Volume 74, Number 55 | May 25 - 31 , 2005

Villager photo by Josh Argyle

About 250 people joined the Save the Village march and rally down West St. on May 14.

City moves to save Far West Village, but will it do enough?

By Lincoln Anderson

The good news is that the city is finally coming through with tandem plans for rezoning and landmarking the Far West Village. The bad news, as far as community activists and preservationists are concerned, is that large development projects are still in the pipeline and that the new zoning and landmarking regulations might not affect these terribly much. Also, there is concern that the new regulations might not go far enough toward safeguarding the neighborhood from future development and limiting building heights.

The news that the Bloomberg administration is finally taking action on protecting the historic Far West Village came just days after a massive Save the Village march and rally by 250 concerned and vocal residents. The rally started in Hudson River Park at W. 12th St., across from the Superior Ink building, where Related Companies plans a 23-story residential tower, went down West St. and turned into Charles St., where Steve Witkoff and Lehman Brothers plan a 17-story apartment development on the Whitehall Mini-Storage warehouse.

David Reck, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Zoning Committee, said C.B. 2 will hold two hearings as part of a roughly seven-month-long uniform land-use review procedure, or ULURP, to be done on the rezoning plan. The first hearing, a preliminary one, will be June 9. After the plan is officially certified by City Planning, there will be a second C.B. 2 hearing on July 14. To have two community board hearings on a rezoning plan is a bit unusual and will give the community twice as many chances to weigh in, he said.

“I think it’s great, because it will give us a better chance to have meaningful input,” Reck said.

As for the rezoning plan, itself, Reck said he went down to the Department of City Planning the week before the rally and got a preliminary look at it.

“Mixed review,” he told The Villager, giving his assessment of what he saw of a draft plan and three-dimensional rendering. “There are going to be parts of it the community is going to like and parts of it the community won’t like.”

Specifically, Reck noted, the community won’t like that the Whitehall warehouse site isn’t being downzoned under the plan. But the areas around historic Charles Ln. and Weehawken St. will be downzoned, he said.

In general, Reck said, there will be “little pockets of downzoning,” mainly between Washington St. and West St.

“Overall, I think the big bone of contention is going to be the Whitehall Storage site,” he said. “I think people would appreciate an even greater downzoning [throughout the district], but that’s probably unreasonable. With some massaging, this is reasonably good.”

Reck said, basically, he was very encouraged at the rezoning plan and that it had come about much faster — about a year earlier — than he had expected.

Reck said he hasn’t seen the city’s landmarking plan for the Far West Village but that he was informed that the Charles Ln. and Weehawken St. areas are included in it. Beyond that, he doesn’t have much information.

“What City Planning told me is landmarking is moving along almost in lockstep with this and that the landmark plan will be out soon,” he said.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation led the effort to jointly landmark and rezone the Far West Village and waterfront, last year putting forward a combination proposal for the 14-block area. G.V.S.H.P.’s executive director, Andrew Berman, said the height caps they proposed were consistent with buildings’ height and scale in the neighborhood — six to seven stories, maybe eight, at most, with even lower height caps in areas like Charles Ln. and Weehawken St.

Berman said they are continuing to keep up the pressure to insure that the plan is the best that it can be.

“We are lobbying furiously that everything that should be in there is in there,” he said. “It’s not final till it’s certified.”

Racheele Raynoff, a City Planning spokesperson, said, “We are indeed shooting for June to start the public review process.” She described the plan as “a balanced rezoning to downscale low-scale portions of the Village,” and said the rezoning area is bounded by Barrow, Washington, West and Jane Sts. The intention, Raynoff said, is to reduce density in areas that are low scale, but maintain density in areas where there are already taller buildings. For example, she said, the warehouse site is in an area with tall buildings — she pointed to the Memphis, which is 21 stories, on the other side of Washington St. from the warehouse site.

“The [developer’s] proposal is consistent with the height of other buildings in the vicinity,” she said of the Witkoff/ Lehman project.

As for the Related/Superior Ink site, Raynoff said, it would be downzoned, but only a bit. Again, she noted, there are some existing large buildings around that location. The Westbeth artists’ complex, the sprawling former Bell Laborites, is just south of Superior Ink. Related has applied to the Board of Standards and Appeals for a zoning variance for the manufacturing zoned site to allow residential use.

Asked about whether the site’s zoning was being changed, Raynoff said that’s being left up to the B.S.A. A source who requested anonymity, however, said City Planning, in its proposal, is, in fact, recommending that the spot’s zoning be changed to allow residential use.

Raynoff said at a town hall meeting hosted by the Greenwich Village Block Associations last year, Amanda Burden, City Planning’s commissioner, had heard the community’s desire for a rezoning.

“The community came forward and were very clear about how passionate they were about this,” Raynoff said. “This is a commitment she made to the neighborhood at the time and is following through.” Raynoff added, “The mayor is sensitive to preserving neighborhood character and has directed City Planning to act on it where appropriate.”

Diane Jackier, a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, confirmed a landmarking plan is moving forward.

“We’ve been working together with City Planning on a proposal for the Far West Village and we will be discussing it with the community in the next few weeks,” she said.

The landmarking proposal doesn’t go through the ULURP process. Rather, there would be at least one informational hearing by Landmarks for the community and a public hearing at Landmarks at which the commissioners would consider the plan and hear input from members of the audience.

At the May 14 rally to Save the Village, Katy Bordonaro, a tenant leader at the West Village Houses, maybe having gotten wind of the city’s proposals, said the community, at last, appeared to be nearing the end of a “50-year battle.” A half-century ago, led by the likes of Jane Jacobs, Villagers united to stave off Robert Moses’s highway and “slum-clearance” plans, and then pushed for preservation of the waterfront. Now, with the city coming forward with its rezoning/landmarking scheme for the Far West Village, a major area that was left out of the Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969 when it was designated stands to be protected from demolition and high-rise development.

At the rally, Pearl Brodeur remembered how they’d had a similar demonstration 20 years ago against the Memphis. They had climbed onto the building’s still-bare metal superstructure and attached a “Save the Village” banner.

“Obviously, it wasn’t effective,” Brodeur said, as the rally ended by the latest contentious mega-development site — the Charles St. warehouse.

Barbara Chacour, who lives in a historic townhouse on Charles St. across from Whitehall Mini-Storage, is dreading the change the new project will bring to her sunny, low-scale street.

“I love living here so much,” she said, “that I’m going to hope about living here — and not think.”

C.B. 2’s Zoning Committee will hear a presentation of the rezoning proposal at its meeting on Thurs., June 9, in N.Y.U.’s Silver Building, at 32 Waverly Pl., room 703, starting at 6:30 p.m.

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