Volume 78 / Number 8 - July 23 - 29, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Talking Point

Our knack for defeating ‘absolutely necessary’ projects

By Gary Tomei

I submit that the Rudin/St. Vincent’s 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 hospital’s 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 city’s 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 doesn’t speak for everybody...and one city official was quoted in the Times as saying: Urban renewal — which represents New York’s 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 everybody’s 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. Vincent’s 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. Vincent’s 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 O’Toole 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. Vincent’s to allow it to build its Coleman Building. Taken together with the proposed 300-foot hospital on the hospital’s current O’Toole 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 O’Toole 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 O’Toole 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 didn’t 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 O’Toole 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 O’Toole Building is just such an “architectural focal point,” which again certainly makes it worthy of preservation.

As to the hospital’s “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 O’Toole site. The hospital knew O’Toole was landmarked when it bought it. Therefore, St. Vincent’s cannot now claim it is unfairly restricted regarding the use of the sites.

Also the hospital’s present application concerns only the alleged inadequacy of its present physical plant on the O’Toole 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. Vincent’s 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. Vincent’s. In essence, it would appear that St. Vincent’s and Rudin are playing a shell game.

In addition, by proposing to build on the small O’Toole 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. Vincent’s 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. Vincent’s was quoted in the paper, saying the hospital’s plan was “expansive, grandiose and outdated before it starts.” The same is certainly true of the present proposals.

Moreover, how can we believe St. Vincent’s contentions that it can’t 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. Vincent’s 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. Vincent’s 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. Vincent’s 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. Vincent’s 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. Vincent’s Community Working Group and Protect the Village Historic District

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