Volume 74, Number 50 | April 20 - 26 , 2005

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Architect Charles Gwathmey presented his design for a 23-story building at West and Bethune Sts. at Community Board 2’s Zoning Committee meeting last week.

Gwathmey design not superior, neighbors say at zoning hearing

By Albert Amateau

The Community Board 2 Zoning Committee unanimously voted against a proposed variance last week that would allow the Related Companies to replace the old Superior Ink factory on the Greenwich Village waterfront with a 23-story residential tower designed by Charles Gwathmey.

The vote, without any ifs ands or buts, came at a hearing attended by more than 200 Village preservation advocates, who cheered when speakers denounced the plan for another luxury residential tower, which at 270 ft., would be the tallest in the West Village.
Gwathmey, a modern architect with an international reputation and the designer of a 20-story residential tower that The Related Companies is currently completing on Astor Pl. in the East Village, was at the forum and heard angry words from neighbors who accused him of helping destroy the special character of the Village.

Among the critics was Lex Kaplen, a resident of West St. just north of the Superior Ink site, who stood in front of the architect and reminded him of a summer tour Gwathmey led several years ago when Kaplen was in high school. “You took us on a tour of the Village and you said, ‘Don’t let anyone change the character of this neighborhood,’” said Kaplen, whose remarks were greeted with a burst of applause.

Gwathmey, who stood up to similar criticism throughout the April 14 hearing, said he remembered the tour but he justified the new project by saying that times have changed and that modern buildings do not have to replicate old architecture to harmonize with historic neighborhoods.

Jesse Masyr, the land-use attorney representing The Related Companies’ application for a Board of Standards and Appeals variance to allow residential use on the manufacturing-zoned site, noted that three residential towers more than 200 ft. tall designed by Richard Meier have risen on West St. four blocks south.

Those high-rise glass-clad buildings, however, were erected as of right, without variances, in zones allowing residential use.

Masyr, however, said that a hotel, which is allowed in a manufacturing zone, could be built taller as of right than the proposed project.

The Superior Ink factory has been a manufacturing building since it was built in 1919 as the American Biscuit Company (later known as Nabisco) plant. It became part of the Bell Telephone Laboratories and for the past two decades has been the factory for Superior Ink. The building is three stories tall with two smokestacks 100 ft. tall that have stood as unofficial landmarks of the neighborhood.

The prospect of another high-rise luxury tower with wealthy celebrity residents aroused resentment. The designer Calvin Klein is a condo owner in one of the Meier towers and the Olsen twins, who attend New York University, bought a condo in the recently completed Morton Square 10 blocks south but recently put it on the market.

“I moved to Greenwich Village because I didn’t want to live on the Upper East Side in a place where movie stars come to hang out for a while,” said Gary Tomei, president of the W. 13th St. Block Association, in a remark fraught with apparently deliberate irony; he is the father of the film actress Marissa Tomei.

Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, reminded the C.B. 2 Zoning Committee that the society has asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the City Planning Department to consider the West Village waterfront for designation as a historic district and for down-zoning to preserve the threatened low-rise character of the neighborhood.

“The applicant is trying to short-circuit these preservation efforts and we shouldn’t allow them to do that,” Berman said.

The B.S.A. requires variance applicants to prove that there are no as-of-right alternatives that would allow them to earn a reasonable return on investment and that the economic hardship of an as-of-right development is not self-imposed or imposed by the previous owner. When Masyr declared that the variance would comply with the requirement that the resulting project would not change the character of the neighborhood, the audience snickered in derision.

Members of the board’s Zoning Committee, chaired by David Reck, asked repeated questions about the project. David Gruber, a public member of the Zoning Committee and a real estate developer, appeared skeptical about the developer’s economic projections for the project.

West Village neighbors charged that the developer made no effort to find conforming manufacturing uses. George Cominskie, president of the Westbeth Artists Resident Council in the former Bell Labs converted 40 years ago to living and work quarters for artists, said the high-rise project on the block north of Westbeth, would destroy the essential character of the neighborhood.

State Senator Tom Duane and Assemblymember Deborah Glick both submitted testimony opposing The Related Companies’ variance. Ann Arlen, a former member of Community Board 2 member on which she headed its Environment Committee, suggested that the smokestacks of the old factory building were likely to be full of highly toxic dioxin and urged that the community board call on the city and the B.S.A. to monitor the demolition of the plant.

The site of the planned residential project, located between Bethune and W. 12th Sts., is directly across West St. from the Hudson River Park. The new building would also include an adjacent group of three-story townhouses and parking for residents of the project.

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