As posh real estate rolls over Lower East Side, local lament local bars
By Maureen Callahan
Published January 27, 2005
JASON Gordon, a 27year-old book publicist whose blog, Productshop NYC, covers the downtown music scene, says he knew the Lower East Side was over when "one of my mom's friends had her 50th birthday party at Tenement."
"That place" - a tiny restaurant that once catered to hipster spillover from neighboring Ludlow Street institutions like the Pink Pony and Max Fish "has become like a bar mitzvah reception hall within the past year," he adds.
While the gentrification of the Lower East Side-long inhabited by struggling artists and musicians, and home to dive bars, vintage shops and small rock clubs - has been progressing for quite some time, locals and small business owners are stunned by the sudden influx of luxe.
Small bars are shutting down and other establishments are going upscale to cater to the new weekenders who are colonizing the once rough hewn area.
"The problem with the Lower East Side,” says Lockhart Steele, who covers Manhattan real estate on Curbed.com. “Is that it’s facing change that’s out of proportion with the scale of the neighborhood.”.
Robert Sacher is closing his 10-year old Luna Lounge on Feb. 28; a developer bought his Ludlow Street building to make way for an apartment complex.
“They’re turning the Lower east side into SoHo,” Sacher says. “The businesses that are being forced out are being replaced by businesses that cater to people who can pay $16 for a plate of chicken."
When Sacher was informed his lease wasn't going to be renewed, he looked into moving Luna down the street, to a space formerly occupied by a club called Torch (which burned down).
He was priced out; the space sold for $2 million and is now home to a week-old, three-level nightclub called Libation; the opening-night party was handled by Lizzie Grubman.
"We had a lot of models, a lot of record company people, celebrity types," says owner Denis Keane. "That guy from 'Oz' was here."' Libation, located just a few doors down from scenester rock hangouts like Max Fish and the Dark Room, is very spacious, very pristine and very beige. The wall behind the bar is fitted with two plasma TVs. The second and third levels are private party spaces; there's also a VIP area with a minimum bottle charge of $250.
"We want to raise the level of what's going on around here," says Keane, who has run low-key Irish pubs in Midtown and Queens.
"We hired a manager who used to work at Jean-Georges. We have a big cocktail consultant. We hired our own security, a lot of ex-law enforcement.".
Keane says his space isn't catering to "the poor artist type."
"I'm seeing the trendy first-responders: people in funky clothes, with a few dollars in their pocket, or a Black AMEX," he says. I had one Wall Street guy come in with 100 people. He just threw his card down and said, 'Charge it!".
The Lower East Side real estate revolution started with the Hotel on Rivington. Yet to be completed, the 20-story, glass-and-steel structure _ with rooms starting at $275 a night - may seem like a striking anomaly among the area's five-story structures, but it's led to a slew of other luxury projects.
Hotelier Jason Pomeranc, who owns the swank 60 Thompson, begins construction this month on a 22-story hotel on Allen Street, where a new luxury loft building (with condos that went for up to $1.5 million) opens in March.
A lot on the corner of Houston and Eldridge reportedly has been sold to a developer for $4.5 million. Avalon Chrystie Place, which will have 361 luxury rental apartments (the developers say they haven't set prices), is under construction on Houston.
And the rent asked on a vacant restaurant on the corner of East Broadway and Essex is currently $30,000 a month, according to LoHo Realty's Jacob Goldman - who finds that Park Avenue price staggering.
"1 mean, it's not Tavern on the Green," he says. "What are they thinking?"
Long term, "you are going to see a diminishment of live music downtown, because of the rents," says Fez owner Josh Pickard, who is closing his legendary Village club (where Ryan Adams played his first New York solo show) in March.
"There's the rise of real estate values, plus issues with neighbors and noise control, which has become more stringent under Bloomberg," he says.
Other venerable clubs and restaurants are capitulating to the area's changing clientele. El Sombrero - the tiny, rundown Mexican restaurant on the corner of Ludlow and Stanton affectionately known to residents as "The Hat" - is trying to appeal to the area's new nighttrippers: The once-kitschy interior now resembles a miniature hotel lobby, and the beloved summer tradition of selling margaritas to go is (very quietly) no more.
"Fridays and Saturdays are just amateur nights . The floodgates open everywhere, from Jersey to Long Island to the Upper East Side," says 33-year-old Jason Consoli, who hosts a weekly party at Lit. (His flyer reads, in part, "Weeknights keep the a - - holes away!")
Though located a bit north of the Lower East Side, Lit suffers an influx of weekend warriors.
"Lit's a dive bar; it's a rock bar," Consoli says. "People who live on the Upper East Side - their idea of getting crazy is to go hang out with the punk rock kids. But they don't really like to hang out with these people; they don't really like this music.
"If you walk up to the door and they recognize you, or you look like you belong there," says Consoli, "you get a hand stamp and you can go downstairs. If you don't look like you belong there, you don't get a hand stamp, and you have to stay upstairs."
Jason Baron, owner of the 6-month-old bar the Dark Room, says the bridge-and-tunnel factor is so high on Friday and Saturday nights that he steers clear of his own establishment. "I go over to my friends' houses to drink," he says.
Curbed's Lockhart Steele, who has been chronicling every change on the Lower East Side with a jaundiced eye, is trying to remain cautiously optimistic:
"I'm not opposed to all this change," he says. "I think there are just large forces beyond our control. It's the slow drift downward from SoHo and the East Village."
Yet he admits the neighborhood's rapid shifts - culturally and commercially - seem inexorable.
"The indication that a neighborhood's already over," he says, "is when the first wave of cool places is already out of business."