St. Vincents: Lets not do the time warp again!
By Brad Hoylman
St. Vincents Is Modernizing
Hospital Plan Is Opposed by Neighbors
St. Vincents Hospital Plan Stirs Anger
These are headlines that could be ripped from The Villager or any other newspaper covering the plans by St. Vincents to build its new green hospital with a state-of-the-art emergency room and trauma center in the Village. But they arent from todays news. Theyre from nearly 30 years ago when St. Vincents first sought a certificate of appropriateness from the citys Landmarks Preservation Commission to demolish the Seton and Lowenstein buildings, two of the hospitals historic properties on Seventh Ave.
Then, as now, there was widespread community opposition to the hospitals plans. Then, as now, the debate pitted the needs of modern healthcare against preservationists and neighborhood activists who believed that the historic buildings could be renovated and reused. Then, as now, St. Vincents and the local community had both earnestly tried to cooperate for months through a hospital-community task force set up to review and develop the plans. (In 1978, it was called the Community Core Committee, the precursor to todays Working Group.) And then, as now, members of the local community had proposed what they called an alternative plan to retain some of the buildings scheduled for demolition!
A coincidence? A Village time warp? A better explanation is that institutions like hospitals and universities, which can only thrive on change and innovation, continually have the need to modernize, even in historic neighborhoods like Greenwich Village. These institutions, like St. Vincents, are generally run by very smart and well-meaning people who are convinced that they can win over local opposition with the broader social arguments, like quality healthcare. The problem, however, is that a fundamental community concern in this case, protecting the historic character of the neighborhood rarely gets addressed in a serious way. Its as if the two sides are talking past each other.
Its our job on Community Board 2, however, to make sure this doesnt happen. Concerns about historic preservation should be heard loud and clear. Thats why I am urging the community board to join the Municipal Art Society in advocating that the Landmarks Preservation Commission focus first on determining whether it is appropriate to demolish each individual building as proposed by St. Vincents.
Take the OToole Building, the former National Maritime Union Headquarters at 36 Seventh Ave. One community group has already proposed sacrificing it as part of their alternative plan for a new hospital. But this seems too hasty without a full-blown analysis of whether OToole contributes to the special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value of the historic district as required by landmarks law. Certainly, opinions about OTooles aesthetic quality are mixed, at best. But OToole is undeniably distinctive in its design and history, with its striking midcentury modern design, pedigree (the building was designed by Albert Ledner, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright) and connection to New Yorks labor movement. Why should we write it off so easily? My point is not that the building should be saved at all costs, but the law requires that L.P.C. give this and all of the buildings in the historic district their day in court before it approves their demolition.
Only after L.P.C. determines whether it is appropriate to demolish the buildings should it consider whether the designs of the proposed replacement buildings (including the Rudin residential complex) are appropriate to the Greenwich Village Historic District. If L.P.C. determines that demolition of any of the buildings is inappropriate, St. Vincents can still make a hardship application, where it could argue that it is unable to fulfill its charitable mission within the buildings. It is at this point where St. Vincents would properly raise the multitude of public benefits that derive from a new state-of-the art facility.
In considering the St. Vincents plan, we shouldnt pit neighborhood preservation against social good. By considering the historic value of the buildings first, we can ensure that the communitys concerns are heard, while giving ample opportunity for St. Vincents to make its extremely compelling public-benefits case should demolition not be approved. Otherwise, were back to 1979 when St. Vincents won approval to destroy the historic Seton and Lowenstein buildings. Lets not do the time warp again!
Hoylman is chairperson of Community Board 2 and chairperson of the C.B. 2 Omnibus Committee on St. Vincents