Essex St. Market merchants, fans not sold on move


By Lesley Sussman

The fate of the historic Essex Street Market continued to hang in the balance as a Community Board 3 subcommittee last week and a slew of city officials weighed the pros and cons of demolishing the more-than-70-year-old structure and moving it south of Delancey St. as part of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) plan.

The proposed SPURA site is home to five parcels of land. These have sat mostly empty as a development debate has simmered for more than 40 years. The market is actually located outside the original SPURA district boundaries, but is now being included in it as part of the large-scale project’s overall planning.

A standing-room-only crowd of about 100 residents and Essex Street Market merchants packed the University Settlement Community Center, at 189 Allen St., on Wed., May 25, to learn more about the market’s future and to weigh in on the issue. The meeting was convened by C.B. 3’s Land Use, Zoning, Public and Private Housing Subcommittee.

Also present were officials from the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which operates the market; representatives of the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people create or sustain public spaces; and an aide to Assemby Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Emotions ran high at the meeting, from tears to anger, as several local residents spoke lovingly about the market. It’s one of only four such surviving markets built during the Depression by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to give pushcart vendors their own space, and also to free the streets of the congestion caused by the mobile vendors. It’s also the city’s last, full-time, enclosed, public market.

Most residents who spoke strongly objected to any plan that would relocate the 15,000-square-foot market, currently with 22 vendors, from its present location at the northeast corner of Essex and Delancey Sts., to a 25,000-to-30,000-square-foot, city-owned building at the intersection’s southeast corner that was once also part of the market.

Cynthia Lamb, founder of Save the Essex Street Market Organization, said her Web site had, so far, received more than 2,000 online petition signatures in favor of keeping the market where it is.

“I love multigenerational businesses,” she said. “Every vendor here has a story to tell. Let’s keep up the walls that forestall gentrification.” Lamb said she is urging the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider granting landmark status to the market, a move that she asserted would effectively prevent its demolition while preserving its antique charm.

She also suggested that the market be expanded rather than moved, asking, “Why can’t we expand to the southeast corner and keep the present one, as well?”

Also speaking out against any relocation plan were several merchants, who made emotional appeals to the C.B. 3 members and city officials.

Anne Saxelby, who operates Saxelby Cheesemongers, said, “I couldn’t have started a business in New York City without a space inside the market. This place is not a relic but a living, vital marketplace.”

She was joined by Melinda Shopson, a co-owner of the market’s Roni-Sue’s Chocolates, who discounted fears expressed by some Board 3 members that the market could be closed down by some future administration.

“I think it will always be there,” Shopson said. “It will always be an asset to the community and the city will always put money into it.”

Murad Punjwani, whose family runs a phone store and the Amigo Mini-Mart on Delancey St., broke down as he tearfully pleaded with city officials to keep the market where it is.

“I’ve been there 15 years,” he said. “Please do not undo all the work and investment I’ve put into my business.”

The three-and-a-half-hour meeting saw complaints from some residents who had to sit through a lengthy subcommittee discussion regarding other aspects of the SPURA plan and not the market.

“I took time off from my job to talk about the Essex Street Market and not to listen to all this,” one resident shouted out.

“Why are you doing this? Why did you get on this other topic?” another resident asked David McWater, the subcommittee’s chairperson. “I don’t understand.”

By the time discussion on the market resumed, only about 30 people remained to hear it.

“I’m sorry people have left,” McWater said. “I know this is an emotional issue but we had to finish old business.”

McWater cautioned residents to think carefully about keeping the market where it is because, he said, such a decision might result in less affordable housing.

He said preliminary SPURA plans call for constructing a residential building with up to 100 apartments on the market site. He said if the market was not relocated, 80 to 100 apartments — half of which would be affordable — might be lost.

McWater added that if it was ultimately decided to renovate the current market rather than move it, that too might have negative consequences because such work would have to be done in phases and businesses would be forced to close until the renovation was completed.

“Our priorities should be to safeguard vendors, create affordable housing and preserve the existing building,” he said. “But if you say, ‘Let’s not move the building across the street, you cannot build new housing or keep businesses open,’ I don’t think that’s worth it.”

Speaking out strongly for moving the market — as he has done at previous meetings — was John Shapiro, the board’s facilitator for the SPURA process.

“We can create a better market across the street,” he said. “This is an opportunity to get out of a cramped, badly designed space.”

Alyssa Konan, a development specialist with the Economic Development Corporation, said the city had not made any final decision.

“We’re open to the Essex Street Market remaining where it is,” she said. “But we also feel that this is a real opportunity to talk about the future of the market. What we’ve heard from everyone over the past few months has made us think about it more.”

Konan said that the city’s goal was to “maintain a public market with a variety of vendors and products, to make sure it offered affordable, everyday shopping, that it offered both fresh and prepared foods and created new entrepreneurial opportunities for vendors.”

She added that the Essex Street facility might not be sustainable in the long term without a significant infusion of money, and that one of the city’s goals was to “get more capital investment into the market.”

David Quart, E.D.C.’s vice president of development, reaffirmed that if the Essex Street Market was relocated, it would continue to operate until the new space was ready for use. Current vendors would get first priority, and rents in any new facility would be comparable to the current rents.

Quart dismissed a suggestion that new housing be built over the market. He said it would be “too expensive” because the building is located over a subway tunnel.

“It would be very challenging to keep it open and develop above,” he said. “We would have to temporarily move the market someplace else.”

C.B. 3 member Linda Jones told Quart, “There’s got to be a way to keep the market and build housing as well.”

But Neil Kittredge, an architect with Beyer Blinder Belle urban design firm, which has been hired by the city to consult on the SPURA plan, backed up the E.D.C. representative. He said any vertical additions to the current one-story structure “wouldn’t work. We’d need to avoid the subway lines and people couldn’t stay there while work was going on,” he said.

The meeting ended with no final decision being made. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for next month when the city will present more ideas and information about future possibilities for the market.