By Robert Widmann
As parking garages go, this one was something of a sweetheart, like an old love you could count on—never overbearing, always sort-of cheery, not too gassy. When returning from places dark and distant, she welcomed the lonely sojourner looking to find home, with her low-rise crenelated fortress-top beset with eight diamond-shaped panels of art-tiles outlined in contrasting brick. Even after being painted over (ceramic art-tiles and all) a garish white, here was a neighborhood friend that said, “Welcome back to Jane Street. You’re back where you belong.”
I knew this was going to be a big part of my life ever since I got to Jane Street in 1959. The garage was right next-door. It gave off an aura of the Jazz Age, prohibition, and the roaring twenties—flappers and flivvers, powerful Packards and Pierce Arrows—of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his “Coffin Nose” Cord and maybe even Hemingway and his Chrysler New Yorker. There was a speakeasy on the corner of Jane and West 4th Streets where the Corner Bistro is now located (behind a flower shop front).
OK, that was then. About a year ago, Minskoff Equities proposed the demolition of our old garage in favor of a six-story luxury condo on the site. But first, Minskoff forces had to secure approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The old girl was almost, but not quite, able to stand up to a total of four public hearings.
At the first hearing, in mid-June of 2016, in the Municipal Building, the community rocked the place. The day belonged to the people. Near the close of this hearing, Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron proposed that consideration be given to adaptive reuse of the garage. The Chair, Meenakshi Srinivasan, in tabling both the motion and the hearing, agreed to take this up at the next public hearing. Meanwhile, commissioners would have time to think about it. Things looked good.
But one month later, when the hearing reopened with only three days’ notice, the community was largely absent…and the fix was in. Rather than opening with a discussion of adaptive reuse, the rostrum was put into the hands of the developer’s super-star architect, Sir David Chipperfield. In a soft but insistent voice tempered by a rawther upper-British accent, Chipperfield chipped away at our garage, citing a 50-year-old Designation Survey wherein the garage had been labeled an “intruder” and “non contributing.” “Veddy vernacular. Veddy Grand Concourse.” (The garage’s original architect had designed buildings on the Grand Concourse.) He made the garage sound like a couple of broken teeth in an otherwise promising smile.
Discussion ensued. Commissioner Michael Devonshire spoke eloquently in defense of the garage, which, he reminded, had grown into a landmark-class building over 50 years. Several other commissioners agreed, pointing out that old-school garage buildings were becoming an endangered species, especially in the Village, thanks in no small measure to the decisions of the LPC. But the Chair, Ms. Srinivasan, declared that the garage building had no value, no architectural merit, and could go. Forty minutes into the meeting, she further declared that one of the most troubling features of the proposed structure, a 61-foot 4-inch street wall, was okay with her. That was the ballgame. Most commissioners fell into line with the Chair, fussing and futzing only over design details for Minskoff Equities’ inevitable replacement structure.
Where was the Mayor in all of this? The LPC is a mayoral agency. Commissioners are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the Mayor. So, did this decision bring the Mayor pleasure? Nobody’s saying. But the decision may not have hurt his charitable trust. Local and national news outlets, as well as the FBI, noted the connection with developers. But no indictments got handed down.
So now, here sits our dear old garage, abandoned and alone, awaiting the moneyball of demolition for dollars—her exterior plastered with asbestos warnings; her innards soaked through with ethyl lead from 70 years of exhaust fumes; her guts infiltrated with benzene, lead, and toluene from decaying gas tanks below grade.
What is to be done? What can be done? Maybe we should talk. (Comments are welcome via email to RWidmann@nyc.rr.com.)