By Roland Li
On Friday, Jan. 29, a crowd of Greenwich Village residents, elected officials and New York University students assembled outside 35 Cooper Square, waving signs amidst the fresh snow. The rumor of demolition loomed over the 186-year-old-building, which was sold last October for $8.5 million, and the unlikely alliance was pushing for 35 Cooper to be landmarked.
But by the end of the week, Bowery Boogie reported that the ground-floor bar and restaurant, Asian Pub, had closed, and workers cleared out the building’s innards, while others salvaged what vegetation could be found outside. Asian Pub’s lease had come to an end, and the building’s future was looking more and more uncertain.
As a last ditch effort, preservationists began circulating a petition and exhorting their neighbors to write to the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the city agency responsible for historic preservation, to landmark the building. Such a designation does not necessarily prevent demolition, but owners must obtain a “certificate of appropriateness” for any alterations to a the exterior of a landmarked building. An owner can also apply for alterations by citing an economic hardship, although such requests are rarely approved.
The LPC has thus far declined to hold a public hearing on 35 Cooper, the first step in landmarking, because stucco covers its original brick façade, according to LPC spokeswoman Elisabeth de Bourbon.
And while preservationists and local officials have created a groundswell of support for 35 Cooper, some citing its age, others its cultural heritage — tenants have included the great-grandson of Peter Stuyvesant and beat poet Diane DiPrima — the LPC has remained resistant, focusing on the current structure, rather than its history.
“It’s about whether the building is worthy for designation,” said de Bourbon. “This is the case of the building not measuring up.”
When asked if it might be reconsidered, she said, “It’s unlikely at this point.”
In fact, the current owners of 35 Cooper Square have not yet decided whether to demolish the existing structure. City records trace the ownership to the Arun Bhatia Development Organization, which has built dorms for the New School and seven condo towers, most recently 137 Wooster Street.
Jane Crotty, a spokeswoman for Arun Bhatia, confirmed its ownership and said there was another partner involved, but declined to disclose the name. She said that plans were not finalized, but that the partnership sought an “as of right, mixed-use” project. Demolishing the existing building was an option, but no decision had been made, she said, and more details would be revealed in “three or four weeks.”
Massey Knakal’s Special Asset Strategy Group brokered the sale of the building and two parcels to the north last October, fetching around $293 for each of the entire lot’s 28,998 buildable s/f.
Joseph Sitt, first vice president of sales at Massey Knakal, said that the firm received over 30 offers in under 45 days. “It just goes to show there is always strong demand when locations are prime,” he said in a statement. (Sitt did not return requests for additional comment.)
Indeed, 35 Cooper and its adjacent lots represent a rare opportunity for developers. Despite being surrounded by the large Greenwich Village historic district to the west and height limitations along Third Avenue to the north, the swathe of land along Cooper Square has no historic or zoning regulations, allowing developers to build up to a zoning that allows for commercial uses such as hotels and offices, as well as residential. Recent nearby projects have included the Cooper Union’s immense academic building and the glassy Cooper Square Hotel.
Preservationists continue to fight for 35 Cooper, but their options are limited.
“I think the one hope that we have is that the commission will change its mind,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, who described LPC‘s standards as “frustratingly inconsistent.” He cited 511-513 Grand Street as examples of federal-style buildings that were more heavily altered than 35 Cooper Square, but ones that were nonetheless landmarked in 2007.
LPC spokeswoman de Bourbon said that the commission has focused on landmarking other federal buildings that are less altered than 35 Cooper Square. (The Observer reported 18 federal-style designations since 2003, as of last year. In some cases, the designations have been opposed by owners.)
On the other hand, Berman said, Arun Bhatia Development could potentially leave 35 Cooper intact and build only on the two northern lots, although such an effort could require more “outside the box thinking.” Still, he remains hopeful that a compromise can be reached.
“Most people agree that it would be better to save 35 Cooper Square,” said Berman.