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BY ANDREW BERMAN | In late August the city “certified,” or began the official six-month public review and approval process, for Trinity Real Estate’s proposed Hudson Square rezoning. What happens in this process will not only have a profound and likely irreversible impact upon development in Hudson Square, a roughly 20-block area running between Canal and Houston Sts., and Sixth Ave. and Greenwich St., but in the adjacent low-rise, historic South Village, on the opposite side of Sixth Ave. between W. Fourth and Watts Sts., stretching west to LaGuardia Place and West Broadway.
If done right, this rezoning could go a long way toward ensuring the preservation of the best of what there is about each of these two neighborhoods, while promoting healthy, beneficial new development. Done wrong, the character and pleasing elements of either neighborhood could be lost forever, with out-of-scale and inappropriate development quickly overwhelming both.
Unfortunately, right now the plan as proposed has a lot on the “done wrong” side of the ledger and not enough on the “done right” side. This could be corrected; but doing so will likely come down to one person — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who represents the area.
The proposed Hudson Square rezoning is intended to spur and shape new development. Right now Hudson Square is one of the few remaining areas of Manhattan that does not allow new residential development. Development is taking place there — old printing buildings are being converted into offices, and several new hotels have been built. But once residential development is allowed, the rate of development is expected to increase dramatically. Inarguably, real estate values and development pressure will dramatically increase, as they do whenever residential development is allowed in Manhattan.
Proponents say the upside will be a better range of retail options that will follow, including a long-hoped-for supermarket, and turning a neighborhood that is largely empty after hours into a 24-hour community.
But the current plan will allow new residential and commercial development of a dramatic scale, dwarfing most of the existing buildings in this district. On one large site at the districts’ southern end, development would be allowed to reach 430 feet in height, or almost the height of the monstrously out-of-scale Trump Soho, which spawned calls for rezoning this neighborhood years ago. On most of the north-south thoroughfares, structures would be allowed to rise to 320 feet, or taller than 101 Ave. of the Americas (formerly Local 32BJ union headquarters), which was, until the Trump Soho came along, far and away the area’s tallest building.
Beyond this, as development pressure heats up in Hudson Square, it will no doubt increase development pressure on the adjacent South Village, a historic, low-rise residential neighborhood. We are already seeing building after building demolished in this neighborhood for new development because it lacks landmark protections.
That lack of landmark protections is not for lack of trying; the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has been leading a coalition of neighborhood groups that have been fighting for landmark designation of the area for 10 years. In 2008 the city began to move ahead with designation of a fraction of the neighborhood and promised that consideration of the remaining two-thirds would follow shortly.
Since then, the city has consistently refused to keep that promise, even as we have lost numerous historic buildings, including the Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments and an 1862 rowhouse at 178 Bleecker St.; and now we face the loss of the 1824 house at 186 Spring St. and possibly the Calvert Vaux-designed Children’s Aid Society building at 219 Sullivan St.
In spite of the promise the city made in 2008 to South Village preservation advocates, including myself, it looks like the Bloomberg administration has no intention of considering the remainder of the South Village for landmark designation.
So will the Hudson Square rezoning, if approved, simply hasten the destruction of these two neighborhoods?
It doesn’t have to. A rezoning of Hudson Square could be a great thing, and in fact G.V.S.H.P. and a whole host of community groups have been demanding a rezoning for years. But the height and bulk limits for the proposed rezoning have to be reduced substantially, so that new development blends in with the existing neighborhood, rather than towering over it.
And any rezoning absolutely must be accompanied by the city finally moving ahead on the long-promised South Village Historic District. The Hudson Square rezoning’s own environmental review demonstrates the need and the rationale for this. The proposed South Village Historic District is clearly within the area the study identified as the impact zone for the rezoning and its effect upon “historic resources.”
And in analyzing the historic resources, the environmental review says that the city Landmarks Preservation Commission found the proposed South Village Historic District “landmark-eligible.”
This should come as no surprise. More than five years ago New York State found the South Village eligible for the State and National Registers of Historic Places. This year, the Preservation League of New York State called the South Village one of the seven most significant endangered historic sites in the state. Plus, virtually every citywide and local preservation group, block association and elected official has endorsed landmarking the area.
While one might hope this would be enough to get the city to act in tandem with the rezoning to protect the South Village, it is not. But the city can do it, and there is precedent for doing so: When the city rezoned Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards, it coupled this with the designation of an adjacent Prospect Heights Historic District, which was in that development’s “impact zone.” In Speaker Quinn’s own district, when West Chelsea was rezoned, a nearby West Chelsea Industrial Historic District was also designated to help mitigate the impact of the rezoning and its effect on historic resources.
But given the Bloomberg administration’s clear resistance to landmarking the remainder of the South Village, this won’t happen on its own. And ultimately the only one who can make it happen is Speaker Quinn.
The Hudson Square rezoning must be approved by the City Council to take effect. It is fully within the Council’s power to modify the plan, as it frequently does, and make the proposed height and bulk limits for new development lower, or send it back to the drawing board if it cannot be modified.
But it is also within Speaker Quinn’s power to tell the administration that in order for the Hudson Square rezoning to move ahead, there must be follow-through on its prior promise to landmark the South Village, which will clearly be impacted by the Hudson Square rezoning, even if development height and bulk limits are lowered.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Soho Alliance, Greenwich Village Block Associations, the Greenwich Village Community Task Force, and local block associations have all asked Speaker Quinn to do just that, as have hundreds of individuals. We hope Community Board 2, which will be holding hearings this month on the proposed Hudson Square rezoning, will also help put on the pressure. And Speaker Quinn has gone on record in support of landmarking the South Village.
But now is the time to put some muscle behind that request. We need Speaker Quinn to not just ask for, but insist upon, the city keeping this overdue commitment. Now is the time, and it may be the last opportunity we have to get the Bloomberg administration to keep its commitment to protect the fragile and historic South Village neighborhood.
Community Board 2 will be holding public hearings on the proposed Hudson Square rezoning on Thurs., Sept. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Saatchi & Saatchi Building, 375 Hudson St. (at King St.), ground floor, and on Wed., Sept. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at the Fire Museum, 278 Spring St. (between Varick and Hudson Sts.), third floor.
Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation