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BY ANDREW BERMAN | Ten years ago this September, the Gansevoort Market Historic District was designated, granting landmark protections to about two-thirds of the Meatpacking District. The neighborhood has gone through an incredible amount of change during the past decade, but the type of change might have been completely different had it not been for landmark designation. How the district’s landmarking came about was an improbable tale, about as hard to predict as the incredible transformation the neighborhood has undergone.
On Aug. 1, 2000, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation convened the first meeting of the Save Gansevoort Market Task Force. Though it may be hard to believe now, in the summer of 2000 the Meatpacking District was still very much a backwater. The neighborhood was pretty empty during most daylight hours. But when the sun went down, the clubs opened (of both the sex and dance variety), transgendered prostitutes worked the streets, and the meatpacking businesses opened their doors around 4 a.m. and started loading and unloading their products until around noon, when the cycle started all over again. The cobblestoned streets dripped with animal blood (and some other unsavory liquids), but the neighborhood had achieved a kind of equilibrium in which not much changed, and all parts seemed to coexist in relative harmony.
But some prescient locals knew things were not likely to stay this way for long. The construction of the Hudson River Park was clearly going to increase the desirability of this and other adjacent neighborhoods. Bill Gottlieb, the eccentric “accidental preservationist” who bought scores of buildings in the Meatpacking District, the Village and Chelsea and then did nothing with them, had just died without a will, leaving the fate of his incredible portfolio of properties in limbo. And on “Sex and the City,” Samantha had just moved into a loft in the Meatpacking District, indicating that a cultural tipping point had been reached. There were also these two crazy guys from the neighborhood talking about a plan to turn the old abandoned overhead rail line into a park, but nobody really paid much attention to that.
G.V.S.H.P. had been researching and documenting the history of the Meatpacking District since the late 1980s, when the organization’s first executive director, Regina Kellerman, published “The Architecture of the Greenwich Village Waterfront.” Kellerman’s seminal work surveyed the history of every building between 14th and Houston Sts. west of the then-existing Greenwich Village Historic District, including all of the Meatpacking District. G.V.S.H.P. had for years been calling attention to the plight of this historic area, and the rest of the Greenwich Village waterfront, and the need to preserve it before it could be consumed by out-of-control development.
Into this mix came Jo Hamilton, a local resident with a strong interest in preserving the Meatpacking District who had recently joined the board of G.V.S.H.P., and restaurateur Florent Morellet, a member of the G.V.S.H.P. board of advisers and eventually board of directors, who owned a popular, eponymous diner on Gansevoort St. Hamilton and Morellet became co-chairpersons of G.V.S.H.P.’s Save Gansevoort Market Task Force, which was a coalition of local businesses, nearby residents and preservationists who sought to do what seemed like an impossible task at the time — secure landmark designation to preserve the quirky architecture of the Meatpacking District.
All things considered, the effort made incredible progress in what was, by New York City standards for a preservation effort, a relatively short period of time. In 2000 and 2001 G.V.S.H.P.’s Save Gansevoort Market Task Force published a walking tour and a case study showcasing the area’s historic significance, along with a formal proposal for landmark designation that was submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In 2002 Save Gansevoort Market secured a determination from the New York State Historic Preservation Office that the neighborhood was eligible for the State and National Registers of Historic Places, as well as a “Seven To Save” designation from the Preservation League of New York State, naming Gansevoort Market one of the seven most significant and endangered historic sites in New York State.
By the end of 2002, the city agreed to formally consider, or calendar, G.V.S.H.P.’s proposal for landmark designation for the district, which was in and of itself an incredible victory. The Meatpacking District’s unconventional history and highly altered architecture was not the kind of stuff that landmark designation had ever been applied to in New York City before. But between the time of the calendaring and designation of the district in September 2003, there were successes and setbacks. G.V.S.H.P. spearheaded a successful campaign to torpedo a zoning variance for a 500-foot-tall residential condo tower proposed for the corner of 13th and Washington Sts. But a developer moved ahead with plans to build a new hotel on what had long been a parking lot bounded by Ninth Ave., 13th, Hudson and Gansevoort Sts., which became the Hotel Gansevoort.
When the city did vote to designate the Gansevoort Market Historic District in September, it also pulled back the district boundaries somewhat, after having already cut out some areas we had proposed when they calendared. Nevertheless, this was an enormous victory, and no matter what one says about what the Meatpacking District has become in the 10 intervening years, without landmark protections, it would likely today be a sea of Hotel Gansevoorts.
After the landmark designation was secured, G.V.S.H.P. continued preservation work in the Meatpacking District. In 2004, we defeated a second attempt to build the 500-foot-tall tower on 13th and Washington Sts., just outside the new historic district’s boundaries. In 2007, we got the entire Meatpacking District placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, not just the part the city was willing to landmark. And due to landmark designation, we have been able to review and effect changes to literally dozens of applications for alterations to buildings in the neighborhood.
For better or worse, the clubs from the old days have been replaced by high-end restaurants and lounges, and there are not many prostitutes or meatpackers left in the Meatpacking District today. But there is a rich array of buildings reflecting more than 150 years of the evolution of commerce in New York City — some of it more colorful than others.
Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation