Local pols take their medicine, support St. Vincent’s to jeers
By Albert Amateau
Elected officials on Tuesday reluctantly supported the St. Vincent’s Hospital hardship application for Landmarks Preservation Commission permission to demolish the eccentric O’Toole Building in order to develop its proposed 299-foot-tall new hospital in the Greenwich Village Historic District.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Congressmember Jerrold Nadler and Assemblymember Deborah Glick submitted their statements at the July 15 Landmarks hearing. Glick, however, said she had serious concerns about the project.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and State Senator Tom Duane delivered their responses in person and braved the mostly hostile reaction in the crowded auditorium of New York University’s Law School.
The hearing began at 9:30 a.m., and by 2 p.m., when the public testimony ended, 96 people had testified — most of them opposed to the proposal to demolish O’Toole, built in 1964 on a design by Albert Ledner for the National Maritime Union and acquired by St. Vincent’s in 1975.
One of the speakers at the public session, the film actress Susan Sarandon, introduced herself as a Village resident and mother.
“We need to slow down and look at what the future will be,” Sarandon said. “I’m afraid our kids will wake up one morning and find they’re in another country.”
Across the street from the meeting place, the hospital workers Local 1099 and other labor unions mounted a noon demonstration supporting the St. Vincent’s/Rudin project. Neighborhood preservationists in the hearing room blamed St. Vincent’s for instigating the event.
“I found it insulting and cheesy,” one resident said of the union demonstration.
The St. Vincent’s/Rudin redevelopment project requires Landmarks approval because the hospital complex on both sides of Seventh Ave. at W. 12th St. is in the Greenwich Village Historic District. The hardship application is for an exemption to the ban on demolition in a historic district.
The proposal includes a residential development with a 235-foot-tall apartment building by the Rudin Organization to be built on the property of the current hospital complex on the east side of the avenue and a 299-foot-tall, state-of-the-art hospital building on the O’Toole site.
The residential development is intended to partially fund the cost of the $600 million hospital project.
Preservation advocates at the July 15 hearing were concerned that the granting of a hardship exemption allowing the demolition would set a precedent that would encourage other nonprofit organizations and their developer partners to encroach on protected historic districts.
Indeed, neighborhood opposition to the size of buildings in the project led this spring to a reduction of 30 feet each in the heights of the hospital and the residential towers. Rudin also agreed to preserve four of the hospital’s eight existing buildings on the east side of the avenue that neighbors deemed to be historically significant, and convert them to residential use.
“While I believe there still remains room for certain design alterations in the applications, I want to strongly voice my support for the relocation of the hospital to the O’Toole site, assuming that the commission determines that the hardship case has been made,” Quinn’s statement said.
Glick’s statement said she was gratified about the changes, but warned that the “Seventh Ave. residential tower is simply too large and its height and bulk must be reduced.” Glick was not so worried about precedence, saying in her statement: “This revised proposal being considered today is a hardship application, which — it is my understanding — would not be precedent setting and would allow L.P.C. to weigh St. Vincent’s particular circumstances.”
Stringer said there is still work that can and should be done on the project, but added, “It is important that this process now move toward resolution. At risk is the mission of a hospital that has operated in the Village for 150 years but can no longer operate within its historic building layouts. Without some form of modernization,” Stringer said, “the hospital will continue down the path of obsolescence.”
The borough president also supported the hospital’s contention that it would be difficult if not impossible to find any location as suitable for a 21st-century hospital as the O’Toole site. But Stringer said the Landmarks hardship application could set a dangerous precedent that would undermine historic district designation. He called on L.P.C. to make it clear that it would limit its consideration to this one unique situation and protect the strength and integrity of the Landmarks Law.
Duane said he was disappointed that the revised project did not include the preservation and reuse of the hospital’s Reiss Building. But he added, “St. Vincent’s has made a compelling argument that O’Toole is the only feasible site for the hospital. It saddens me that O’Toole has to be demolished.” His comments provoked loud jeers and heckling from Villagers in attendance.
Preservation advocates were not satisfied that St. Vincent’s had explored all the options for a new hospital outside of the historic district. Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said that alternatives, including renovating the existing hospital on the east side of the avenue, should be explored. Erecting a new hospital on the site of the Coleman and Link buildings — built in 1984 and 1987 and slated for demolition to make way for the Rudin residential tower — is another possible alternative, Berman said.
Berman and others suggested that the St. Vincent’s staff residence at 555 Sixth Ave. between 15th and 16th Sts. be considered as a new hospital site. However, a hospital on that site would have to put its emergency room on the second floor, according to St. Vincent’s consultants. Such an arrangement would never be approved by state and federal oversight agencies, according to hospital consultants.
Nevertheless, preservation advocates said St. Vincent’s should consider buying property adjacent to 555 Sixth Ave. so the site could accommodate a hospital with a street-level emergency room.
During an afternoon session set aside for Landmarks commissioners to question St. Vincent’s, one commissioner asked if property adjacent to 555 Sixth Ave. could be acquired for hospital use by eminent domain.
Shelley Friedman, land-use lawyer for St. Vincent’s, said that the hospital has no right to condemn private property.
“You’d have to ask the City Planning Department about that,” he replied.
G.V.S.H.P. had a similar thought about eminent domain.
“It is our strong belief that the city and state should play a prominent role in this process,” Berman said. “If necessary, we believe they should help with the identification and acquisition of alternative sites.”
Many preservation advocates agreed with the position of Community Board 2 that no decision should be made on the residential development on the east side of the avenue until the hardship application issue is resolved.
“We still think O’Toole is worthy of preservation, and depending on what you decide, the whole project may have to be redesigned,” said Jo Hamilton, C.B. 2 vice chairperson.
Tom Molner, a founding member of Protect the Village Historic District, recalled that St. Vincent’s presented a radically revised plan just two weeks after Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairperson Robert Tierney said at a public meeting that the project needed rethinking.
“There is no hardship here,” Molner said. “This is a game of checkers. We know that alternatives are being studied.”
Tierney said the commission would hold another public meeting on the project in the fall.