a derelict condition and divided into 30 massage booths. The owner brought in an engineer and an architect who said the building had been repeatedly modified over the years, starting in the 1850s.

“The only way to save the building is to replicate it,” said the architect, Page Ayres Cowley.