Gerson Seeks to Head Off Bowery Developers, Angry Constituents

City Councilman Alan Gerson was giving a short speech about the bad things that might happen if the east side of the Bowery were left up for grabs.

“It will fall victim to monolithic, high rise, luxury– either commercial or residential—space,” he said, to a roughly 50-person crowd gathered at M.S. 131 on Tuesday night for a community meeting on downzoning. “I don’t have to preach to the choir–that’s not what we want.”

The event had been organized by the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, a group that supports a text amendment to the city’s existing zoning code that would impose the same height restriction (85 feet) on the east side of the Bowery that currently applies only to buildings on the west side of the street.

After his brief remarks, Gerson opened it up to any questions or comments. “Obviously, no one here would be bashful about expressing disagreement, that’s what makes the Bowery special,” he said, from behind a table at the front of the auditorium.

A few minutes later, local resident Sante Scardillo strode to the microphone–looking every bit the Bowery in a black leather jacket and patched jeans–and, as Mr. Gerson had predicted, he was direct.

“We know that it’s an election year and we know that the term limits have been changed,” Mr. Scardillo said, perhaps referring to the councilman’s vote in favor of suspending the term limits law, which has allowed Mr. Gerson to run for his District 1 seat again this year.

“We need somebody who gives this community adequate representation, which means not just tonight, but who needs to go and do battle for us,” he said, with a pronounced Italian accent, as a slideshow of high-rises scrolled on a giant projection screen above the stage. “You have to take public positions, you have to challenge developers. I hate to remind you but all of this happened in your watch.”

Sitting perhaps three feet from where Mr. Scardillo stood, the councilman shook his head, then took the mic and defended himself.

“To reiterate, I continue to demand that the city put in place zoning protections and other related strategies to keep the Bowery affordable, to keep our historic character and prevent high-rise development,” Mr. Gerson said. He pointed out that at least one of the buildings in question–the much-maligned Cooper Square Hotel–was not in his district.

He cited the recent designation of the NoHo historic district and the Little Italy district as examples of his success, and he touted an agreement with the landmarks commission to expedite any landmark designations for individual buildings in the unzoned area. Earlier, Gerson had promised to contact City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden as soon as the council’s budget process was complete.

Other speakers echoed Scardillo’s concerns about the development, but most thanked Gerson for attending the meeting. Securing the Bowery rezoning could be a substantial feather in the councilman’s cap as he faces a crowded field vying for his seat.

One of his opponents, Margaret Chin, also attended the meeting, and was the first to speak in the open session. She called for the group to reach out to the Chinese community, which has, in the past, loudly opposed the area’s development boom, but was curiously absent from this meeting. (The organizers had a Chinese translator present, but she sat down when no one required a translation.)

The group was unanimous in calling for more supporters to rally at an upcoming landmark hearing, and to attend the required public meetings that will follow the submission of their text amendment to the City Planning Commission.

As Gerson left, he gave Scardillo a hearty hug. “Thanks for coming,” Scardillo said.

“I’m used to you,” Gerson laughed.

“I know, but every once in a while I need to light a fire under your ass,” Scardillo replied.

“Trust me, it’s well-heated,” said Gerson. “There’s plenty of fire under there.”