July 23, 2014 / 5:38 PM / in 5 years

FEATURE-As New York City property values surge, historic sites reduced to memories

NEW YORK, July 23 (Reuters) - Pieces of a ceiling known for its carved neoclassical images of floating angels and windswept women is all that is slated to remain of one of the oldest independent bookstores in New York City, officials said.

The rest of the century-old Rizzoli Bookstore’s interior in midtown Manhattan will likely soon be reduced to rubble, said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

After a long and unsuccessful battle by community members and politicians to save the space, Rizzoli recently joined a growing number of iconic New York businesses displaced or permanently shuttered by soaring property values and a rising demand for luxury housing.

As wealthy prospective buyers search for dwindling space to transform into high-end retail or apartment sites, city historians and sentimentalists fear that the shops and restaurants from some of Manhattan’s most notable eras have been marked for extinction.

“New Yorkers are seeing buildings and institutions they thought were going to be there forever disappearing,” said Simeon Bankoff, director of the city’s Historic Districts Council. “It seems to have reached a bit of a fever pitch.”

In the past three months, establishments including Bowlmor Lanes - a 78-year-old bowling alley near Union Square frequented by President Richard Nixon - and local art shop Pearl Paint, which opened downtown in 1933, shut their doors.

Bowlmor will be turned into high-end condominiums, while Pearl’s building was listed for $15 million as a possible “condo-conversion opportunity,” local media reported at the time of its sale.

It is unknown what will become of Rizzoli and adjacent buildings other than that the interiors, at least, would be demolished. The site’s developers did not respond to requests for comment.

“They’re going to be replaced by what will most likely be bland and uninteresting architecture,” said Layla Law-Gisiko, who lives near Rizzoli and fought for its preservation.

Rizzoli was denied landmark status by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on the grounds that the building’s interior had been altered too much in recent decades to be considered historic, the commission said in a statement.


The business shutdowns are tied to the most recent real estate boom, which ramped up in 2012, said Jonathan Miller, who runs real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel Inc.

With the average apartment rental price in Manhattan at $4,079 a month in June and steadily increasing, developers are searching for spaces to build, Miller said.

Since purchasing occupied residential buildings can pose a series of challenges when trying to rebuild and iconic qualities add value, old businesses have become targets for developers.

Climbing commercial property values, in addition to Manhattan’s limited space, have created an increased incentive for landlords to lease to large retailers and other big businesses.

Along Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, where small, family-run businesses traditionally dominated, national apparel retailers have popped up.

Storefront rents on the street can run about $650 per square foot, gaining on pricey neighboring shopping destination SoHo, which has retail space at a monthly average cost of $850 per square foot, according to commercial real estate services firm CBRE’s most recent Manhattan property market report.

While real estate booms are cyclical and New York has long been one of the world’s most expensive cities, more of the city seems to be affected, and possibly at increasing speeds, this time around, Manhattan Borough President Brewer said.

There is no official database tracking the number of old buildings being transformed. “It just happens one after another,” she said.

Brewer is considering a number of measures to combat what she sees as a chain store takeover, including tax breaks for landlords who lease to small businesses and a more streamlined landmarking process.

New York’s current government-organized preservation efforts trace their roots back to the demolition of the original New York Penn Station in the early 1960s. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was launched in 1965, and as many as 36,000 city buildings are now landmark protected, broadly meaning they cannot be torn down.

All that is clear is that an overhaul in New York’s character is afoot, said Manhattan Institute for Policy Research scholar Fred Siegel.

“Small retailers have been getting squeezed out of New York for a long time,” he said. (Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Dan Grebler and Eric Beech)

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