By Alexander Tobias
Redevelopment plans for 11-19 Jane Street—presently a two-story parking garage that’s been serving the community for nearly a century—were unveiled at Community Board 2’s Landmarks and Public Aesthetics Committee Hearing on May 16th. On May 20th, the full Community Board unanimously rejected the proposal. Since the Board’s ruling is non-binding, the project remains alive as it heads to a Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) hearing on June 7th.
Since the project appears to be “as of right,” not requiring any other outstanding municipal approvals, an LPC sanction will allow it to be built.
Developer Edward Minskoff’s proposed seven-unit, seven-story, modern 90-foot-tall glass and pre-cast concrete structure was designed by the well-known British architect, David Chipperfield. The structure will be among the most exclusive and luxurious in the neighborhood, and Minskoff plans to occupy the entire penthouse.
Being 100-feet long and 60-feet deep, it may have the largest footprint of any new mid-block structure in the historic district. Reminiscent of a large department store, like Barneys, the proposal’s solid rectangular mass and dense grid of floor-to-ceiling windows exaggerate its scale.
New buildings in historic districts typically take their design cues from their areas’ inspiration. Chipperfield’s designers focused on the block’s eclectic mix of building shapes, architecture, and functions to come up with something different.
That approach works if a designer deftly employs much of the local design vocabulary: tripartite configuration, rich-toned bricks, standard and loft-like windows, and undulating rooflines. The Community Board found the architect took the area’s diversity as license to produce a beige-toned contemporary building that has no connection to the block or neighborhood.
Susan Passioni, shareholder and Treasurer of 2 Horatio, a condominium that abuts the north side of the project, says “the proposed development is yet another attempt to defy the proportions, height and density limits of this street, its neighboring buildings, and the West Village community overall.” She thinks it challenges the spirit of zoning laws established to protect the narrow, special character of blocks like Jane Street.
Development needs to defer to Jane Street’s intact historic fabric, architectural variety, and, most critically, its scale, explains Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “The proposed building is significantly out-of-scale at this mid-block location,” he observes, “and it will fundamentally change the look and feel of the block.”
Chipperfield’s architects identified a series of large-scale apartment buildings to justify their proposal. But all examples cited were constructed on large avenues, not on quiet residential side streets. Berman recommends the façade be “broken up” to make it less imposing and “similar to, but not imitative of, the Village’s traditional architecture.”
Berman notes the continuous elimination of the area’s low-scale buildings, replaced with vastly larger ones, is fundamentally changing the district’s character, especially its openness to the sky.
Sitting directly west of the proposed project is P.E. Guerin, a leading manufacturer of customized architectural hardware and fixtures. The firm, which dates back to 1857, makes its home in a colorful, beautifully maintained, 19th-century, four-story vernacular commercial structure. Owner Andy Ward also lives on the top floor with his family. Minskoff came to Ward’s home to assure him he plans on being a good neighbor.
Ward thinks the façade—made up largely of full floor-to-ceiling windows—will at night transform the block into “Times Square.” “We have an Equinox Gym around the corner on Greenwich Avenue and West 12th Street, and you can get a pretty good idea from that how this proposed building will affect the look and feel of the block at night,” Ward observes. “It certainly won’t look like anything we see along the neighborhood’s small quiet streets.”
Ward believes such an opulent development could also spell security problems. “It easily could be a magnet for thieves along a block which has always been among the most modest-looking in the West Village,” he says.
If the developer is denied building approval, Ward worries he might demolish the garage, leaving a huge vacant lot next to his property. “If the city and developer get locked in a protracted battle,” he posits, “there could be a very unfortunate outcome.”
Susan Gammie, Vice Chair of the Community Board’s Landmarks and Public Aesthetics Committee, reported the eight-member panel “has concerns regarding the proposal’s lack of contextual references to the historic district.” It unanimously rejected the proposal in its report to the full Community Board, which then also voted unanimously against the project.
The Board’s non-binding decision has been sent to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. On June 7th, LPC will hold a public hearing on the project. If it approves the project without substantial alteration and down-sizing of the original design, this will set an unfortunate precedent not only for the West Village but for all historic districts in the city.