By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
For those who have lived or worked in our area, the answer is obvious; we love the charm, character, mish-mosh of building styles and sizes, and the crazy streets, like nowhere else in the city. But are we loving it to death? Landmarked properties and districts help some areas, but leave other areas unprotected.
New York City would die without its businesses, big and small, and that is historically true for all cities. We need jobs to support those still living here; we need support services too. Consider SOHO of the post-WW2 era, where nearly empty manufacturing loft buildings meant dangerous, littered streets and virtually no delis or restaurants or markets, for many years until revitalized with new uses, businesses and residents. Perhaps too much?
In the West Village, we already have the Technicolor Labs on Leroy Street and Greenwich Street (which did the tech work on the new Mary Poppins Returns movie), PayPal at 111 Barrow Street south side (typical Manhattan odd numbers are on the north side, but not on Barrow), Squarespace on Clarkson near 7th Avenue South/Varick, plus all the others in the Meatpacking District. Markets and restaurants are plentiful.
Hudson Square, as the neighborhood south of Houston Street but west of SOHO is called, is attracting businesses that employ an educated, technically savvy, and generally young workforce. Why? For developers, the large loft buildings are great for expanding businesses, or for new buildings, the as-of-right density and existing transportation systems make it an attractive location, just as it did for previous developers and businesses. Although parts of Hudson Square have few eateries or markets to choose from now, that will change with new development, Google or no Google.
The recent news of Google’s continued expansion, Disney’s plans to build a new HQ, and many other business developments, could make Amazon’s “HQ2” development of office towers in Long Island City pale in comparison.
Why does Google need so much space in Manhattan? Like all hi-tech companies, they know that dynamic environments attract talent, thus city centers are appealing despite their higher costs. Google is no longer just the online search engine that started in Silicon Valley, as it has continued to grow into a multi-faceted enterprise.
When this writer attended a “grand opening event” at the Google Hardware Store on Greene Street, just north of the Apple store on Prince Street, I asked why Google would expend such efforts to develop outside their existing properties? Their spokesperson said they wanted a distinctive, differentiated location for this type of customer interaction, making the investment in a leased space worthwhile. Google combined two rented storefront spaces in the historic district for commercial showrooms, similar to the Samsung showrooms in the Meatpacking District, to demonstrate their Pixel, Nest and other “smart” products. The alterations opened up the deep basement and tall first floor spaces for customer displays.
Consider the news last July about Disney’s announcement that it will move its New York operations from the Upper West Side to a full-block site, situated diagonally across from The Dominick, formerly the Trump Tower Soho, renamed for the short street running behind it. Hudson Square, the downtown neighborhood once known as the printing industry district, is now being repurposed for media and other ‘creative’ (read Hi-Tech) companies. Disney has reportedly paid $650M for a 99-year landlease of the site.
“Disney’s operations won’t be moving soon,” wrote the Wall Street Journal. “The company is still in the early stages of its planning for the new building.” A development like this takes several years to complete, in the best of scenarios, but the zoning is in place already. The news doesn’t get into the demolition of the four buildings now on this block, but their tenants have already been given notice. The home of City Winery has reported its closing at 155 Varick, a two-story taxpayer at the northwest corner of Vandam. 304 Hudson is an enormous U-shaped 8-story loft building from 1898, according to owner Trinity Real Estate, fronting Hudson, Vandam, and Spring. 137 Varick is a similar 8-story loft building on the southwest corner of Spring, built in 1900.
Finally, 50 Vandam is a two-story painted brick 1900 vintage mid-block building. None are landmark-protected.
Trinity already has city approval to build a 430-foot-tall, 300,000-square-foot residential building at Canal, Grand and Varick Streets, its so-called 2 Hudson Square site, which will include a 444-seat public school at its base.
Trinity’s Hudson Square portfolio is reportedly worth almost $4 billion. Trinity land holdings extend all the way up to Christopher Street.
Preservation groups are concerned about the changing nature of the neighborhoods, and are doing what they can to protect the quality of life for all. One strategy to counter the car culture has been to bar big-box warehouse-type stores from establishing in most parts of Manhattan. In this congested area with multiple ramps and tunnels serving the Holland Tunnel out to NJ, dealing with increased traffic is just one of many challenges. Life in the big city is meeting those challenges head-on, not ignoring or hoping they will go away by themselves.
Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP, is an architectural consultant in private practice, serves on the Community Board 2 in Manhattan, is Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, and is WestViewNews.org Architectural Editor.