Volume 76, Number 46 | April 11 - 17, 2007

A map showing the full South Village Historic District in the proposal backed by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and South Village Landmark Association.

N.Y.U. support for new historic district goes south

By Lincoln Anderson

Four years ago, when New York University expressed its initial approval for creating a South Village Historic District, there was an understandable incredulity among local community leaders and preservationists. N.Y.U. endorse designating a new historic district? The same university that, just a few years before, had built a massive new law school building in the South Village on the site of the former Poe House on W. Third St.? (A facsimile of the Poe House’s facade was reconstructed in the new project, but for all intents and purposes, the historic building had been razed.)

Yet, at a meeting at Our Lady of Pompei Church four years ago between community members and Michael Haberman, then-N.Y.U. director of government and community affairs, specific boundaries for a South Village Historic District had been proposed. And, surprisingly, N.Y.U. had accepted them.

Still, N.Y.U.’s fully supporting a new landmarked district somehow seemed too good to be true. Now, it appears, N.Y.U.’s pledge may have been just that.

N.Y.U. recently hired a new planning team. These planners reviewed the South Village Historic District proposal and have decided it’s too large and that certain areas should be removed from it.

In a March 9 letter, Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. associate vice president for government and community affairs, informed Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, of the university’s revised position. Hurley’s letter cc’ed Robert Tierney, chairperson of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

In her letter, Hurley states, “N.Y.U. supports the study of this general area to investigate a possible historic district…. However, the [designation report] does not necessarily demonstrate that the entire area weaves together as a single cohesive historic district. The proposed historic district abuts three existing districts and subsumes one existing district (Sullivan Street Historic District) [sic] Given the four other historic districts in this area, it seems worth considering whether it is more appropriate to seek expansions of existing districts that share characteristics with the proposed area and create a smaller South Village Historic District that embodies the working-class and immigrant neighborhood outlined in the report. Additionally, the relatively large area, 40 blocks, covered by the proposal may include certain areas, such as portions of Sixth and Seventh Aves., which would not necessarily merit incorporation within a historic district.”

Four days later, Hurley sent a brief letter to Landmarks Chairperson Tierney stating that N.Y.U. supports the landmarking initiative. Hurley stated in this second letter that the university looks forward to “a full review of the study area…with an eye toward eventual designation.”

Berman, whose G.V.S.H.P. has spearheaded the South Village Historic District effort, was incensed upon receiving Hurley’s initial letter. He said Hurley’s subsequent letter to Tierney was just an attempt at damage control on N.Y.U.’s part. In reality, Berman feels, N.Y.U. is trying to play it both ways — claiming to support the proposal, but, in fact, working to undermine it.

“I’m almost speechless,” Berman said in a recent interview. “It’s like ‘1984.’ N.Y.U.’s doublespeak is appalling. I feel like the clock is about to strike 13.”

Berman blasted Hurley’s recommendation to expand abutting, existing historic districts — such as the Soho Cast-Iron Historic District — instead of creating a new historic district.

“That is absurd,” he fumed, “because there are no cast-iron buildings in the area to extend the Soho Cast-Iron District into. It’s apples and oranges. It’s ludicrous.

“They seem to be saying they support a district as long as it’s not the boundaries that we proposed,” Berman continued. “We all know what their promise was and we know that they’re breaking their promise. They’re doing this because they want to control the boundaries — I assure — to protect their interests. They’ve broken their word, as they have so many times in the past. Surprise, surprise.”

Andrew Dolkart, one of the city’s most respected architectural historians, prepared G.V.S.H.P.’s South Village Historic District designation report. The proposed area would be the city’s first tenement-based landmarked district, and is unified by its history as an immigrant enclave, particularly for Italian immigrants.

The proposal is supported by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Preservation League of New York State. It also has been championed by local politicians Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, State Senators Tom Duane and Martin Connor and Assemblymember Deborah Glick. G.V.S.H.P.’s South Village proposal is also backed by more than two dozen local community groups, including the Soho Alliance, Central Village Block Association, Greenwich Village Block Associations, Bedford Downing Block Association, Thompson Sullivan Coalition and the Morton St. and W. Houston St. block associations.

“Yet N.Y.U. thinks that their ‘expertise’ in preservation is better than these folks,” Berman scoffed, “which is ridiculous.” (Berman also noted with frustration that in her letter to him, Hurley incorrectly called the landmarked MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District the “Sullivan Street Historic District.”)

