Volume 77 / Number 40 - March 5 - 11, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Progress Report
A Special Villager Supplement

Preservation

Andrew Berman speaking before last week’s Board of Standards and Appeals hearing on the Trump Soho condo-hotel.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

By Andrew Berman

The pace and scale of new development in our neighborhoods — proposed and actual — continue to grow at a phenomenal rate, making this the most challenging time for neighborhood preservation efforts since the days of Robert Moses. Many new plans and projects setting far-reaching precedents could shape our neighborhoods for years to come. However, we are also winning many important permanent protections, which will not only prevent bad projects from moving forward today, but from ever happening in our neighborhoods.

A project pairing Rudin Management and St. Vincent’s Hospital would be the largest new development in Greenwich Village in 50 years; it would involve demolishing nine buildings on three city blocks in the Greenwich Village Historic District, upzoning the sites and building luxury condos on all sites but one, on which St. Vincent’s would build a new hospital. The 265-foot-tall condo would be the largest apartment building ever built in Greenwich Village, while the 330-foot-tall hospital building would be the tallest building ever built in Greenwich Village.

The precedents that would be set here would be stunning — no one has ever applied for or received permission to demolish nine buildings in a historic district. Our neighborhoods have resisted upzonings in the past, and recently secured downzonings. Rudin is also seeking to use St. Vincent’s nonprofit status to get approval for development that would never otherwise be allowed. G.V.S.H.P. and a coalition of neighborhood groups have sought to work with the hospital to identify ways St. Vincent’s can modernize without destroying the fabric of the historic district or setting dangerous precedents, but so far St. Vincent’s has resisted any compromise.

Fortunately, this plan cannot move ahead without approval of the City Council, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the City Planning Commission. Two years of public hearings are expected before the process ends.

G.V.S.H.P. has proposed a new historic district to protect the South Village, south of Washington Square Park and W. Fourth St. Bleecker, Sullivan, Carmine, MacDougal and Downing Sts. in this neighborhood do not have historic district protections and are increasingly vulnerable to out-of-scale new development. The proposal — which would celebrate the neighborhood’s Italian immigrant and bohemian history — has received broad support from elected officials, preservation groups, Italian-American groups and local leaders. However, because the proposed district’s size is larger than any historic district designated in nearly 20 years, and because the city has added more landmark protections in the Village in recent years than anywhere else, many thought this latest effort was unlikely to go anywhere.

Fortunately, they may be wrong. The city has just announced that it will begin the process of surveying part of the proposed historic district this spring and summer — the first step toward designation. While results are far from guaranteed, this is swift progress in a multi-step process that normally takes many, many years.

The city’s approval of the Trump 45-story “condo-hotel” at Spring and Varick Sts. has the potential for a devastating impact not only on the project’s immediate surroundings, but beyond. No condo-hotel has ever been allowed in a manufacturing zone like this one, precisely because these districts prohibit residences and residential hotels. When the city approved this project in 2007, it essentially opened the floodgates to similar high-rise luxury condos where they had never been allowed before — in neighborhoods with similar zoning, such as parts of Hudson Square, the Far West Village, the Meatpacking District, Soho, Noho, Tribeca, the Flatiron District and west Chelsea. Nothing seemed to deter the city’s staunch support for this project — not the developer repeatedly advertising illegal uses, not the discovery of the graveyard of a 19th-century abolitionist church on the site and not even months of complaints about unsafe work followed by a fatal accident.

In February, a legal challenge by the Soho Alliance against the city’s approval for the project finally got its day in court. G.V.S.H.P. brought together a coalition of business, civic and neighborhood groups from across the city to support the appeal; Community Boards 1 and 5 also supported the appeal, as did Tony Avella, of Queens, chairperson of the City Council’s Zoning Subcommittee. No decision is expected before May.

G.V.S.H.P. has been working through Borough President Stringer’s N.Y.U. Community Task Force to push for caps on New York University’s growth in our neighborhood and greater transparency in the university’s planning process. Early this year, N.Y.U. agreed to a set of “planning principles” that helped lead to the university siting its newest graduate and undergraduate student dorms outside of our neighborhood — as we have long called for them to do. But while N.Y.U. has promised to channel a significant amount of its growth over the next 25 years outside of our neighborhood, at this point they still intend to site another 3 million or more square feet of new space in our neighborhood — more than all the university’s new buildings added in the last 35 years combined. This is still an unacceptable amount of new development in our neighborhood, and likely to lead to intense conflict.

After a four-year effort, the city is moving ahead on G.V.S.H.P.’s proposal to landmark the I.M. Pei-designed Silver Towers complex and its Picasso sculpture. Aside from preserving this noteworthy design, this landmarking will help prevent some of N.Y.U.’s more audacious and out-of-scale recent development proposals for this superblock.

