Volume 74, Number 39 | February 2 - 8, 2005

So close, and yet so far; saving the Far West Village

Protesting Julian Schnabel’s proposed 10-story addition on W. 11th St.

By Andrew Berman

We used to say, “Time is running out to save the Far West Village.” Now we say, “Time is up;” there’s simply no other way to describe the urgency of the situation facing this endangered neighborhood, and for the need for immediate action by the city to save it.

For over a year, we have waged a massive campaign to get the city to protect the far western edge of our neighborhood, which falls outside of the Greenwich Village and Gansevoort Market historic districts (though the call to protect this area goes back at least 40 years). We have given the city plans for landmarking the area to preserve historic buildings, and for downzoning the area to prevent inappropriately tall or bulky development.

What have we gotten in response? This summer, City Planning publicly stated they would work on a rezoning plan based upon our downzoning recommendations — a great start. By the end of the year, the Landmarks Preservation Commission gave strong indications that they were reviewing and working on our landmarks proposal, and were coordinating efforts with City Planning. And then just before Christmas, Mayor Bloomberg — approached by me and State Senator Tom Duane when his path crossed ours at a “Save the Far West Village” rally on the steps of City Hall — stated for the record that he “fundamentally agrees” with our call for landmark and zoning protections, and would speak to city agencies about moving ahead.

All this sounds good, right? Except for what else we have gotten. An 1832 house on Charles St. in our proposed landmark district, which we had informed the city was endangered, was demolished just three days after the mayor’s City Hall statement. After New Year’s, we discovered artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel was racing to get permits to add a 110-ft.-tall apartment tower above his historic home/studio at 360 W. 11th St., a project for which the city gave him expedited permits just days before our demonstration protesting his plan. Related Companies is poised to pursue a huge residential development requiring the demolition of the historic Superior Ink factory at West and Bethune Sts. Lehman Brothers is planning a residential development on another huge site on Charles and W. 10th Sts. between Washington and West Sts., which under current zoning could allow a tower of 30 stories or more. And at least five other known sites in this 14-block area face possible demolition and new development.

What’s wrong with this picture? In spite of these reassuring words from the city, do we really have any chance of getting them to enact our landmark and zoning plans to save our neighborhood?

I think we do, but it will require stepping up our campaign even further, and pushing the city beyond what they may be inclined to do. I believe that City Planning will keep its commitment to do a rezoning, and I believe Landmarks does want to see the historic fabric of this area preserved. But the big question is: how much will they do, and will they do it in time to still make a difference?

I think the answer to that is yet to be determined, and we have to do everything we can in the coming weeks to shape that outcome. Part of the problem is these two agencies have had their staffing levels slashed dramatically over the years, and they are sadly unable to do all the work our city’s neighborhoods ask of them at once — a long-term problem we must address, but that’s a topic for another talking point. So while I believe these agencies might like to respond to our call for preservation measures for our neighborhood, left to their own devices, they may well move more slowly, and do less, than we need them to in order to really preserve the Far West Village.

That’s why we must keep up the pressure and the calls for immediate action. We must bring every threatened building, and every plan for woefully out-of-scale new development, to the city’s attention, and confront them with the consequences of delay. The massive and consistent participation in our demonstrations, rallies and town halls, and the flood of e-mails, letters and postcards the city has received about this issue has moved it from off the city’s radar screen (where, by all accounts, it was just a year ago) to squarely on the front burner.

We must keep going, hold the city’s feet to the fire, and demand they act right away. We are so close to winning the protections we need for our neighborhood, but at the same time, we are just as close to losing it all, and seeing a massive wave of demolitions and out-of-scale new construction transform this neighborhood forever. The next few weeks will determine which of the two scenarios prevails.

But in just a few minutes today, you can make a difference. Go to www.gvshp.org/ FWVletters.htm on our Web site for sample letters to send to the city in support of immediate landmarking and rezoning of the area, and for other ways you can help. And send an e-mail to gvshp@gvshp.org to get on our e-mail alert list, so you can be sure to know the next time a building is threatened, and what you can do to help. Reach out to your friends, family, neighbors, block and tenant associations and co-op and condo boards, and let them know how important it is that they join us in this fight now, when it matters most.

Time is up — the city has no excuse for waiting any longer to preserve the Far West Village, and we have no excuse for letting them. It’s up to us.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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