Volume 78 / Number 1 - June 4 - 10, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since


St. Vincent’s faces emergency situation

After a year and a half of public discussion of its rebuilding project, St. Vincent’s Hospital finds itself in a troubling bind. Namely, it’s become unclear whether St. Vincent’s will be able to construct the new, state-of-the-art hospital necessary to meet today’s and tomorrow’s Lower West Side healthcare needs.

By stating last month that the O’Toole Building, on the west side of Seventh Ave. at 12th St., has architectural merit, the Landmarks Preservation Commission put a major crimp in the hospital’s plans — since that’s where St. Vincent’s wants to consolidate its Greenwich Village facilities in a new building. Further complicating the project, Landmarks has also indicated it feels four of the hospital’s existing buildings on its main campus, on the east side of Seventh Ave. between 11th and 12th Sts., are of historical significance.

According to St. Vincent’s, O’Toole was not built to support the weight of a major addition on top of it — and it would be virtually impossible to put four floors below it, as called for in the current plan. Alternatively, if four of the hospital’s buildings are preserved on the main campus, St. Vincent’s also would be hard pressed to find a way to build a modern hospital on that side of Seventh Ave. In short, St. Vincent’s isn’t being left much room to maneuver. As a result, it has applied for hardship under the Landmarks Law, and is making the case that it has just one option: to build on O’Toole or it will no longer be able to continue its charitable mission of providing healthcare, much of it to the needy poor — including serving as one of only two Level 1 trauma centers in southern Manhattan.

The fact is St. Vincent’s is the nation’s only hospital located in a historic district — the Greenwich Village Historic District — and that is severely restricting its rebuilding efforts.

After its initial proposal for a 329-foot-tall hospital was poorly received by Landmarks, St. Vincent’s lopped off two stories from the top of the design, as well as slicing off a significantly sized “tail” or “fin” on the building’s southwestern edge on 12th St. The result is a 299-foot-tall building — just shorter than 1 Fifth Ave., which, at 303 feet, is the historic district’s tallest building — that blocks less of the sky. The hospital’s elliptical tower design was widened a bit to preserve the same number of beds per floor, but the overall effect is an improvement.

Meanwhile, the Rudin Organization has reconfigured the project’s other half, the planned residential condo development on the avenue’s east side, by reducing the number of new townhouses and the size of the “bookend” building on Seventh Ave., and retrofitting the four preserved hospital buildings for residential use.

Neither the hospital nor Rudin, however, has significantly reduced the square footage of its project — and each says it cannot in order for the joint plan to work. Without the $310 million provided by Rudin’s purchase of St. Vincent’s development rights, St. Vincent’s says it cannot build its new hospital. Without using all the 600,000-plus square feet of space from St. Vincent’s, Rudin says the financials won’t work for them.

The community urged Rudin to include a school in its part of the project, and Rudin has already responded — pledging to serve as financial guarantor for a new, 563-seat District 2 school to be located in the bottom floors of the Foundling Hospital at 17th and Sixth Ave. This is an important and welcome development.

Some have cried that St. Vincent’s should leave the Village — “Go to the Hudson Yards!” Yet, the entire community-use provision in the Hudson Yards’ zoning is just 125,000 square feet, far under the 615,000 square feet the hospital needs.

As redesigned, both parts of the project responded to community concerns, and are better. But there’s still room for improvement, for size reduction of both the hospital and the condos. It’s now time for Community Board 2 and other well-intentioned neighbors to figure out how we can keep St. Vincent’s here and ensure it remains a top-notch medical facility. Above all, it’s up to Landmarks to realize that St. Vincent’s hardship case is real and critical for the hospital’s future. Now the hard work begins.

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