Right now is the 11th hour for the Far West Village
By Andrew Berman
Sometimes you dont realize how much you care about something, or how hard you are willing to work for it, until you are faced with the possibility of losing it.
This may be the lesson we all learned from the Town Hall meeting to Save the Far West Village on March 10. In a room meant to hold an expected crowd of 150, over 400 people showed up because of the undeniable danger facing their neighborhood and their willingness to join in an effort to save it. Those in attendance were energized and committed to work in coalition with their neighbors to prevent the further destruction of the scale and historic character of the Far West Village. People not only wrote letters to the city about saving our neighborhood, as was asked of them, but agreed to spread the word, bring others into the fight, and stay with the campaign as it unfolded. There was great enthusiasm for our next step, a rally on Sun., April 18, at 1 p.m., meeting at Charles Lane and West St., in front of the third Richard Meier tower construction site.
This kind of energy and participation will be absolutely crucial to our success and we have no time to spare. It is truly the 11th hour for the Far West Village. Since 1986, more than 16 new high-rise buildings have gone up in the dozen or so blocks of the Far West Village between Horatio and Leroy Sts. west of the Greenwich Village Historic District (the border of which is Washington St. north of Perry Street, Greenwich St. south of Perry). Half of these buildings have gone up in just the last five years. Another is under construction now, plans for two more have been announced, and there are at least two more reported to be in the works. To some, our neighborhood is starting to look and feel more like a Monopoly game board than a neighborhood.
Of course, this hasnt always been the case, and shouldnt be. The Far West Village has been one of New Yorks most beloved and unique neighborhoods for many years. A working waterfront neighborhood throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, its jumble of 19th-century houses, stables and cobblestoned streets and turn-of-the-century seamens hotels, tenements, factories and warehouses captured a sense of place, scale and texture that attracted urban pioneers the world over. After World War II the piers became increasingly inactive and industry receded; but while the neighborhood slowly became more residential, it changed very little physically. Old industrial buildings were converted to residential use and the distinct sense of place remained intact; the only real physical change came with the West Village Houses replacing the High Line and the dismantling of the Miller Elevated Highway.
In the mid-1980s that all began to change. A steady stream at first became a flood of new construction in the neighborhood, which had virtually no restrictions in terms of new building design, form or location, in spite of this being one of the most historic and pleasingly scaled neighborhoods in New York. And while some of the new construction meshed better with the fabric of the existing neighborhood, and certainly many of the new residents were drawn to the area for its same special qualities as were longtime residents, the impact of the new construction on the Far West Village was breathtaking. Older buildings that reflected the history and maintained the scale of the neighborhood were demolished, instead of being preserved thorough adaptive reuse as was done before. New buildings often had huge setback towers, large expanses of glass and projecting balconies, rather than character or scale matching the neighborhood. These were in many ways the antithesis of the otherwise earthy, modestly scaled neighborhood in which they were located. The unique look, scale and history of the Far West Village, maintained so well for so long, began to come undone. To many, the Meier-designed sheer-glass-and-steel towers on Perry St. represent the apogee of this unfortunate, neighborhood-destroying trend.
The ill effects of this unchecked development on our neighborhood have been great. Charles Lane, one of the most historic and tiniest streets in New York, has been nearly decimated. A cobblestoned lane of one-to-five-story brick buildings and the only remaining paving stones in city streets that predate the introduction of Belgian block pavers in the late 19th century, its western end is now consumed by 16-story setback glass-and-steel towers (one completed, the other under construction). A large chunk of Charles Lanes irreplaceable cobblestones have been destroyed in just the last few weeks to make way for the new tower. Development pressure has become so great that sliver towers (high-rises the width of a single rowhouse) are now planned (at 423 West St.), thus indicating that even tiny historic sites on places like Weehawken St., previously inconceivable for new development because of their size, are now potentially vulnerable. In short, the very characteristics which had brought people to the Far West Village for generations its scale, historic buildings and pleasing 19th- and early 20th-century fabric are being destroyed.
All of which begs the question: Why is this happening here and what can be done about it?
Virtually none of this area is protected by landmark or historic-district designation. Thus any historic buildings, including the more than 20 pre-1850 houses and more than 35 late-19th-century structures, could be demolished at any time. New construction is only shaped by fairly loose zoning, which allows large high-rise developments, regardless of whether or not they are in keeping with the scale, form or materials common to the area. So, increasingly we see the jarring juxtaposition of glass-and-steel high-rises towering over three-or-four-story early-19th-century houses. To make matters worse, the Department of Buildings has issued a ruling that allows residential high-rises in the only parts of the Far West Village where they have not been allowed manufacturing zones. These areas, which include the western edge of the Meatpacking District, south of Barrow St. and the Superior Ink site (West St. at Bethune/W. 12th Sts.), are now vulnerable to the same out-of-character, out-of-scale residential construction as the rest of the Far West Village.
This can and must change. The Landmarks Preservation Commission must act quickly to protect historic buildings in the Far West Village. The City Planning Commission must change the zoning in the area so new development is not so out-of-scale or out-of-character with the existing fabric. And the city must reverse this ruling by the Department of Buildings that would skirt the public review process and allow as-of-right residential development in manufacturing zones.
It will take more than wishing, however. Before and since the Town Hall meeting we have generated literally thousands of letters from residents to the administration about these issues. The results: The Landmarks Preservation Commission and the City Planning Commission have both indicated a willingness to take a look at these requests, and the city has refrained from issuing any permits for new buildings in manufacturing zones under the ruling. But we still have a long way to go.
So what can you do? Be sure to go to the demonstration on Sun., April 18 at 1 p.m. at Charles Lane and West St., and bring others. A turnout like at our Town Hall will bring the point home to the administration that our concerns cannot be ignored. Write letters to the city about the three solutions this neighborhood needs landmarking, changing zoning and repealing the D.O.B. ruling and then ask your friends and family to do the same (sample letters on our Web site at www.gvshp.org, click on Protecting the Far West Village). Agree to do volunteer work on this and future events to ensure they succeed at getting our message out about the need to preserve our neighborhood (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 212-475-9585).
The 16 new high-rises in the Far West Village will soon be 21 or more, and the fragile historic make up of our neighborhood will become ever more tenuous. We all recognize that this is the 11th hour, and if we want to preserve something we care about, we are going to have to work very hard, together, with no time to waste. What we must do is get the city to recognize that the irreplaceable character of our neighborhood is more valuable than a few new high-end buildings; at the very least, they must know that our community is so unified in its determination to preserve our neighborhood that its not worth the price to ignore our wishes. Its up to us.
Berman is executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.