By Robert Widmann
For decades, a very ugly Jane Street garage, blackened with urban soot, has sat cloaked in the unconscious acceptance of industrial buildings—that is—until the land became incredibly valuable. It was then sold to a developer in order to build as many elegant condos as the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) and the neighbors would allow.
Anticipating the unconscious nostalgia for an 1840s Federal look, an architect of seemingly classic taste was hired to steer between buildings as many square feet as possible and also blend in with the existing historical street facade. While his efforts, to me, are admirable, they still seem to be in vain.
I wonder though: If the developer were to re-create the row of town houses on the north side of Washington Square would the GVSHP approve?
Folk architecture was the result of combining the materials at hand as efficiently as possible. In Greece, we have, as my cousin John said alla petra (“all stone”) and yet the Parthenon has a wood ancestor; many of the details are marble replicas of wood.
Ah, but this is a historical district—a district that preserves history, any history. That is, it will preserve a very ugly bit of architecture as long as it is old, which brings us back to the garage on Jane Street. I mean, how old must you be to be preserved? Robert Widmann continues the discussion in his follow-up article.
The real estate war on Jane Street is not over. At its most recent hearing (January 17, 2017) on the massive super-luxury apartment building proposed to replace the parking garage at 11 Jane Street, the Landmarks Preservation Commission decided to punt. No decision. The developer, Minskoff Equities, and its architect, were directed to make some design changes and maybe take a bit more off the top. They will be back. But in this writer’s view, there was very little for the community to be encouraged about.
What is now being proposed at 11 Jane Street is a six-story structure with a street-side slab front measuring 61.4 feet by 103 feet—6,324 square feet! That is 50% larger than anything ever before on the site and is looking not so vaguely like a Best Western Motel. All that’s lacking is a big yellow sign on top. However, this banal design is not the only threatening aspect of this structure.
Overall, the proposed building is twice as large in scale as the building on site for the last 90 years—the familiar two-story parking garage at 11–19 Jane Street. On very narrow Jane Street, the proposed six-story structure would block twice as much light, reflect back to the neighborhood twice as much sound, bring about an ungainly “buck tooth” effect on the skyline looking north, and, at the street level, create an ominous “walled-in” feeling.
This structure is also notably out of scale with the fragile Greek revival houses at 9 and 9 1/2 Jane Street. On most renderings, 9 Jane Street is covered by leafy trees, and the house at 9 1/2 Jane Street—very visible from the street—shows up nowhere.
What is truly ominous is that most members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), over the course of three hearings, have shown themselves unable or unwilling to appraise or deal with the overall impact that this structure would have on the buildings around it, on the street, and on the neighborhood. Most of the hearing discussions have involved design details and how the building design might be adapted to “fit in.” (Note: Scale was considered, by one commissioner, only in relation to “grandfathered” buildings on the north side of the street.)
The only deeply considered appraisal at this design-y talkfest was that of Commissioner Michael Devonshire who offered that in his 40 years of experience in the field, he had never seen a structure so overwhelmingly out-of-scale or so unsuited for a landmarked site.
The LPC Chair, Meenakshi Srinivasan, did call for removing a little more off the top, echoing, it is thought, the position of the mayor and his newfound friendliness with developers now that they have made friends with his Charitable Trust.
OK, the LPC has put the developer off again. So, this should be looking good for the neighborhood, right? Actually, it doesn’t look very good at all.