In spite of intense public opposition, the Hudson River Park Trust continues to consider Related’s “Vegas-on-the-Hudson” mega-entertainment complex for Pier 40. The Pier 40 Partnership, or P40P, a consortium of Downtown parents and businesspeople, have put together a counterproposal to generate the required income for the pier and park by maintaining the existing recreational and parking uses, and forming a nonprofit conservancy to manage it. G.V.S.H.P. and a host of community groups have called for rejection of the Related plan and for the Trust to work on the P40P model. No decision by the Trust is expected before late March at the earliest.

The city continues to follow through on its 2005 commitment to landmark and downzone much of the Far West Village; in 2007, three more sites G.V.S.H.P. fought to preserve were landmarked, including the long-neglected Keller Hotel. Landmark protections are helping to ensure that proposed new developments on Charles and Perry Sts. at Washington St. don’t violate the scale of the neighborhood. However, old commercial zoning is allowing the Perry St. development to be a hotel, which has rattled neighbors. G.V.S.H.P. and other community groups are working with neighbors to look at zoning changes that could address such concerns.

In 2007, G.V.S.H.P. got the entire Meatpacking District listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, offering tax breaks and grants for restoration and preservation of historic properties. This is important because the city landmarked only two-thirds of the area that G.V.S.H.P. proposed for landmark designation in 2003. Battles over area billboards continue; G.V.S.H.P. has gotten several illegal signs removed, though the city refused to require anything more than minor modifications to the reviled Hotel Gansevoort’s billboards — in spite of clear evidence we presented that they violate zoning regulations. The new Standard Hotel looms over the neighborhood just outside the landmarked district in an area where G.V.S.H.P. sought to have landmark protections added and hotel uses banned. The new High Line Park and the possible relocation of the Whitney Museum to Gansevoort St. also loom over the neighborhood, albeit more benignly.

The New School has announced plans to replace its current building at 65 Fifth Ave., at 14th St., with a new “signature” building; but plans for the new building have shown an all-glass skin, multicolored projecting lights and a massive bulk rising more than 300 feet without setbacks. In response to concerns from neighbors and G.V.S.H.P., The New School eliminated the projecting lights, but the massive bulk and glass design remain. The proposed building requires a zoning variance, however, so growing opposition makes its chances of approval far from assured.

Massive development pressure builds in the formerly low-rise East Village, but some important protections are being won. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has begun to consider several sites in the neighborhood for landmark designation, including Webster Hall, which G.V.S.H.P. proposed for designation; the club could easily be replaced with a 20-story dorm or hotel under current zoning.

More sweepingly, the city has agreed to move ahead with a rezoning of the area that G.V.S.H.P., the East Village Community Coalition, Community Board 3, Councilmember Rosie Mendez and others have been calling for. The rezoning would place contextual height and bulk caps on most of the neighborhood, while also encouraging the preservation and creation of affordable housing. However, the city has adamantly refused to include the Third and Fourth Aves. and Bowery corridors in the plan. As a result, we are working on a community-initiated rezoning plan for this area to prevent more development like N.Y.U.’s 26-story dorm on E. 12th St. near Fourth Ave. or the new 20-plus-story hotels on the Bowery.

After years of pressure, the city has begun to move on extending landmark designations to the unprotected parts of Noho along Bond, Great Jones and E. Fourth Sts. and the Bowery. However, progress is slow, much has been lost since the first landmark designations in the area in 1999 and the proposed landmark extensions do not cover all sites that groups like G.V.S.H.P. and the Noho Neighborhood Association have called for. It will be a race to get the new designations enacted as quickly and as expansively as possible before more is lost.

Last year, many neighbors heard from G.V.S.H.P. for the first time about plans by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to build an emergency fan plant near the intersection of Greenwich and Seventh Aves. In a best-case scenario, the plan would involve years of digging and construction, noise, traffic interruption and potential danger to fragile adjacent historic structures. That’s why G.V.S.H.P. has called upon the M.T.A. to consider other options for this project, which the M.T.A. says is necessary to address safety concerns in the subway. If the M.T.A.’s nearby fan plant project on 13th St. was any indication, this project might easily run years over schedule and could have a devastating impact upon neighbors, especially when combined with the possibility of eight years of demolition and new construction planned nearby at St. Vincent’s Hospital. A final decision by the M.T.A. is not expected until later this year.

G.V.S.H.P. and a host of neighborhood groups are fighting a plan by a developer to rezone an area of the Far West Village between Morton and Leroy Sts. to allow high-rise residential development. At the same time, we are continuing to push the City Planning Commission and City Council to rezone the area directly to the south, the north end of Hudson Square — a change which the community has long requested; in this area, the Trump Soho condo-hotel is being built and 45-story buildings are currently allowed. After a big turnout at two consecutive public hearings, we were able to get Community Board 2 to oppose the developer’s rezoning, but the plan’s fate at City Planning and the City Council remain to be seen.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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