Volume 75, Number 5 | July 6 - 12, 2005

Talking point

West Village plan isn’t perfect, but it’s in the zone

By Andrew Berman

These two buidings, 164 and 166 Perry St., have recently had their lots combined to allow new development. Under existing zoning, a fourth Richard Meier-designed tower could be built there; under the proposed downzoning, according to the author, new development would have to be significantly smaller than the current buildings, making change highly unlikely.
In his June 22 talking point in The Villager, “Modest proposals: Rezoning alone won’t be enough,” Stu Waldman correctly identifies that the city’s current proposals for downzoning and landmarking the Far West Village do not go far enough, and leave some gaping holes that must be filled. But I think he misses the mark when he says that “downzoning would do little for the character of the Far West Village,” and that we are “in the exact same situation as before” the city presented its draft plans. This seems to imply that we have gained nothing from the city’s somewhat unprecedented joint landmarking and rezoning proposal for the Far West Village, and that there is nothing to gain by asking for anything other than immediate historic district designation for the entire Far West Village — a highly unlikely outcome.

In fact, zoning can and will make a big difference in preserving the Far West Village. Ignoring this fact is particularly risky when one considers that we have only until July 11 to lobby the city for changes to the rezoning plan so it can make an even bigger difference in protecting this neighborhood.

First of all, depending upon how one measures it, the city has earmarked for landmark designation somewhere between 40 percent and 60 percent of what we asked for — which, if you ask any preservation advocate working in the New York City these days, is a pretty high rate of return from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. (Whether or not it should be is another question).

Between the proposed landmark designation and downzonings, about 90 percent of the vulnerable areas we asked the city to protect in some way are covered by their proposal (the untouched area of West St. between Bank and Charles St. is almost entirely built up already, thus making new development or changes there virtually impossible).

And the vision of “mini-Meiers” and the Adidas building popping up wherever there will be downzonings without landmarking — while a legitimate cause for concern — doesn’t really hold water upon closer examination.

In many cases, the new zoning will restrict new development so tightly that it would make it economically impractical to tear down existing buildings, because the new development would actually have to be smaller than what’s there now, thereby in effect significantly helping to guarantee preservation of existing buildings. Plus, even in the areas where the proposed landmark designations are sparse, their presence will make the acquisition of sizeable development parcels needed to create the kind of large developments like the Adidas building next to impossible. The Adidas building was also built under zoning that allow buildings 25 percent to 67 percent larger than would be allowed under the downzoning.

The reality is the proposed downzoning will cut the allowable bulk of new development by anywhere from a third to more than 50 percent from what is currently allowed, and impose height limits similar to the scale of existing buildings; currently there are no height limits for the Far West Village at all. And while the downzoning will allow new buildings of a maximum height of either 80 feet or 70 feet (after several setbacks), it will actually be very difficult or unusual to meet that full height; in reality, new development, should it happen, would likely take the form of a five- or six-story building at most.

The rezoning plan does have some very serious gaps, however, including the lack of any downzoning for the Whitehall Storage site (where a development 200 feet to 300 feet tall is likely to follow) and the upzoning of the Superior Ink site to allow another large development. We must push to plug these “carve-outs” in the plan, and to get additional landmarking for sites that are completely unprotected by the plan and/or imminently endangered, such as the Superior Ink factory, the low-scale, carved-out buildings at 139-145 Charles St., and the 1856 former stable at 387-91 W. 12th St. But the “all-eggs-in-one-basket” approach of demanding nothing short of complete landmarking is a high-risk game that has consistently not paid off. And it looks even riskier when you consider that developers are moving in as we speak, and the train carrying the city’s rezoning plan is about to leave the station, with most changes impossible after the certification date of July 11.

Stu — who I have worked with closely on this effort — and I have discussed and argued this point many times over the last year and a half, and I respect his passion, commitment and experience. Is downzoning an imperfect tool? Absolutely. Should the city have come forth with a broader landmarking proposal? Without a doubt. But failing to recognize the very real benefits of downzoning and exclusively calling for an immediate doubling of the size of the city’s proposed landmark designation — something the city has virtually NEVER done — fails to apply pressure where it’s needed most and when it’s needed most, when we have precious little time or resources to waste. And while a downzoning clearly does not do everything we need to preserve neighborhood character, neither does landmarking. Buildings can still be demolished and redeveloped under landmarking (albeit in a highly regulated way), and landmarking, unlike zoning, does not regulate the types of allowable uses in a neighborhood. (The rezoning will, for instance, eliminate the possibility of large bars and clubs locating in the area, which they currently can). Protections for individual businesses or affordable housing or any one of a number of other factors that affect neighborhood character are also not part of the landmarking equation. To see landmarking as the sole solution to our problems, I think, misses many important opportunities.

Virtually all of us agree upon our desire to see the historic character of the Far West Village preserved. But as we’ve seen, methods can make a BIG difference in what is achieved, especially when you are as under the gun, as we are. And I’d rather fight the battles that need to be fought immediately — like trying to improve the city’s rezoning plan and saving the buildings facing imminent destruction — right now. Battles that aren’t going anywhere or likely to be resolved soon, like why the Landmarks Preservation Commission is often too narrow in their interpretation and application of the Landmarks Law, can come later.

It’s an age-old argument, and one I hope won’t distract us from the very urgent task at hand — trying to save as much of the Far West Village as we possibly can before it is too late. Whatever your thoughts on how to approach this, I strongly urge you to contact the city before July 11 to let them know the changes you’d like to see to their current landmarking and rezoning plans for the Far West Village. For sample letters and contact information to do so, go to www.gvshp.org/FWVletters.htm.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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