By Martica Sawin
Just as I was about to start writing a commentary on the plans submitted by Aurora/Gottlieb for the south side of Gansevoort Street, an article,“The Craving for Public Squares”, by Michael Kimmelman, NY Times architecture critic, turned up at my door. Pointing out the ever-increasing percentage of Earth-dwellers now dwelling in cities, Kimmelman makes a case for “the public square as the soul of urban life” and “open spaces as essential for communal identity.” He cites the Greek agora of the classical and Hellenistic years as “the physical expression of civic order and life with their temples and fishmongers, bankers at money changing tables, and merchants selling wine and pottery.” Surrounded by stoas or colonnades, …“the agora was organic, changeable and urbane.” Actually, long before the Greek agora, the urban open space existed as a venue for both commerce and political exchange, playing a central role as villages, towns, and cities evolved. In today’s traffic congested cities, maintaining what open space remains is vital for the health and wellbeing of the citizenry.
Both as a reminder of neighborhood history and as an increasingly popular destination for New Yorkers and tourists, the Gansevoort Market Historic District is a place to be cherished. Photographs of the marketplace from the late 19th century show a wide-open space jammed with horse-drawn wagons, carts piled high with produce, and shoppers with laden baskets. Gansevoort Street was an artery leading from the oyster docks on the waterfront to the broad open space where five streets converge. The wide sidewalks are still lined with low-rise buildings with projecting metal canopies that provided space and shelter for mounds of farm produce, or later for racks of carcasses when the area became what is still known as the Meat-Packing District. Today the street is again an artery, leading to the dazzling new Whitney Museum and the staircase where crowds descend from the High Line. Pedestrians from the latter or museum goers flocking to the former stroll along Gansevoort Street, or pause to buy food from a vendor and sit to eat at one of the Gansevoort Market Food Court’s long wooden tables (closed by the landlord last week). The festive, holiday atmosphere is enhanced by the generous amount of light and space allowed by the low-rise buildings.
Instead of taking advantage of Gansevoort’s dual role as an historic remnant and present promenade by capitalizing on the street’s unique features, the developer, Aurora Capital Associates and William Gottlieb Real Estate, has opted to replace the existing structures with a solid wall of routine buildings of greatly increased height. (Note that the late Bill Gottlieb, uncle of the present owner, acquired the south side of the block for 2,500,000 dollars in 1986.) At the February 9th Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing, the commissioners requested that the proposed heights of the new construction be scaled back to the height of the tenement buildings, which had existed on the site prior to being reduced to two and three story market buildings in the late 1930s. Buildings Department records list the heights as averaging fifty feet, including cornices. Even if the developer complies with this stipulation, the precedent thus set (i.e. using buildings that were long since demolished and replaced to set present guidelines) is fraught with future problems, especially when the later buildings originally motivated the creation of an historic zone.
Is it too much to ask that a developer applying to build in a landmarked zone consider the contribution it makes as an urban amenity, and to ask that the project be regarded not as just another business enterprise, but an opportunity to enhance the experience of visiting the area? A look down the street at the ingenious and gracious way Renzo Piano’s Whitney Museum engages with its surroundings might inspire a less routine and profit-driven approach.