Volume 74, Number 52 | May 04 - 10 , 2005

Talking Point

A sticker by Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation showing planned new Related building, center, superimposed on Village waterfront at Superior Ink site. At right is Westbeth artists complex. At left is apartment building constructed in late 1990s in a contextual style to resemble an old Village industrial building.

Super-sizing is unhealthy for Village’s waterfront

By Andrew Berman

Here’s a question: How can Related Companies — developers of the enormous AOL Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, who, according to their own promotional materials, have a property portfolio worth over $10 billion — be suffering an economic hardship trying to develop a piece of our waterfront? While the assertion flies in the face of basic logic, this is exactly what Related is claiming, and how they may well “super-size” not only this development, but potentially our entire waterfront.

Related is seeking a variance, or special exemption from the existing zoning, to build a 270-foot-tall, mixed-use and residential tower on the site of the Superior Ink factory. This development would necessitate the destruction of a historic building that the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and many in the community have proposed be part of a historic district in the Far West Village. It was built in 1919 by Nabisco as a cracker bakery, once part of the vast Nabisco holdings in this area that included what is now Chelsea Market. Additionally, the development itself would be by far the tallest and largest building on the Greenwich Village waterfront — the Meier Towers, currently the largest, are 210 feet tall.

To get this variance from the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals, Related is arguing that it is a “hardship” to develop this site because certain “unique” circumstances make it very difficult to build there. Related cites two factors as being the primary reasons for their hardship — the fact that the bedrock on this site is deep below the surface, increasing the expense of driving piles for new construction, and that being within something called the “100-year flood plain” (the area likely to experience a flood within a century) requires expensive extra precautions in their new construction. Related claims that there is no way they could turn a reasonable profit on this site under the existing zoning, so they must be allowed to build larger than normally permitted, and to include uses which the current zoning prohibits.

But when you really look at their hardship argument, you find that their criteria would apply to virtually any site on our waterfront. Our entire waterfront is within what is considered the 100-year flood plain (anything within one block of the water is), and almost all our waterfront is built on landfill with the bedrock well below the surface. Based on the price of the land and the construction costs these “hardship” circumstances create, Related says they cannot make a reasonable profit. But here again, according to Related’s own promotional materials, their vast holdings portfolio “[sets] us apart from most of our competitors and creates a substantial purchasing and negotiating leverage…our construction costs are lowered and we are able to manage our operating costs more efficiently.” So if this is a hardship for them, imagine how much of a hardship it would be for someone with lesser holdings, less leverage and lesser ability to keep construction and operating costs down.

Should Related succeed, we will not only have an enormous new eyesore, but we will have effectively established the precedent that the mere fact of building along the waterfront is a “hardship,” requiring exemptions from existing zoning limitations to allow developments of even larger scale. Given the dizzying prices waterfront developments are fetching, this “Alice in Wonderland” logic might seem amusing were it not so real, and the resources Related pouring into this battle not so great.

Believe it or not, Related is also arguing for their variance by citing expected sales prices for this development that are about half of what apartments in the Meier towers and Morton Square are going for, thus padding their “hardship” claim. Don’t be surprised — when Related applied for a variance to develop what ultimately became Morton Square, the prices they projected for sales from that development — and the basis for their “hardship” claim there — were also only about half of what they ultimately got.

Related knows that the city is currently considering G.V.S.H.P.’s request to rezone the Far West Village to limit the height and bulk of new development and to enact landmark protections to preserve the area’s historic buildings. Related’s variance gambit is an attempt to short-circuit that process, and to get permission to “super-size” their development on this site.

Given the ever-increasing wave of planned and contemplated new development in the Far West Village, stopping Related from getting their variance is key to ensuring that “super-sized” does not become the norm along our waterfront. Should they succeed, other developers will be encouraged and assisted to seek and secure variances for larger development based on the supposed “hardship” of developing waterfront property. Given the likelihood of development at the huge Whitehall Storage site at 150-160 Charles St./303 W. 10th St., as well as more than a half dozen other nearby locations, this could not be more critical. We must send a message to the city that this sham effort by which the city’s richest developer seeks to claim “hardship” is unacceptable, and that the rezoning and landmark protections we have been promised must be enacted right away.

There are two ways you can do this: Come to the March to Save the Far West Village on Sat., May 14, beginning at 12:30 p.m. at W. 12th and West Sts.; and write to the city demanding they move ahead right away with the measures to preserve our neighborhood that we have proposed. Sample letters can be accessed at www.gvshp.org/FWVletters.htm. For more information, contact G.V.S.H.P. at 212-475-9585 or www.gvshp.org.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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