Thank you for your thoughtful and intelligent response to “35XV: The Invisible Building” (WestView News, September 2015). As the introductory doggerel adapted from I Saw a Man Upon the Stairs by William Hughes Mearns ironically makes clear, this building manages to reduce the impact of its height on 15th and 16th Streets by the way it places its towering bulk in the center of the block, but is nevertheless an imposing presence in the neighborhood. When I first saw it as I walked east on 15th Street, I noted only the low five story base lining up with the handsome row of Italianate buildings stretching west to Sixth Avenue. When I went to 16th Street, the high rise was even less visible. The accompanying photos illustrate “the building that wasn’t there” barely visible from either street. How was this done without providing the required open space on the ground in the center of the lot? How did we get such a tall building in that center?
The answer lies in the Zoning Law, especially provisions for “transferring unused development (air) rights,” under which a wholly fictitious, but legal, body of allowable floor area can be transferred to adjacent properties. Historically all zoning laws governing building bulk have been related to street widths and prevailing building bulk in the surrounding area. The City Planning Commission, which tends to be made up of those from a real estate rather than planning background, has always placed an allowable bulk higher than what exists, thus leaving “unused development rights”—which encourage owners to tear down existing buildings in order to build larger more modern and profitable ones, rather than retrofitting them. This provision of the law has allowed 35XV to concentrate those transferable rights on one portion of the Xavier site. The required open space will be placed at the base of the residential tower on the roof of the school. This procedure is being used in many places in Manhattan, along 57th Street, next to the Grolier Club, on Madison Square for examples. It is leading toward a new unpredictable cityscape, but an interesting one nevertheless. Architects are a part of this process.
Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Historical Society has a good working knowledge of how historic preservation and zoning can be used together to preserve the existing character of communities by “shrink-wrapping” the existing building bulk of our historic neighborhoods. This would have prohibited the fifteen story building approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the historic St. Luke in the Field Parish quadrangle.
I still believe that 35XV was carried out in a highly imaginative and creative way considering the liberal dispensation of development rights by the City Planning Commission.
This letter is in response to the October 2015 letter “35XV Looming Shard of Glass” The original letter appears online at:
http://westviewnews.org/2015/10/35xv-looming-shard-of-glass/ Barry Benepe’s original article appears at: http://westviewnews.org/2015/09/35xv-the-invisible-building/