Volume 76, Number 40 | February 28 - March 6, 2007


Designing a better community

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Andrew Berman, right, with restaurateur Keith McNally at Feb. 22 protest rally demanding the Hotel Gansevoort remove its new eight-story, highway-style billboard.

Tilting at towers and defending historic districts

By Andrew Berman

While strong progress continues to be made on securing preservation measures for much of Greenwich Village — more progress, in fact, than any time since the 1960s — further threats to the neighborhood’s character from more quarters than ever appear every day. And in the East Village, Hudson Square and parts of the South Village, the threats loom even larger.

First, the good news. In May of last year, the city approved the first expansion of the Greenwich Village Historic District since its designation in 1969, expanding the district west by three blocks. This came only after a concerted campaign by a broad cross-section of the community, led by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. The campaign also resulted in designation of a Weehawken Street Historic District, which, along with the Gansevoort Market Historic District, designated in 2003, are the first new historic districts in Greenwich Village since 1969.

The city has also promised to designate eight additional sites in the Far West Village as landmarks, including the entire 13-building, one-square-block Westbeth complex, though these designations are well behind schedule. These most recent gains followed the successful effort led by G.V.S.H.P. to get much of the Far West Village downzoned in 2005, the first time in recent memory that the zoning for any area of Manhattan was changed to reduce the size and height of allowable new development.

At the end of 2006, G.V.S.H.P. launched a campaign to seek landmark status for the South Village, a 40-block area below Washington Square Park and W. Fourth St. stretching down to Watts St., which was almost entirely left out of the Greenwich Village Historic District. Its rich social, cultural and immigrant history and working-class architecture, though overlooked in the 1960s, are now ripe for recognition. Unfortunately, they are also ripe for overdevelopment, as evidenced by the recent loss of the Circle in the Square Theater, the Sullivan Street Playhouse, the Tunnel Garage and other historic sites. Fortunately, a strong coalition of business leaders, property owners, community leaders and local institutions has formed to advocate for this proposed designation, which would be the city’s first to specifically honor and preserve immigrant history and working-class architecture.

In the East Village and Lower East Side, the picture looks in many ways considerably bleaker, but some relief may be on the horizon. Rampant overdevelopment can be seen on the Bowery, along Third and Fourth Aves., and south of Houston St., with 15-to-25-story towers replacing wonderful 19th- and early 20th-century houses, tenements and houses of worship. However, groups like the East Village Community Coalition pushed the city for zoning changes to the neighborhood to prevent further overdevelopment, and a Community Board 3 task force was formed (of which G.V.S.H.P. is a part) to advocate, along with Councilmember Rosie Mendez, for such changes.

When the city proposed a rezoning plan that did not go far enough, the task force demanded further changes, and now the community is coalescing around this revised plan. When the city adamantly refused to include the Third and Fourth Ave. corridors in any rezoning plan, C.B. 3 and G.V.S.H.P. committed to creating a community-initiated rezoning plan to get the necessary protections for this rapidly overdeveloping area.

Storm over dorm

Such changes cannot come too soon in light of New York University’s plans for a 26-story mega-dorm at 120 E. 12th St., to be the tallest building in the East Village. Forty percent of the size of this development comes from an air-rights transfer authorized by the city from the neighboring post office, which G.V.S.H.P. and many others claim violated federal regulations and the limits of the city’s jurisdiction. Now a lawsuit by neighbors may settle whether the dorm project can move ahead as is, but more battles may be on the horizon as N.Y.U. recently announced that they are looking to site 600 to 800 more dorm beds in the Village — the same number as in the 12th St. mega-dorm.

Nearby, however, when the owner of 128 E. 13th St. — the former studio of artist Frank Stella and the last remaining horse auction mart building in the city — sought to demolish the building and replace it with a new apartment building, G.V.S.H.P. immediately waged a campaign to landmark the building. Fortunately the city stepped in and prevented demolition, and is currently considering landmark designation for the building.

Trump condo card

Perhaps the biggest development battle in the area — literally and figuratively — is over the planned 45-story Trump Soho Condo-Hotel. Almost everyone Downtown is outraged by the possibility of the giant development, though the zoning for this area does allow 45-story buildings. But what the area’s “light manufacturing” zoning doesn’t allow is new residences or residential hotels. Trump, however, is seeking to get around these restrictions by claiming that his development is actually a transient hotel, which is allowed under the zoning.

But a transient hotel, by common sense and the zoning definition, is a place where rooms are rented out on a daily basis for short-term stays, not where individuals own an apartment and live in it on a regular basis. However, in a condo-hotel, individuals do own the units and are free to stay in them for long periods of time, while some units get rented out for a profit by their owners.

