‘Historic mistake’: Hotel project imperils museum house

Opponents of the hotel slated for next to the Merchant’s House Museum held up posters slamming the project at last Wednesday’s C.B. 2 committee meeting. Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Updated Fri., April 20, 12:30 p.m.: It was standing room only at a Community Board 2 meeting to discuss a proposal to build an eight-story building next door to the 186-year-old Merchant’s House Museum last Wednesday night.

Developers have been seeking approval for the hotel project since at least 2011. The C.B. 2 Land Use & Business Development Committee meeting on April 11 was yet another hurdle.

Developers of the Kalodop II Park Corp. are seeking a zoning text amendment, which they need in order to get a special permit to build the hotel at the site. They recently submitted an application for the hoped-for zoning changes to the City Planning Commission.

Much of the audience at last week’s meeting, however, was vehemently against the proposal.

“The significance of the house and the history of the city of New York cannot be overstated,” Margaret “Pi” Gardiner, the Merchant’s House Museum executive director, told the meeting. The historic building, she added, “is extremely vulnerable.”

And Gardiner would know — at least from her perspective of 28 years as the East Village museum’s director. Around 80 years of archives reveals how the Merchant’s House has been damaged from nearby construction and demolition in the past.

Back in 1988, Gardiner witnessed firsthand the possibilities of what could happen: A building that was demolished near the Merchant’s House caused $1 million in damages, and the museum was closed on and off for two-and-a-half years.

“I was actually in the building at the time, and it sounded like an earthquake,” Gardiner recalled. “The developers had promised in writing that they would remove the building next door brick by brick in respect of the Merchant’s House next door. And they didn’t. They bulldozed it. It caused major structural damage.”

Cracks were so large that Gardiner could see the street through them and even fit her hand through one of them. At that time, the house was beginning to collapse “like a house of cards,” she recalled.

But the current developers contend they have a protection plan in place to protect the landmarked structure at 29 E. Fourth St., between the Bowery and Lafayette St., from damages. The plan was approved by the city’s Parks Department, which is technically the owner of the museum building, the developers told the meeting audience. The proposed construction site next door is currently occupied by a small building.

“The existing building is a one-story building that has no historic significance and is being used to house hot dog carts and vendors right now,” said Michael Kramer, the leasing director of ParkIt Management. “We are hoping that we can put it to a better use and be a better neighbor to the Merchant’s House than this tenant would be. That’s one of our goals.”

But the three individuals who presented the plan to the C.B. 2 committee — Kramer, land use attorney Jeremiah “Jed” Candreva and structural engineer Karl Rubenacker — faced a tough crowd. Nearly everyone in the audience was against the developers’ plan. Most wore stickers or held signs demanding C.B. 2 reject the developers’ request to amend the zoning text for the special permit.

After the developers’ team made their presentation, eight people testified for saving the Merchant’s House. One of them, the museum’s lawyer, Michael Hiller, gave a rousing speech, saying that if the hotel is built, “it’s going to be devastating.” Hiller argued that the certificate of appropriateness for the hotel project granted by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission did not take into consideration the Merchant’s House, in particular, but rather, the surrounding historic neighborhood.

The E. Fourth St. building was designated a New York City exterior landmark by L.P.C. in 1965, and was later designated an interior landmark in 1981. The house is one of only 117 buildings in the city whose interiors are landmarked, and it stands exactly as it was in the 19th century — with the original plaster, furniture and even clothing, from when the Tredwell family lived there for nearly a century.

Each person who testified technically had just three minutes, but when Frederica Sigel, co-chairperson of the Land Use Committee, began to cut Hiller off, the audience roared. One man yelled out several times, “What’s wrong with you?” adding, “We’re trying to save a museum here.”

Sigel backpedaled, allowing Hiller to continue. He then accused the developers of “spot zoning,” in which a zoning change is made to benefit only the building developers. The specific zoning text the developers want to amend, ZR 74-712, would only affect two lots — 27 East Fourth St. and 53 Great Jones St. There would be no citywide benefit in changing the text, rather, only the developers would profit from being able to construct the eight-story hotel, Hiller argued.

The audience cheered and applauded Hiller. But Kramer, speaking to The Villager the next day, denied that it is spot zoning since the change would apply to only two buildings.

However, Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, disagreed, saying it would indeed be a case of spot zoning.

“The zoning change they are seeking would only apply to their lot, but they are technically asking that it apply to all lots in the Noho Historic District Extension with one-story buildings on them,” he said. “There is only one other such building in the extension district,” he noted, referring to 53 Great Jones St., “and it already sold its air rights, so there is no applicability. Spot zoning is illegal because zoning is supposed to apply to broad areas and be unbiased and not intended to hurt of favor particular developers. So it is illegal to rezone just one lot. But they have come up with a clever way of trying to get around that.”

The zoning changes sought by the developers include being allowed to forgo adding a setback at the sixth story and including a restaurant, among other things.

The developers plan for the eight-story hotel to have 28 rooms total for it to be an extended-stay hotel. As a New York Times article in March 2014 explained, extended-stay hotels are also known as “corporate or short-term housing,” and stays can range from six months to multiyear leases. The units, as the article put it, are “a cross between hotel rooms and apartments.”

The ground floor would include a lobby and a restaurant with about 20 tables, primarily for hotel patrons.

“This is a very small, quaint hotel restaurant space,” Candreva told the meeting.

The hotel’s operator, which would be a European entity, searches for “niche” locations, Kramer said; but the developers said they could not disclose the operator’s name at this time.

The public asked what benefits the hotel would provide, and Kramer explained that it would benefit New York’s economic development, as well as the travel and tourism industry.

“New York City is probably the number one tourist destination in the world, and we have been asked by a group that we respect to build them a hotel,” Kramer added to the Villager on Thursday.

The C.B. 2 Land Use Committee members discussed the possibility of negotiations between the Merchant’s House and the developers and what that might entail. But some committee members felt that was outside of their purview; they said the committee’s final resolution on the matter should, rather, address the proposal in front of them with a direct yes or no, since the two parties could later negotiate themselves.

Also testifying at the meeting, John Krawchuk, the executive director of the Historic House Trust of New York City, requested that a shadow-and-sunlight study be conducted to determine what impact the project — which would loom four-and-a-half stories above the adjacent Merchant’s House — would have on the existing garden behind the museum. The developers’ plans, so far, are “just too generic to really know,” he told The Villager after the meeting.

The Merchant’s House, beloved to many residents in the surrounding neighborhoods, lures people in, Gardiner said.

“When you walk into the house, the 19th century is permeable,” she said. “You can feel it, and that’s what touches people. It’s quite miraculous.”

She said that, although she is not an engineer, with all the information she has so far, she knows the house cannot handle any more precarious situations.

“This poor house has been through a lot, and how much more can it take?” she said. “And is it worth testing that? I don’t think it is.”

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