Volume 79, Number 45 | April 14 - 20, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

PROGRESS REPORT
A SPECIAL VILLAGER SUPPLEMENT
PRESERVATION


Photos courtesy Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

Andrew Berman of G.V.S.H.P. speaking at a protest rally last year against plans to demolish a historic Bleecker St. building.

The Westbeth Artists Complex, at West and Bethune Sts., has been calendared for a landmark-designation hearing.

Fighting to keep projects at bay amid landmark gains

By Andrew Berman

While many expected the economy’s downturn to lead to an end to development pressure in our neighborhoods, the reality has turned out to be far different. Private and institutional development pressure continues, but so too, fortunately, do some very important preservation successes. 

In the Far West Village, after a nearly two-year effort, community and preservation groups were able to convince the city to agree to change an outdated zoning district between Washington and Greenwich Sts. that encourages out-of-scale commercial development. The current zoning would have allowed a planned 100-foot-tall hotel (which has since been dropped). But new zoning proposed by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and other groups would put more appropriate height limits in place and eliminate the current zoning bonus for dormitory or hotel development. That rezoning process should begin either this month or the next and take about six months. Meanwhile, two developments may try to start before the rezoning is approved, enabling them to be completed under terms of the old zoning. 

G.V.S.H.P. and community groups also played a key role in dramatically reducing the size of a proposed new glass office tower at 13th and Washington Sts. next to the High Line in the Meatpacking District. There a developer sought variances to allow large increases in the size of the building and to allow a big-box retail space in its base, claiming that the High Line’s presence on the property created a “hardship” for the developer. Community opposition led to a 64 percent reduction in the extra bulk approved for the building and a 50 percent reduction in the size of the extra retail space allowed.

The Westbeth Artists Residence in the Far West Village, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, was the site of some wonderful preservation news. After a three-year research project funded by the J.M. Kaplan Fund, G.V.S.H.P. was able to document the history of the groundbreaking conversion of the former Bell Telephone Labs along the Greenwich Village waterfront into the country’s first subsidized artists housing and the first large-scale, adaptive, residential reuse of an industrial building. With this documentation, we successfully nominated the entire complex for listing on the State and National Register of Historic Places, which was followed shortly thereafter by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission finally fulfilling a five-year-old commitment to consider the complex for landmark designation. The listing on the register offers tax breaks, grants and loans for the complex’s upkeep, while landmark designation would prevent demolition of or unsympathetic alterations to the structure.

Local institutions have been the focus of much development and preservation activity. The New School dropped plans for a controversial 350-foot-tall, massive building without setbacks on Fifth Ave. between 13th and 14th Sts., which originally would have had multicolored, projecting lights and required significant variances to exempt it from height and setback requirements. The school then produced a more modestly scaled (but still quite large) plan for a 189-foot-tall building with setbacks preserving some light and air, which did not require zoning variances. The plan, which is not yet final, has still attracted questions about construction, noise and traffic impacts, as well as the building’s exterior — which looks distinctly “office building-ish,” with alternating, horizontal ribbons of glass windows and metal — but the school and neighbors are closer to agreement than they were with the first plan. 

A map showing the G.V.S.H.P. proposal for the South Village Historic District, parts of which are in City Council Districts 1 and 3.

New York University promises to continue its role as the 800-pound gorilla of development threats in the neighborhood. The university has finally begun to release its “2031” 21-year expansion plan, with a proposed 3 million square feet of new space — the equivalent of four-and-a-half Javits Convention Centers, or 17 of N.Y.U.’s new 26-story dorm on E. 12th St. — shoehorned into our neighborhood.

While N.Y.U. has claimed to have undertaken a more transparent and inclusive planning process, its two already-initiated projects under the new system, the demolition of the Provincetown Playhouse and the construction of a new Spiritual Center on Washington Square South, have met overwhelming resistance in the neighborhood and do not bode well for future plans.

N.Y.U. reportedly plans to begin with a proposed 30-to-40-story tower on the landmarked open space in the Silver Towers complex along Bleecker St., near the Picasso sculpture. Not only would this be an unprecedented request to allow large-scale construction in a landmarked area, it would require lifting strict zoning restrictions regarding preservation of open space, and could be the tallest building ever erected in Greenwich Village.

