Our knack for defeating absolutely necessary projects
By Gary Tomei
I submit that the Rudin/St. Vincents proposal to build two megasized buildings in the Village is a project that is not absolutely necessary, and their application before the Landmarks Preservation Commission to build these monoliths should be denied since it does not meet the hardship criteria established by the Landmarks Law. While I am supportive of the hospital, I do not support the hospitals plan as presently constituted. To understand why I take this position, one must have a historical, as well as a present-day, perspective of the situation.
The Republic of Dreams and The most famous neighborhood in the United States are but two of the many ways Greenwich Village has been described in books, theater and movies. It is the uniqueness of the Village and its mystique that has garnered it such worldwide attention. Its history, architecture and spirit have created a sense of place not found anywhere else in the United States. Like a delicate ecosystem, this community must be nurtured and protected or it will soon break down and wither away.
The assault on the Village has been going on for years and in each instance the planned changes have been heralded by developers or planners as necessary for the improvement of Villagers lives or vital for the citys interests. In the 1950s it was Robert Moses who informed us that a road through Washington Square Park was essential to save the Village.
In her excellent book Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, Alice Sparberg Alexiou writes about plans in 1961 by the city to push through an urban renewal project in the Village: ....plans that might seem, on the surface, unassailable. Housing was still in desperately short supply
Alexiou writes that those in the community, including Jane Jacobs, opposing these improvements, were depicted in the press as negative or misguided. Public officials were saying, ...Jane Jacobs doesnt speak for everybody...and one city official was quoted in the Times as saying: Urban renewal which represents New Yorks golden opportunity to overcome immediate urban problems has found itself the subject of some misguided criticism of late.
In that battle, a city commissioner also called the Villagers ignorant, neurotic...disorderly and disgusting.
In 1962, the city tried to push through the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX), which again was claimed as an absolute necessity. Again, Jane Jacobs led the opposition and she and her cohorts were blasted in a Villager editorial for attempting to impose their will on the city. And the editorial went on to say, There are some sound, experienced and accomplished people who favor the Lower Manhattan expressway, and their reasons are hardly piffle
In 1968, the LOMEX proposal was revived and, again, as Alexiou writes, New York City officials were telling the press that traffic congestion in the city absolutely necessitated building an expressway, to say nothing of the construction jobs it would create. How could all these people not see that the expressway was for everybodys good?
All of those projects were defeated and clearly not one of them was absolutely necessary. And, in fact, we know now that they would have proven absolutely deadly to our community and detrimental to our city. Today, we are presented with another megaproject, the Rudin luxury condos and the St. Vincents tower, which is touted by the same cast of characters, the developers, politicians, et al. as urgent and absolutely necessary. And, we in opposition to the applications are again being derided in the same terms and being accused of valuing our narrow interests over that of the greater good. However, the truth is that, if this project is approved, it will irreparably tear the fabric of the Village.
A review of the specific applications before L.P.C. makes it clear why they should be denied. To begin with, the interests of Rudin and St. Vincents are inextricably connected. If L.P.C. were only considering the Rudin application for a certificate of appropriateness for a residential development of the size and density proposed, separate and apart from the alleged hospital hardship application regarding the OToole site, surely the application would bedenied. Moreover, even under the present circumstances, the Rudin part of the application should be denied. The proposed residential buildings are totally out of character and scale for the Greenwich Village Historic District. Furthermore, Rudin is not a community facility and is not entitled to the waivers that were granted to St. Vincents to allow it to build its Coleman Building. Taken together with the proposed 300-foot hospital on the hospitals current OToole site, the proposed buildings would create a barrier between 11th and 13th Sts. that would effectively and significantly compress and diminish the historic district.
Moreover, the OToole Building should not be demolished. Its architectural, historic and cultural significance have been attested to by all the experts: the Municipal Art Society and DOCOMOMO, as well as by almost all the L.P.C. commissioners. Additionally, the New York State Historic Preservation Office has found that the OToole Building meets the criteria for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
In her book, Alexiou states that, at present,
[W]e have respect for the past, as embodied in buildings, in a way that we didnt before. Since 1965, New York has had a landmarks law. But when Jacobs was writing The Death and Life of Great American Cities, there was none. Some of the structures then being torn down were not only salvageable but irreplaceable
. Certainly, this is true of the OToole Building and that is why it must be preserved.
Jane Jacobs wrote about architectural focal points that come from the contrast of a use radically different from its surroundings, and therefore inherently special looking, happily located to make some drama and contrast of the inherent difference. It seems to me that the OToole Building is just such an architectural focal point, which again certainly makes it worthy of preservation.
As to the hospitals hardship application, it is clear that the hardship is self-created, in that, by proposing to sell its east campus, the hospital would then be left with only the relatively small OToole site. The hospital knew OToole was landmarked when it bought it. Therefore, St. Vincents cannot now claim it is unfairly restricted regarding the use of the sites.
Also the hospitals present application concerns only the alleged inadequacy of its present physical plant on the OToole site; but it has stated its underlying problems stem from the lack of money to renovate the east campus and its alleged need to shut the hospital if it were to renovate. By selling the east campus to Rudin, St. Vincents avoids having to claim financial hardship, it avoids opening its books to scrutiny and it avoids the uncomfortable questions, such as how it was possible to build Coleman without closing the hospital and how it was able to transfer many of its patients to Cabrini for a period of time because of a recent fire at St. Vincents. In essence, it would appear that St. Vincents and Rudin are playing a shell game.
In addition, by proposing to build on the small OToole site, the hospital is limiting its ability to grow and expand in the future. Will it be coming back in a few short years to ask to build on its small garden triangle, with its materials-handling building, between Greenwich Ave., 12th St. and Seventh Ave.?
On Aug. 6, 1979, The New York Times reported that St. Vincents contended it needed to modernize and erect new buildings (Coleman and Link)
to replace many existing beds that do not conform to current health codes
. In a prophetic statement, which rings true today, a community member opposed to St. Vincents was quoted in the paper, saying the hospitals plan was expansive, grandiose and outdated before it starts. The same is certainly true of the present proposals.
Moreover, how can we believe St. Vincents contentions that it cant reuse its present campus? Its partner, Rudin, contended that it was impossible to reuse the existing hospital buildings east of Seventh Ave. for residential purposes, but when Rudin was denied the right to demolish those buildings, it almost immediately found a way to renovate them as apartments. St. Vincents own track record for honesty is also suspect. When it built Coleman, it promised the community a park on the triangle. That park is yet to be built.
There are other questions that come to mind concerning St. Vincents present application: What efforts, if any, has the hospital made to find alternative sites, inside or outside the Village, upon which to place its building? What parameters were given to those who were charged with finding other sites? And what instructions, written or verbal, were given to those whose responsibility was to find other sites?
We are told St. Vincents is the only hospital serving the entire West Side from the Battery to 59th St. If this area has such a dire shortage of hospital care, surely the institutions ultimately responsible for assuring this care are the city and state and where are they in this equation? Why is the entire burden being placed on St. Vincents and the Greenwich Village community?
For all of the forgoing reasons, I oppose this inappropriate scheme that is being foisted upon Greenwich Village and which will contribute to the ultimate destruction of the Greenwich Village Historic District and negatively impact on the entire city.
Tomei is president, W. 13th St. Block Association, and member, St. Vincents Community Working Group and Protect the Village Historic District