A map of the proposed South Village Historic District, designation of which is being promoted by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
Development slows, but vigilance is still needed
By Andrew Berman
The current financial crisis is deeply affecting all aspects of life in our city, and preservation is no exception. While the pace of development is significantly slowed, it is by no means halted, and the economic downturn means bigger challenges for small businesses, cultural nonprofit groups and preservation organizations, as well. The past year has seen both important victories and frustrations, and the year ahead will likely include the same.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s proposal for a 38-block, 750-building South Village Historic District got a big boost last year when the Landmarks Preservation Commission committed to begin consideration of the first section of the district — west of Sixth Ave. — for designation. This wonderful neighborhood south of Washington Square Park and W. Fourth Street, including much of MacDougal, Sullivan, Thompson, Bleecker, Carmine, Downing, Jones, Cornelia and Minetta Sts., has faced increasing threats from private developers and institutions like New York University, with the loss in recent years of the Poe and Judson houses on W. Third St., the Tunnel Garage on Broome St., and the Circle in the Square Theater on Bleecker St. and Sullivan Street Playhouse. But the neighborhood’s architectural charm and Italian-American and countercultural history are undeniable, and the proposal has garnered incredibly strong support from community and business leaders, scholars, historians and elected officials. We are expecting the city to begin movement on this first segment of the proposed district soon, but we do not have a moment to spare — an 1861 house at 178 Bleecker St. is threatened with demolition, while neighbors on Sullivan St. are contending with a plan for an 18-story hotel.
The nation’s largest private university, located in the middle of our city’s most historic neighborhoods, continues to present serious preservation challenges. While early last year New York University agreed to a set of “planning principles” for its ongoing development that included “prioritizing reuse before new development,” the university’s first proposal out of the gate was to demolish the world-famous historic Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments at 133-139 MacDougal St. After a fire-storm of outrage, N.Y.U. relented slightly, agreeing to preserve the interior four walls of the small theater space, as well as its facade (amounting to about 6 percent of the building), while the remainder would be demolished and replaced with offices for N.Y.U. Law School. Worse, in justifying its plan, N.Y.U. said the existing building had no historic merit whatsoever, and essentially reneged on a begrudging commitment to support the proposed South Village Historic District, of which this historic building would have been a key feature. While the New York State Historic Preservation Office declared the entire building eligible for listing on the State and National Register of Historic Places, Community Board 2 supported the plan, and thus N.Y.U. began demolition.
Later this year N.Y.U. expects to begin finalizing its “Plan 2031,” a road map for its growth over the next 22 years. Currently N.Y.U. projects 6 million square feet of growth, with 3 million to 3.6 million of it in or around its main campus. That’s the equivalent of all the new development N.Y.U. has added to the neighborhood over the last 45 years, or roughly double its rate of growth as compared to the last several decades. Put another way, it’s the equivalent of 20 more of the university’s highly controversial, 26-story, 700-bed dorms on E. 12th St. — the tallest building in the East Village.
In a more positive development, a five-year battle led by G.V.S.H.P. to landmark the I.M. Pei-designed Silver Towers complex, including its Picasso sculpture and landscaping, won city approval in November, putting a crimp in N.Y.U.’s plans to erect a 40-story tower — the tallest ever in the Village — on the complex’s open space on Bleecker St.
A plan by St. Vincent’s and the Rudin Organization to demolish nine buildings in the Greenwich Village Historic District and replace them with two of the largest buildings ever in Greenwich Village was rejected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission this past spring. St. Vincent’s and Rudin then came back with a new plan to reuse some of the older buildings, demolish some of the newer ones, and ask for a “hardship exemption” to allow demolition of St. Vincent’s O’Toole Building on Seventh Ave. for its new hospital. While many supported St. Vincent’s quest to create new modern facilities, many also objected to St. Vincent’s hardship claim and the precedent it would set, as well as aspects of Rudin’s newer condo plan. The L.P.C. very narrowly voted to approve the hardship finding last fall, which is now being challenged in court, and the new hospital tower earlier this month. The Rudin condo plan has not yet been approved by the commission, and both the condo and hospital tower plan will also need major approvals from the City Planning Commission and the City Council.
The New School
The normally quiet New School made some waves when it revealed plans for an enormous new 350-foot-tall glass “signature building” on Fifth Ave. between 13th and 14th Sts. After much public outcry and economic uncertainty, The New School dropped the old plan and is now considering a much smaller, possibly less glassy design that would no longer require air-rights transfers and setback waivers.
While the enormous, as-of-right (no variances needed) Standard Hotel neared completion on Washington St., a new proposal for an almost equally large glass office tower across the street at 437 W. 13th St. hit some roadblocks. This 215-foot-tall proposal required variances for extra bulk and to include a three-story megastore in its base, which G.V.S.H.P. and many area residents and leaders opposed. After Community Board 2’s Zoning Committee approved the plan (with a modest reduction in the added bulk), G.V.S.H.P. and other opponents prevailed upon the full board to overturn the approval. The full board did (mostly), rejecting the allowance for extra bulk, but allowing a doubling rather than a tripling of the size of the retail space in the proposed building’s base. A hearing before the Board of Standards and Appeals, which ultimately decides the proposal’s fate, still awaits.