Thus, G.V.S.H.P. and many others argue the Trump condo-hotel development violates the zoning for the area, and must not be permitted by the city. Were the city to agree, Trump would have to apply for a zoning change or a variance to build his project. Through these public approval processes, the plan could be rejected, or it could be allowed with restrictions on size and height that would make it more compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.

If the city agrees with Trump’s claims, not only would the project move ahead unchanged, but suddenly every light-manufacturing zone in the city would be open to high-rise luxury residential development for the first time ever, where it was never allowed before. This would include parts of the West Village, Meatpacking District, Hudson Square, Soho, Noho, Tribeca, West Chelsea, western Hell’s Kitchen, the Garment District, the Flatiron District, Brooklyn and Queens. Thus several dozen groups from across the city have joined this fight, recognizing the huge implications.

Incomprehensibly, in late 2006 the city stated there was no inherent conflict between condo-hotels and these restrictions on residential and residential hotel development, and they would grant this project permits once a voluntary agreement by Trump was signed ensuring no “residential use” at the project. G.V.S.H.P. and others thought such an agreement was ineffective, unenforceable and, worse, meaningless — it would still allow owners to live in their units for as much as 100 to 150 days a year, nullifying the supposed zoning prohibitions on residential use, as well as the public’s role in major land use decisions. G.V.S.H.P. and other community groups continued to demand that the zoning restrictions be enforced for the site, and that new zoning be drafted that would prevent future 45-story developments in the area of any sort.

Since then, Trump and his development partners have continually made a mockery of their pledge, accepted by some city officials, that their condo-hotel wouldn’t violate the zoning. Their advertisements for the project have continually referred to it as a “residence,” even after they have been caught and told to correct such ads.

Even more shocking, excavation work for the project disturbed some 200-year-old burial vaults of an interracial, abolitionist church that formerly stood on the site. Instead of insisting that the bones be reinterred on the site, the city allowed Trump to remove all the remains and continue with the excavation work. However, the city has not yet issued Trump the building permits necessary to begin actual construction, and G.V.S.H.P. and others are hopeful that the city will finally see the light and halt the project. If not, several neighbors and community groups have threatened to sue to force the city to enforce the law.

Hospital’s operations

Elsewhere, other potentially huge issues loom. St. Vincent’s Hospital has declared bankruptcy and is pursuing a restructuring plan for their facilities. The hospital would like to consolidate all its services into a new building on the site of the O’Toole Building at Seventh Ave. between 12th and 13th Sts., which would be bigger than the current O’Toole but smaller than the collective facilities it would be replacing. St. Vincent’s would then like to sell their remaining buildings to raise money, which could allow for new residential or institutional uses on those sites. It could also leave open the possibility of the existing buildings — some of which are not exactly well loved — being replaced with new ones.

However, because all of these sites are in the Greenwich Village Historic District, and because all are governed by a 30-year-old zoning plan, no changes can be made without a long series of public hearings and votes by many of our elected and appointed officials. This will give us an opportunity to be sure we are aware of what is being proposed and able to affect the decisions about them.

Similarly, the Whitney Museum is considering a sizeable new facility on Gansevoort St. between Washington and West Sts., at the end of the planned new High Line Park. While not in a landmark district — the site was actually carved out of the historic district that G.V.S.H.P. proposed for the Gansevoort area, which the city otherwise approved in 2003 — this is city-owned land, so any changes would also have to go through a public review and approval process.

Not requiring any public review or approval have been the numerous billboards — many of them illegal — which proliferated throughout our neighborhoods, especially the Meatpacking District, Soho, Noho and Hudson Square. After a long period of inaction, the city has finally begun to move against some illegal signs, but much more needs to be done. G.V.S.H.P. has supplied a list of several dozen signs we believe are illegal, some of which the city has pledged to go after.

Much anger has coalesced around the Hotel Gansevoort’s two gigantic, freeway-style, freestanding billboards erected on its property at Hudson St. Though billboards are not prohibited outright on this one site — because it was also carved out of the Gansevoort Market Historic District by the city — G.V.S.H.P. has raised several technical points upon which we believe the signs may violate the site’s zoning restrictions. The city is reviewing these contentions, but regardless of the outcome, neighbors and businesses are pressuring the hotel and Van Wagner, the sign company, to remove the signs, which at nearly eight stories tall are totally inappropriate for this neighborhood.

Finally, the biggest news in preservation over the past year may have been the passing of Jane Jacobs. This little woman was a giant of preservation, planning and community organizing. She accomplished so much, not only by taking on and winning against powerbrokers like Robert Moses, but by demonstrating that average citizens — and not just trained professionals, real estate developers and government bureaucrats — should have a say in planning their neighborhoods.

Jane Jacobs will be missed, but her legacy continues to inspire. I am proud to say that at G.V.S.H.P.’s initiation, the street outside her house at 555 Hudson St., and the nearby park on Bleecker St., will be renamed in her honor this spring.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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