Volume 74, Number 41 | February 16 - 22, 2005

Westbeth hold-out slows push to designate historic district

By Albert Amateau
Preservation advocates trying for the past year to marshal support to convince the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate a new historic district to save 14 blocks in the Far West Village where some houses date from the mid-1800s, have come up against resistance from an unexpected quarter.
While many individual property owners and neighborhood civic groups have endorsed the movement to landmark the area from Horatio to Barrow Sts. between Greenwich and West Sts., one holdout remains — Westbeth, the artists’ residence created in 1968 from the old Bell Laboratories
The holdout by the Westbeth board of directors, which legally owns and runs the 13-building complex, seems contradictory because the Westbeth Artists Residents Council, elected by residents, has sent 200 letters from residents to the L.P.C. supporting efforts by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation to get landmark designation for the district
A further contradiction is that directors of the Federation to Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront and Great Port, a group dedicated to preserving the West Village from overdevelopment, also sit on the Westbeth board. Indeed Ben Green, elected last year as chairperson of the Westbeth board, is also a member and former head of the Federation. Moreover, Carol Feinman, a co-chairperson of the Federation board, is also a Westbeth board member.
Green last week said that the Westbeth board has not received a request to put the landmark issue on the Westbeth board agenda.
But George Cominskie, president of the Westbeth Residents Council, said the council has been urging board members to join the landmark effort. And Andrew Berman, executive director of the G.V.S.H.P., insists that he sent e-mails last September and again in November to Feinman asking for Westbeth support for the landmarking effort. Feinman did not return several phone messages from The Villager requesting comment on the issue.
Nevertheless, Green indicated last week that following L.P.C. guidance for historic accuracy might be a burden for the one-square-block, 13-building complex between West and Washington Sts. and Bank and Bethune Sts. The complex has had serious maintenance problems over the past years and the board has had to change managing agents and raise rents steeply in the past three years.
“Being in a landmark district would have to be fully explored,” said Green. “We would have to find out what it would mean for the building,” he went on. Three years ago, previous members of the board heard a Landmarks Preservation Commission presentation about individual landmark designation for Westbeth and were not receptive, fearing that following L.P.C. guidelines for maintenance would be too expensive for the nonprofit complex.
Artist residents of Westbeth who sit on the board are in a quandary. Barbara Prete, one of three residents on the Westbeth nine-member board, said she was an enthusiastic supporter of landmark protection for the West Village, but added that three years ago, board members feared that landmark designation could double the cost of emergency repairs, especially in a complex created out of several structures built at different times.
Preservation advocates, however, say that adhering to L.P.C. standards for maintenance has been affordable for many landmark buildings.
Berman, a leader in the effort to convince L.P.C. to create a new historic district, said last week that support by property owners is critical. He added that Westbeth support for historic district designation is especially critical because the large complex is in the middle of the proposed district. While disappointed at the current inaction of the Westbeth board, he said he hopes to convince them to join the landmark effort.

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