New construction is not the only concern about N.Y.U.: The university’s willingness to keep its commitments to the community is another huge issue. In 2008, N.Y.U. won over some supporters of its plan to demolish the Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments with a commitment to preserve in perpetuity the tiny entrance facade and four interior walls of the theater space. But in 2009, G.V.S.H.P. discovered that, hidden behind construction walls, N.Y.U. had secretly demolished a large chunk of the tiny remnant of the theater that the university had promised to preserve and build into its new law school building.

The fate of another institutional development plan, that of St. Vincent’s
Hospital, took a troubling turn. The original plan to develop a large new hospital on the site of the O’Toole building and convert half the hospital buildings east of Seventh Ave. to residential use and tear down the other half to replace with new condo development was approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. However, that plan went into limbo when St. Vincent’s closed down many of its operations and approached bankruptcy due to $700 million in debt. While the plans for the new hospital building seemed almost certainly dead, the fate of the Rudin plan for condo development and conversion east of Seventh Ave. seemed murkier.

St. Vincent’s approvals to tear down the O’Toole building could not be
transferred to another entity, but the Landmarks approvals for Rudin’s plans could still be used by Rudin or even potentially given to another developer. However, the development planned for the hospital’s east campus still required zoning changes that had not yet been approved; as a result, what, if any, development or new uses would be allowed east of Seventh Ave. remained to be seen.

The original new hospital/Rudin condo development plan was never realistic, since it would have added at least a half billion dollars in debt to the financially imperiled hospital. When St. Vincent’s emerged from bankruptcy in 2007, it was advised to find another healthcare institution to partner with to help make them financially solvent. Instead, it pursued a grandiose plan for an expensive new hospital that a controversial, speculative real estate deal would have only partly paid for. So, unfortunately, instead of getting a new hospital, the Village got no hospital at all.

The South Village has also been an area of intense preservation activity. Since G.V.S.H.P. first approached the Landmarks Preservation Commission about landmarking this historic 38-block neighborhood south of Washington Square in 2002, historic building after historic building has been demolished or compromised, including the Provincetown Playhouse, Circle in the Square Theater, Sullivan Street Playhouse and the Tunnel Garage. In late 2009, L.P.C. finally held a hearing on designating the first one-third of the South Village Historic District we had proposed, and there was overwhelming support. But six months later, L.P.C. still has not voted to designate, and while it has committed to look at the remaining two-thirds of the neighborhood, there has been no commitment about when. 

In the meantime, more critical historic sites are being lost. The building at 178 Bleecker St., in the center of a row of 1861 houses between MacDougal and Sullivan Sts., was demolished to make way for an eighth-story apartment building that G.V.S.H.P. and neighbors contended would be illegally tall. The city initially approved the new building plans, but then after G.V.S.H.P. and community groups held a demonstration in front of the site, the city rescinded the approvals, temporarily. A final decision from the city on the new building is still pending, but the historic character of this row of houses in the center of the South Village and abutting the MacDougal Sullivan Gardens — one of New York’s oldest and most diminutively scaled historic districts — has already been compromised.

On the other hand, the designation of the 235-building first one-third of the proposed South Village Historic District, long overdue but expected any day, would be the largest expansion of landmark protections in Greenwich Village since 1969. In further good news, a coalition of neighborhood groups recently was able to stop a developer-requested rezoning of a stretch of Sullivan St. between Spring and Broome Streets that would have allowed more commercial development in this area, and potentially been used as a precedent for other developer rezonings in the South Village. 

Finally, the East Village has seen a great deal of preservation progress in recent years, but is so lacking in appropriate protections that it still has much catching up to do. A community-initiated rezoning in late 2008 reduced the allowable size and height of development in most of the neighborhood and eliminated zoning bonuses for hotels and dorms. The rezoning left out the Third and Fourth Ave. corridors and the Bowery, two parts of the neighborhood with the most egregious zoning and some of the worst new development, such as a 26-story N.Y.U. dorm and glassy hotels. After much lobbying, the city agreed to support a modest rezoning of the Third and Fourth Ave. corridors proposed by G.V.S.H.P., neighbors and Councilmember Rosie Mendez, though it has been slow to implement the plan. The city has resisted, however, a more far-reaching rezoning proposed for the Bowery by other community groups, and as a result, out-of-scale development continues unabated. 

More good news came in the form of nearly a dozen new individual landmark designations adopted or being considered in the East Village during the last year or two, including a Russian Orthodox cathedral, La Mama Theater, a former Children’s Aid Society headquarters, a former tenement synagogue and a former public bath.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

 

 

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