Volume 73, Number 44 | March 3 - 9, 2004

Task force to Landmarks chief: Village waterfront is threatened

396 West St./305 W. 10th St.
Photos courtesy Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
6 Weehawken St., where New Yorkers once ate giant oysters.
Former police precint at 135 Charles St.
By Lincoln Anderson

Community Board 2’s Landmarks Task Force held its first meeting with Robert Tierney, chairperson of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, last Thursday.

Tierney has been the agency’s chairperson for 14 months, and the group of local preservationists and activists were eager to finally meet with him, as they had done regularly with Sherida Paulsen, his predecessor.

While the news from Tierney wasn’t everything the task force members had hoped to hear, most thought it was a good start to a dialogue that will hopefully result in the extension of landmarking into unprotected areas of Board 2 — most urgently, the Greenwich Village waterfront and Far West Village, where development is rapidly reshaping the landscape.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, explained that the priority is specifically the area between Horatio and Barrow Sts. between West St. and the Greenwich Village Historic District. Important historic structures in this area include “The Oyster House” at 6 Wee-hawken St., where people once ate oysters that abounded in New York’s waters; Berman called it “the poster child for a Far West Village landmark district.” Other historically noteworthy sites he mentioned are the former police precinct stationhouse on Charles St. and Charles Lane, a 200-year-old cobblestoned alley.

Berman called the recent sale of the Superior Ink factory (which he noted was formerly a Nabisco factory) at Bethune and West Sts. to a developer, Related Companies, “symbolic” of what is in store for the waterfront if the area is not landmarked.

Tierney didn’t disagree with Berman, but explained how Landmarks sees things.

“I wish this was the Community Board 2 Landmarks Commission,” Tierney said, “because there’s so much richness and architecture and history. I know that from living in Greenwich Village. But, of course, we are the New York City Landmarks Commission.”

Tierney said the agency is “very interested in expanding to outside Manhattan” in terms of landmarking.

“Many [requests] are coming in; many are in the pipeline,” he said, noting, for example, that Crown Heights, is a “a gem.”

At the same time, Tierney said Landmarks’ staff is small and overworked, so they have to focus their efforts and give priority to certain requests for designation, while others must necessarily wait.

However, Stuart Waldman, of the Federation to Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront, said the situation in the Village is more urgent.

“I’m sensitive to the rest…but I don’t know of any area of the city that’s under such assault,” he said. “If you go in to do triage in an emergency room, you take the patient with the gunshot wound.”

But residents in other neighborhoods also feel urgency, Tierney said, noting, “Douglaston Hills feels the same way.” He added that Commissioner Amanda Burden, of City Planning, can help control development in some areas by downzoning, as part of an overall “holistic process.”

In addition, the Gansevoort Historic District was recently designated, which might make one think Board 2 now must wait its turn before getting another new historic district.

Noting Board 2 just got a “big area” landmarked, Aubrey Lees, the task force’s chairperson, asked Tierney bluntly, “What can we expect?” Is there a priority list for new districts, she asked, and, if so, where does Board 2 rank?

Tierney responded that the designation process is long and drawn out, but that Landmarks does take into account development threats. However, he said, “I can’t say you’re number five, two or whatever.”

“Gansevoort was a very important district, an extremely important designation,” he said. Yet, he pointed out that it wasn’t a “slam dunk,” since not all property owners wanted it — “but it was a philosophical slam dunk.”

Noting that a big turnout is expected for a March 10 emergency town hall meeting on saving the Village waterfront from overdevelopment, Berman asked if a strong and vocal constituency can make a difference.

“It is helpful — not always required,” Tierney answered. “Keep doing what you’re doing. It helps.”

Although all the task force members acknowledged that the most imminent threat is on the waterfront, efforts to landmark other areas in Board 2 continue. David Gruber, of the South Village Landmark Association, or Sovilla, called “arbitrary” the decision in 1969 when the Greenwich Village Historic District was being created, to make W. Fourth St. the southern boundary.

“If we don’t act quickly, there’s not going to be anything left” in the South Village, he warned. Berman said a firm proposal for the shape of the district should be ready by the end of the year.

Zella Jones, of the Noho Neighborhood Association, said Noho also has a pressing need for the landmarking of two and a half blocks that were left out of earlier Noho districts for containing empty lots. These are actually “the most antique blocks,” she said. “We just need a little help,” she urged.

Jack Taylor, a Union Sq. preservationist, reiterated support for the designation of three buildings, not all of which are in Board 2: the former Bauman furniture store, at 22 E. 14th St., a cast-iron building owned by New School University; the former Tammany Hall at 17th St. and Union Sq. E.; and the Guardian Life annex on E. 17th St., which Taylor called “a great example of post-World War II architecture.”

While Lees and others put a positive spin on the meeting, saying it was a good start, others were less optimistic.

Speaking afterward, Gruber said he understood that other parts of the city are worthy of landmarking, but that the situation is more dire in the Village.

“I’m sure Crown Heights is very important,” he said. “But I don’t see Related Properties spending $12 million in Crown Heights.”


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