BUSINESS AND THEATERS
This past year saw the shuttering of some of our neighborhood’s most iconic businesses — Vesuvio Bakery, Jefferson Market, Love Saves the Day, Le Figaro Cafe, Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop — accelerating an already prominent trend. While the economic downturn may staunch out-of-control rents, it is likely to be even harder on some longtime businesses, as evidenced by the growing number of empty storefronts we see — a trend that would likely be accelerated by the proposed elimination of the M8 bus — a move G.V.S.H.P. opposed.
Last summer G.V.S.H.P. co-hosted one of the first public screenings of “Twilight Becomes Night,” a documentary about the loss of small businesses in New York, which has drawn huge audiences throughout the five boroughs. The screening was followed by a discussion about measures which could help preserve small businesses in our neighborhood. New York City lags woefully far behind other cities in implementing measures to preserve small businesses, which are an essential part of our city’s economic engine.
Similarly, small theaters are under increasing threat in our neighborhoods, with G.V.S.H.P. over the years fighting to save the Circle in the Square, Sullivan Street Playhouse and Variety Arts, among others. In fact, with the help of state Senator Tom Duane, G.V.S.H.P. met with Mayor Bloomberg’s staff about the threat to Village theaters several years ago; unfortunately, however, the administration seemed less than interested, and took no steps to try to address the problem.
We were therefore especially distressed when the landlord of the Archive Building, at Greenwich and Christopher Sts., tried to exponentially increase the rent for several small theaters and nonprofit groups located there. G.V.S.H.P. again called upon the mayor to take action to help save theaters in the Village and mobilized our members to do the same. The all-too-rare happy ending in this case: Under the terms of the original purchase of this building from the federal government, the landlord did not have the right to raise the rents, and therefore the theaters and nonprofits are staying, for now.
West Side zoning
Requests for urgently needed rezonings in the Far West Village and Hudson Square, which would require the approval of the City Planning Commission and the City Council, continued to be ignored by city officials, even as they approved a developer-requested rezoning over widespread community opposition. G.V.S.H.P. and several community groups have asked for a rezoning of an outdated commercial zoning district along Washington and Greenwich Sts. in the Far West Village that encourages out-of-scale development, including recent proposed developments at Perry and Charles Sts. But the city has thus far refused to act.
Meanwhile in Hudson Square, that zoning district allows massively out-of-scale development, such as the 45-story Trump Soho — though the area doesn’t allow residential or residential-hotel development, hence the lawsuit against the city’s approval. Here too, G.V.S.H.P. and many community groups have been calling for a zoning change for years, which city officials have also ignored. But early last year developer Peter Moore requested a zoning change for a directly adjacent area to allow him to more easily develop sites he owns. Both the City Planning Commission and the City Council approved a rezoning of the Moore sites, although there was massive community opposition, and accusations of favoritism to developers when the community-requested rezoning next door was being ignored.
After the Moore site’s rezoning, the city gave its first indications it might consider community requests for a Hudson Square rezoning, but only as part of another developer-requested rezoning, this time by Trinity Real Estate. Meanwhile, at least a half-dozen out-of-scale projects were under construction or recently completed in the neighborhood, which any rezoning that the city would consider now would be too late to affect.
East Village and Noho
Preservation certainly made progress east of Broadway, but there were problems, as well. In the fall the city finally approved the Noho Historic District Extension, long-championed by many community groups, including G.V.S.H.P, and first promised by the city nearly 10 years earlier. However, because of delays by the city, many sites in the neighborhood had already been developed — some handsomely, some horribly — and many developers raced to get permits before designation took effect. A developer who recently purchased the White House Hotel on the Bowery, one of this avenue’s few remaining lodging houses, took another approach. He tried to have his site excised from the new landmark district — which G.V.S.H.P. strongly opposed — and when that would not work, filed a hardship case to allow demolition.
In the East Village, a dramatic rezoning several years in the making was finally approved, which for the first time imposed height limits, limited air-rights transfers and removed incentives for hotel and dorm development, while creating incentives for the creation and retention of affordable housing. A trade-off was the upzoning of Houston St., Avenue D and Second Ave. below Third St. — though, in each case, affordable housing production would be required to reach the maximum allowable bulk. On the other hand, the city also stubbornly refused to include the Third and Fourth Ave. and Bowery corridors in the rezoning, even though these blocks have some of the worst zoning in the neighborhood and have seen some of its most inappropriate development — for example, N.Y.U.’s 26-story megadorm on E. 12th St. and the Cooper Square Hotel. G.V.S.H.P., Community Board 3, community groups and Councilmember Rosie Mendez are pushing the city to do a follow-up rezoning of the area, or to do a community-initiated rezoning.
There were great landmarking strides in the East Village, as well, with designation of Webster Hall, St. Nicholas Church at Avenue A at 10th St., and a half-dozen other buildings. G.V.S.H.P. and the East Village Community Coalition also pushed for landmark designation of E. Sixth St.’s Mezritch Synagogue, the East Village’s last operating tenement synagogue, and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral at 59 E. Second St., both of which were imminently threatened. While landmark designation has not yet taken place, the efforts did block the development plans for both sites.
And at the end of 2008, G.V.S.H.P. was awarded a $13,000 Preserve New York Grant to complete a historic survey of the entire East Village, which we will use to formulate comprehensive landmark and historic district designation proposals for the neighborhood.
Public projects stall
At Pier 40 and 75 Morton St., possible large-scale private development projects were averted — for now — when the Hudson River Park Trust and New York State each rejected such schemes for these sites. However, in each case, more community-friendly proposals for reuse for schools and other services were also not adopted, and the fate of these two critical, publicly owned sites remains in doubt.
Berman is director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation