“Tin Pan Alley is gone,” Bob Dylan wrote in the jacket of his 1997 album Biograph. “I put an end to it.”
The neighborhood that was once the hub of the American music-publishing industry in the early 20th century has undergone many transformations since it became known as Tin Pan Alley. Between 1893 and 1910, nearly 20 music-publishing companies moved to West 28th Street, according to the Historic Districts Council. Over the years, they have been replaced by furriers, florists and, lately, mass-market wholesalers, but the five-story, 1852 rowhouses at 49-51 still exist in much the same condition today as when the first songwriters, M. Whitmark and Sons, first moved there.
In October, however, it looked like the last remnants of Tin Pan Alley could be demolished to make way for a condo, when the Lost City blog broke the news that all five buildings were on the market for $44 million.
As public opinion moves further against the plan and the economy plunges deeper into recession, a deal is looking increasingly unlikely. The five, mixed-use contiguous properties would yield over 111,000-square feet of “prime Chelsea Property” after demolition, according to the listing that first appeared on the real estate Web site LoopNet in the early fall, along with renderings of a 16-story residential building with 24 retail spaces proposed for the site. Though it remains up, the site says the “property is no longer available.”
Whether the buildings’ owner Jo-Fra Properties bowed to public pressure or to the limitations of the credit markets is unclear, but the buildings no longer seem to be on the market, at least officially. As of Sunday, the HDC had amassed 414 signatures on its petition to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to put the Tin Pan Alley buildings on track for landmark status and, earlier this month, a LPC spokeswoman said the commission was “researching the history of the buildings and reviewing whether they’d be eligible for landmark designation.”
The Coldwell Banker agent marketing the buildings did not respond to a request for comment, and Jo-Fra Properties could not be reached.
Simeon Bankoff, director of the HDC, was unsure whether the buildings were still for sale. Regardless, he said they are still “very much under threat."
“When we last had contact with [brokers at] Coldwell Banker and Helmsley-Spear in mid-October, we got contradictory information,” Mr. Bankoff said. “The buildings still need work and we would feel much more comfortable with the LPC overseeing that work.”
Most Tin Pan Alley tenants and neighboring business owners on 28th Street have heard rumors about the sale, but they believe that a low appetite for real estate should keep developers at bay for the time being. One ground-floor retail tenant of one of the buildings said existing apartment tenants are one of the biggest obstacles for potential investors.
“The problem is whoever is going to buy it has to deal with the rent-stabilized tenants," he said, but did not want to risk his relationship with his landlord by having his name published. “If you want them out to raze the building and put up a luxury apartment you have to buy them out and they all want a lot of money. It’s time-consuming. That’s a trial, that’s long litigation. So whoever buys the building buys it with that in mind.”
Meanwhile, Jo-Fra has to meet its obligations to the tenants of 51, 53 and 55 West 28th Street who won a suit to get their homes zoned for residential usage in August 2007, according to one of the tenants involved in the case, Leland Bobbe. Though he had not been surprised to learn the buildings were up for sale, he expected it to be a “long process.”
Mr. Bobbe pays less than $1,000 per month for the 1,000-square-foot apartment he has lived in since 1975—when he first arrived his rent was just $160. The landlords have begun work to bring 55 West 28th Street up to code, Mr. Bobbe said, but plans have yet to be approved for the six other units slated for renovations under the case. Before a potential buyer can even submit a demolition application, all the apartments need to be brought up to code and then the tenants need to be offered new two-year leases. “So it’s going to be a while, at least five or six years [until the demolition becomes a possibility]. Plus, now the buildings come with tenants,” Mr. Bobbe said. “So the value of the buildings is lower ‘cause they would have to buy us out. I don’t think it’s imminent.
“It kind of got people going because of the history, but they are asking $44 million in a lousy economy. I can’t imagine anyone outside a Shah from the Middle East or some Japanese businessman would buy the building for that.”