No doubt many West Villagers received, along with the Saturday, March 16th, New York Times, a glossy 360-page publication whose cover featured the former wagon shed in the Gansevoort Market Historic District. This was once the location of Pastis—across from the Gansevoort Hotel—and more recently, an empty site fronted by a thin brick facade (all that remained from the wagon shed). Five years ago I spoke, along with many others, at the Landmarks Preservation Commission in favor of preserving this remaining building of the Gansevoort Market facing the wide open market place. We objected in particular to the glass and steel excrescence the developer planned to put on top of the building, adding three stories to make it the most visible feature of the historic zone. The Landmarks commissioners decided it would be an enhancement and approved the project.
Not only does the exterior of the now completed replacement building look pathetic, with its band of preserved 19th century bricks, but the real offense is the six-story glass-topped, balcony-lined atrium that replaced the demolished building behind the brick facade. Walk through one of the two sets of double doors and you are in a pastiche of a baroque interior, all gilded columns and statuary, crystal chandeliers, and a profusion of elegantly furnished display areas. Take the glass elevator to the sixth level and you land in a rooftop restaurant, “inspired by the classical landscaped gardens of Europe with pleached London plane trees, Japanese boxwood hedges, and the sound of trickling fountains.” Hard to believe that this is just around the corner from the former Florent, a restaurant that stayed open all night to cater to the truck drivers delivering to the meat market as well as to an after-theater and late-night crowd—there was no better place in the city for mussels and french fries.
The owner of the new vertical emporium in the meat market is RH New York—which turns out to be Restoration Hardware, a company focused on interior design and high-end furnishings— which is planning an adjacent “concept” hotel. The arrival of this grandiose multi-storied shopping mall coincides with—and certainly is dwarfed by—the unveiling of a 720,000 square foot, seven story vertical mall at Hudson Yards. In the March 15th, New York Times Michael Kimmelman described the Hudson Yards shopping mall and its companion gated condo community as “a kind of surface spectacle, as if the peak ambitions of city life were consuming luxury goods and enjoying a smooth, seductive mindless materialism.”
These two West Side events signal a growing manifestation of shopping as a driving force in an American society obsessed with the accumulation of goods whose eventual disposal is becoming a death threat to land and sea and the creatures therein. Apart from the planning questions this fiasco raises, i.e. what is the purpose of designating an historic zone and what justifies the destruction of a building designated as historic, there is the more general question of the priorities and values embodied in the chaotic socially and economically lopsided way New York builds today.