By Alec Pruchnicki
The Present Situation
When the proposal for new buildings on Gansevoort Street to replace several old two-story structures was made public, the community opposition was vocal, unanimous… and wrong. Although Andrew Berman, the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (of which I am a member and usually an enthusiastic supporter) opposes the new construction, his own statement shows the weakness of his argument (WestView News, November 2015 ). He states that the Landmark Preservation Commission allows for the demolition of “non-contributing” buildings, but then goes on to praise the old buildings. Has anyone actually taken a look at these buildings? They are old, decrepit looking, with no architectural or historic significance that I can see, and they are empty—contributing little. This is preservation for the sake of preservation.
In fact, take a look at all of Gansevoort Street from Washington Street to Greenwich Street. After 12 years of being “integral” to the neighborhood, what could be a beautiful little block with about twenty small storefronts, relatively wide sidewalks and a street paved with sturdy Belgian block cobble stones is, instead, an underused, aging, and often empty street. I have been to the block several times since this issue arose and it is often this way. At five o’clock on a Friday, fully half of the storefronts were unoccupied. At nine or ten o’clock on warm weekday nights there were only three or four open businesses, all of them scheduled to close by midnight.
Many years ago, Jane Jacobs, an icon of the preservation movement, said that neighborhoods become interesting, enjoyable and safe when there are many storefronts, activities and people on the streets. Gansevoort Street at any time of the day or night, doesn’t live up to this potential.
Opposition to the new buildings is employing exaggerated rhetoric and misrepresentation that borders on intellectual dishonesty—ignoring the complete environment surrounding the proposed building.
This reminds me of the tactics used by preservationists to fight, and help close, St. Vincent’s hospital. A few years before the hospital closed, it wanted a massive new hospital on the site of the O’Toole building and many tall luxury condos to pay for it. Pictures at the time accurately showed the proposed condos completely overshadowing the three and four story townhouses on 11th street. But what the carefully cropped pictures didn’t show was the 20 story tall apartment building on the north side of 12th street. The condos and new hospital would have been taller, but not as overpowering as they were compared to the townhouses. We still ended up with pretty big luxury condos and lost our hospital.
Similarly, some of the renderings of Gansevoort Street show the new buildings but not the surrounding area. To the east of Greenwich Street there is a modern five story building which looks nothing like the surrounding ones. On the southwest side of Washington Street there is presently a ten story building which is several stories taller than the proposed five and six story buildings (somewhat taller if you count the recessed penthouses). Many of the people in The Village, including myself, live in six story apartment houses, and I’ve never heard them described as overwhelming the surroundings.
The new buildings would be taller than the two story buildings they would replace but they would not be “exponentially” bigger and they would not result in “…utter obliteration” of the area. Would these new places “…destroy the scale and sense of place…” and be “…out of scale…”? Really? Across the street from these buildings is the truly massive Whitney Museum, up the street is the even larger Standard hotel, and both of these are surrounded by the High Line, several blocks of restaurants, bars, high end clothing stores and the large crowds of people they attract. Two average sized apartment houses are not going to overwhelm this neighborhood.
Of course, opposition to these buildings is partially a function of other issues. The general principle of preservation is important. Many Village residents are upset and often angry about the many changes that have been occurring in the neighborhood, especially gentrification. But, how do you address these changes?
One approach is to oppose any and all development, and allow the area to take its natural course, even if it is underutilization and gradual deterioration. This is preservation by uglification.
The problem with this approach is that it can’t work in an area where many more people already want to move in. It increases the market rate and gives landlords bigger incentives to force out rent stabilized residents in favor of newer, high-paying people.
An expanding number of apartments would lessen this incentive to kick rent stabilized residents out by any means necessary. These Gansevoort buildings would add to available housing in the area. The price to pay for this would be increased density, which seems to be happening anyway, especially in the local schools which seem to take forever to build.
Another possibility would be to include permanently affordable units in the new buildings. Mayor DeBlasio’s administration might help enforce this as part of the expansion of affordable housing. If his administration is voted out and a pro-landlord Bloomberg type of mayor comes in, developers who own this and other nearby properties may decide to aim higher and develop truly exponentially larger housing projects. Let’s take what we can get while we can get it, and maybe we can have two six-story buildings with faux meatpacking awnings in front instead of another Standard hotel.
We may not be able to keep the Meatpacking District, or even The Village, the same. But, we can keep it enjoyable, exciting, and maybe even new—if we manage and engage development, instead of fear it.
Response to “We’re Preserving What?”
Some people believe that no new buildings should be built in historic districts. I am not one of them. For those of us, including the Landmarks Preservation Commission, who believe that new buildings can fit into historic districts, there remains the factors of appropriate scale, size, height, materials and character. I agree with Alec that the proposed buildings do generally conform to the character of the district, but perhaps they might be reduced in height and bulk somewhat.
I think Alec’s response is excellent, clearly expressed, and based on a strong appreciation of the goals of establishing historic districts. In the way that the Jane Jacobs inspired truly contemporary (not historic replicas) West Village Houses on Washington Street preserve the character of the West Village, so do these proposed buildings on Gansevoort Street respect the scale and character of the Meat Market while making a contemporary statement which has integrity.