SPACE & TIME—in this bustling urban environment we live in, everyone is looking for ways to better utilize what little we have of it.
By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Village Community School (VCS) at 272 West 10th Street, between Greenwich Street and Washington Street, has applied for an expansion of its property’s buildings to better accommodate current academic programs. VCS is a private educational institution for 350 K-8th grade school students and approximately 95-105 employees, founded in 1970 here in the West Village, according to VCS Head Eve Kleger, and Connie Sopic, Director of Advancement at VCS.
The Village was a very different place in 1970, as this writer can attest first-hand. Picture if you will the abandoned railroad viaduct directly across Washington Street, and the warehouses and seamen hotels along the derelict waterfront of the Hudson River, long past its prime as a maritime powerhouse. Crime was rampant, city services were inadequate, and the city was heading toward bankruptcy. Single story garages were hastily built where residential buildings had once filled the small lots adjacent to the vacant 1886 schoolhouse on 10th Street. Small lots were acquired over the years for limited playgrounds.
Hardy residents who fought for their quality of life, often against a city bureaucracy that seemed intent on erasing the Village’s special character, saw an opportunity in the odd architecture of the original PS107. These parents had to get a variance for this building in order to open the school, because the current zoning laws limited the ‘street wall’ (height of wall facing the street), and the building covered more than the prescribed 85% area allowed.
By 2001, the area had improved, luxury apartments were built, and the Hudson River Park had dramatically opened up extensive recreation areas just a block west. With enrollment increasing, once again VCS was granted variances to make a building addition successful, completed in 2003. Speaking of successful, the new building design met all updated building safety codes, passed archeological and environmental investigations, and was honored for its design by the Historic Districts Council and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. This school helped reinforce the case for an extension of the Village’s Historic District in 2006. By picking up on design clues of the 1886 school, such as window composition, multiple masonry colors and types, and comparable volume massing, the thoroughly modern addition blended beautifully with the neighbors.
Their expansion application was shown publicly for the first time to the Community Board Two (CB2) Landmarks & Public Aesthetics Committee (LPAC) public hearing on October 15, which means it was the first official public comment opportunity. That doesn’t mean the public hasn’t expressed concerns in public, however. The website www.protectourvillage.nyc enumerates some neighbor’s concerns of the previous month, and The Villager published an October 9 article about it.
Let’s review the main issues presented for this project.
Construction is complicated and difficult, and many precautions and regulations must be taken into consideration. In early June, the Department of Buildings plan examiner denied approval of the plans, referring the owner to the Board of Standards and Appeals, or BSA. BSA issued a Notice of Comments to the owner in early August to be addressed. Most items were easily addressed by VCS attorneys at Sheldon Lobel in early September, but the owner is requesting non-compliance amendments for lot coverage under ZR 24-11.
An “as-of-right” building could be built, up against the south border and the old building on the west, but it would need to be a little shorter and cover a little less of the lot, than the proposed design with variances. Would the differences between the two be significant enough to warrant denial of variances?
Pier 40’s imminent closing has given a primary impetus to create a regulation-sized gymnasium. If allowed, the total complying floor area of approximately 66,501 square feet (3.67 FAR) would mean a lot coverage of 92% (compared with the original school lot coverage of 89.5%). To strictly comply with the maximum permitted corner lot coverage of 70% above 23’ in height, a portion of the second floor would reduce its height to 11 feet, while the remainder of the second floor would have a floor-to-floor height of 15’-6” to match other floor lines; this also negatively affects the roof play-yard levels.
Comments and protests from neighbors were dominated by the fact that the building would fill up the entire fenced play space, including the “historic” 1945 shed, and cover the historic side wall of a converted warehouse building on the south, which changes the character of that corner. (Note that this building’s developer, who converted the warehouse to condos around 1986, didn’t respect its own character, having ripped out the Greenwich Street façade for broad picture windows.)
Residents have the right to protest such dramatic changes, especially when variances in zoning laws are involved.
Now, the various city agencies must decide whether the design differences between an as-of-right addition and the variance-tied proposal is worth the loss of some open space and local character.
The CB2 committee voted to approve the removal of the small modified 1-story utility shed, but did not approve of the massing and detail of the design, asking for more architectural studies prior to the LPC hearing October 30.
Will a different as-of-right building design be among the considerations? Will the architect rise to the challenge posed by the committee and community?