In addition, 40 community and business leaders are firmly behind the proposal, including Lucy Cecere, founder of the Caring Community: Rob Kaufelt, owner of Murray’s Cheese; Karen Cooper, director of the Film Forum; Pi Gadner, director of the Merchant’s House Museum and a MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District resident; and the presidents of the boards of several co-ops in the proposed district.  

The G.V.S.H.P. director has asked Hurley to write a “retraction letter,” in which N.Y.U. would pledge support for the full proposed South Village Historic District, but so far she has refused.

“N.Y.U. undermining a preservation effort would not be a story,” Berman said. “But for four years, N.Y.U. explicitly promised to support this proposal — and now they’re going back on their word…. There are 200-year-old buildings on Sixth Ave. that need protection.”

“I don’t think this is a story,” Hurley responded. “To be clear, N.Y.U. favors the designation of a South Village Historic District. When we approached G.V.S.H.P. about participation on their advisory board, hoping to join the conversation about the proposal as it moves forward, it was misconstrued as our not being supportive.

“It’s disappointing and regretful that this has turned into anything other than our request to G.V.S.H.P. to be part of a very important conversation,” she added. “I know this is New York City, but not everything has to be a fight, and particularly when we actually agree on the substance of a matter.”

But Berman says, at this point, he really has no idea what areas N.Y.U. would actually want to include in the new district — or expanded existing districts.

In fact, N.Y.U. never put any specific commitment in writing four years ago. Yet, Berman and others say they had the clear impression that N.Y.U., at that initial meeting, agreed to the same boundaries the community wanted.

Two local community activists who were at the Our Lady of Pompei meeting four years ago clearly recall N.Y.U. committing to support the full South Village Historic District proposal.

Stuart Waldman, a longtime advocate for landmarking Greenwich Village’s waterfront, attended the meeting. He recalls N.Y.U. giving wholehearted support for the G.V.S.H.P. proposal.

“They came out [in support] by themselves,” he said. “There was no question. The boundaries, to my memory, they were really for it. Absolutely, it was set there — there were large boundaries.

“It seems to me, when an institution makes a commitment, they should keep it,” Waldman said. “I live right in the district — and I’m disappointed. If they support it, they should support it the way they did four years ago.”

Yet, he said, “I’m not surprised that N.Y.U. would say one thing and do another. They imply that you’re wrong to criticize them. They have an arrogance about them, as anyone who lives in the Village knows — and I had two sons who went to N.Y.U. They’re a corporation. They might be a nonprofit corporation, but they’re a corporation.”

“Sure I remember. It was my meeting!” said David Gruber, head of the ad-hoc group SoVilLA (South Village Landmark Association). “I was surprised — these were our boundaries. And, in my mind, N.Y.U. had agreed to these boundaries. And I don’t understand why N.Y.U. would now take Sixth Ave. out. It’s my feeling that maybe this wasn’t 100 percent thought out — that maybe they’ll want to go back to the original district, because Sixth Ave. is the most obvious.”

Gruber said the, in his view, garish strip of tattoo and sex shops on Sixth Ave. is one of the area’s most glaring quality of life problems. Landmarking wouldn’t disallow these uses, but would ensure building facades adhere to a tasteful standard — “so it wouldn’t look like Coney Island,” Gruber said.

“Our position is this is an historic area,” Gruber said of the South Village. “It should have been landmarked in the ’60s, when the rest of Greenwich Village was. What I would like N.Y.U. to do is come out with a strong, unequivocal statement saying, ‘We support the boundaries of the landmark district as proposed.’ ”

Meanwhile, Haberman, N.Y.U.’s former director of government and community affairs, after a stint as an outreach official with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, is now president of PENCIL (Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning). Reached on Tuesday, Haberman was not forthcoming about what he may or may not remember about the Our Lady of Pompei meeting four years ago at which he allegedly said the university stood behind the boundaries of the full South Village Historic District proposal.

“I’m not going to speak on this — talk to N.Y.U.,” Haberman said. He said it was the first he had heard of the flap. “I haven’t thought about it for three years,” he said. “I’m not going to comment on something that happened five years ago.”

Community Board 2 has scheduled a public hearing on G.V.S.H.P.’s South Village Historic District proposal for Tues., April 24, at 6:30 p.m. at Our Lady of Pompei Hall, at Bleecker and Carmine Sts. (Enter on Bleecker St. and go downstairs.)

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