Fate of historic building up in the air

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Plans for the former Excelsior on Centre Street called for a 60-story tower, but some want affordable housing


  • News of a 60-story tower planned for 137 Centre Street surfaced last year. Advocates are calling for a conversion of the city-owned building to affordable housing. Photo: Rui Miao

  • 139 Centre Street recently received backing from Community Board 1 for a historic landmark designation. Photo: Rui Miao


Two side-by-side buildings in Tribeca may be split by fate.

A privately-owned 9-story building at 139 Centre Street, built by Schwartz and Gross in 1911, is a step closer to becoming a historic landmark following Community Board 1’s unanimous backing for the designation earlier this month.

The future of the adjacent 137 Centre Street, also a 1911 Schwartz and Gross and originally known as the Excelsior Building, isn’t near that certain.

After a failed attempt to encourage CB 1’s Landmark Committee to also re-evaluate that building, preservation groups, Tribeca Trust foremost among them, are concerned that the city-owned building is going to be sold and developed into a luxury condo that would shadow over the neighborhood. “This building is a historic asset, it anchors a key part of Tribeca east,” said Lynn Ellsworth, the chairwoman of Tribeca Trust. “Towers here would destroy the existing ensemble and harm the sense of place and break urbanism that is already there.”

In early 2015, the New York City Economic Development Corp. announced a request for proposal to redevelop 137 Centre Street. According to the announcement, EDC “particularly seeks proposals that incorporate needed services or neighborhood amenities, such as space dedicated to a Universal Pre-Kindergarten facility.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer was supportive of the proposal. In a Facebook February 2015 post, Brewer wrote that the site would be developed “in a manner that is good for students, affordable housing, and DCTV,” alluding to Downtown Community Television Center, a nonprofit media arts center located at the adjacent 87 Lafayette Street. DCTV representatives had agreed to transfer air rights of its roughly 74,370-square-foot vacant lot for the redevelopment of 137 Centre Street. Brewer was unavailable for comment, according to a spokesperson.

In May, a rendering for a proposed 60-story skyscraper, purportedly by architect Thomas Juul-Hansen, started making the media rounds, a pencil tower on the footprint of 137 Centre Street.

The architect, though, disputed the building pictured was his. “It is not correct,” Juul-Hansen said in an email. “We have nothing to do with 137 Centre Street.”

CB1 believes it’s too early to advocate either way, due to a lack of proof that the city is planning to sell the building.

“There is no actual proposal right now,” said Roger Byrom, chairman of CB1’s Landmarks Committee. “We need to wait to see what, if anything, is actually submitted.” He said that according to both the EDC and the city’s Planning Commission, no plans for the site have been submitted.

Neither the EDC nor the planning commission responded to requests for comment regarding 137 Centre Street.

Meanwhile, Tribeca Trust is encouraging the city to use all of 137 Centre Street for affordable housing. The building is home to various city agencies, including the Department of Sanitation and NYC Business Integrity Commission.

That suggestion has received the backing from Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents the district.

“From the beginning of our conversation on 137 Centre St., I expressed clearly my preference for deeply affordable housing on this site.” Chin said in a letter to EDC in October. “At a time when affordable housing creation is a paramount goal of our City, I cannot support the use of this public asset for anything other than the creation of middle and low-income housing.”

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