C.B. 3 O.K.’s project for blast site

Critics say this design is not appropriate for the East Village / Lower East Side Historic District, and also that it doesn’t reflect the East Village’s spirit of exuberance. Courtesy Morris Adjmi Architects

BY MARY REINHOLZ | Despite criticisms that it won’t include affordable housing and that its design is too straitlaced, a residential project slated for the site of the 2015 East Village gas explosion was overwhelmingly approved by Community Board 3 at its full-board meeting.

The design by Morris Adjmi Architects calls for a market-rate, seven-story apartment building, with 21 residences, plus ground-level storefronts, to replace two historic tenement buildings destroyed by fire at 119 and 121 Second Ave., at the northwest corner of E. Seventh St.

The parcels were purchased last year for a reported $9.15 million by the Nexus Building Development Group. Nexus’s founder and president, Yaniv Shaky Cohen, apparently did not attend the C.B. 3 full-board meeting on June 25.

The first purchase of the site was in 2016, when a man named Ezra Wibowe bought the lot at 123 Second Ave. for $6 million, almost $4 million less than the asking price, according to The Real Deal. Wibowe’s plans for the parcel where a 5-story building once stood remain unclear.

It was at 121 Second Ave., in the basement of Sushi Park, a popular Japanese restaurant, where the blast erupted three years ago, killing two people, injuring 19 more and igniting an inferno that reduced the three buildings to rubble in the East Village / Lower East Side Historic District.

Laura Sewell, executive director of the East Village Community Coalition, spoke at the C.B. 3 meeting during the public session, well before the voting. She recalled the site’s “tragic history,” saying it “feels unseemly for C.B. 3 to support any development that is not 100 percent affordable housing, with priority given to the residents who were displaced.

“That the landlord has profited,” Sewell said, “from the sale of buildings that were destroyed as a result of greed and indifference to human life sets a terrible precedent.”

Sewell, whose remarks were greeted with applause, was alluding to former landlord Maria Hrynenko, 58, who was indicted in 2016 for involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide in connection with her role in an alleged illegal gas-delivery system purportedly set up in Sushi Park’s basement to service newly renovated apartments on the upper floors of 121 Second Ave. She then owned the building, along with 119 Second Ave.

A spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr., said the case had been “administratively adjourned” to July 27. There is currently no trial date set for Hrynenko and her three co-defendants. All four have pled not guilty. Another defendant, Hrynenko’s son Michael, died last year at age 31.

In supporting Morris Adjmi Architects’ design for a new building on the site, C.B. 3 endorsed a resolution by its Landmarks Committee that passed on June 18 with a couple of dissenting votes. The committee, chaired by Linda Jones, approved the architect’s application for a “certificate of appropriateness” for the district, but recommended changing the design’s “buff colored” brick facade to the orange brick of the original 19th-century Queen Anne-style buildings, and reconsidering “all the windows,” including those at the corner and on the storefronts.

The committee’s recommendations also called on Morris Adjmi, a Downtown firm specializing in buildings in historic districts, to create a “permanent, prominent bronze marker honoring those who died at the location” —Moises Ismael Locon, 27, a Sushi Park busboy; and Nicholas Figueroa, 23, a customer on a lunch date — and telling the story of the event, with review from Locon’s and Figueroa’s parents.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, who attended the committee meeting, said the building’s proposed design seemed more suited for “Bond Street in Soho” than the East Village. He joined several other attendees in calling for a memorial marker at the site for the two young victims.

“This isn’t just a new building,” Berman told The Villager in a telephone conversation. “It replaces two of three buildings that were tragically destroyed in the explosion. It’s important not to forget about this. The families felt strongly and we felt strongly, as well.

“We have grave misgivings about the person who sold [the property] to the new owner,” he added. “But we’re glad he is listening and responsive to the [victims’] families.”

Another hearing on the project is tentatively scheduled for Tues., July 10, at the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, at One Centre St.

Nexus owner Cohen reportedly attended the board’s Landmarks Committee meeting and wanted to put a plaque “on a tree” at the site to honor Locon and Figueroa. But the committee rejected the idea, said Nicholas’s father, Nixon Figueroa, 55, who spoke briefly at the hearing.

“It’s a nice design, but I don’t like the gray color, and there are too many windows and too much glass in the storefronts,” said Figueroa, an Upper East Side handyman who works on construction sites. “It looks like a futuristic building that doesn’t belong” in the East Village, he told The Villager.

Figueroa attended the committee hearing with his son Brandon and wife Ana, who, he said, hopes for a memorial plaque at the site that would provide the names of “the victims and all the people who lost their apartments” in the explosion. He said he was also speaking for Locon’s father.

Creative-arts therapist Anne Mitcheltree, a longtime E. Fifth St. resident who attended the Landmarks Committee hearing, said she’d like to see “maybe a fountain with water coming out of it” for a memorial. “Or a lamppost with light at night and then a plaque,” she said, “but not just another plaque on the wall that no one will notice.”

Mitcheltree, 60, told this reporter that she objected strongly to Adjmi’s design for the building, claiming it “erases our history” and does not reflect the East Village’s ethnic diversity.

In contrast, Richard D. Moses, president of the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, described the design as “respectful,” and said it “picked up motifs in the area — but in the modern idiom, in terms of its scale and its materials.”

However, Moses said the project could benefit from “more of a sense of the exuberance of the East Village. It’s a little buttoned-down,” he noted.

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