By Alexander Tobias
Seeing a Landmarks Preservation Commission public hearing for the first time is an eye-opening experience. The first surprise comes from seeing the reading of decisions that were clearly written before presentations were made and public testimony given. Unanimous, rave approval of a new contemporary glass building in Tribeca puzzled many observers.
While often attentive, commissioners were repeatedly distracted by their own texting. And the dozens of West Village attendees who were hoping for a fair hearing about the proposed condominium structure for 11-19 Jane Street could hardly be blamed for feeling approval was already a done deal, especially after the commissioners posed just three general questions to the architect of this proposed major change to the West Village.
But a funny thing happened.
West Village residents’ overwhelming dissent—involving nearly two hours of passionate, personal testimony—appeared to have convinced the commissioners to give the decision more thought.
Developer Edward Minskoff may still get his way.
But no decision was made on Tuesday, June 21st. The hearing, which ended at 5pm, was tabled to a later date so, according to the chairperson, Meenakshi Srinivasan, the commission could give sufficient consideration to the opposition.
Some observers found that encouraging. But others were concerned that this may simply have been a way to put off project certification to when passions have cooled with fewer local residents in attendance.
Perhaps the most surprising fact to surface was that the modest, nearly century-old parking garage does indeed possess historic merit. The structure apparently is the only designated garage designed by the well-regarded architect, Jacob M. Felson, who, as much as any architect, imparted to the city much of its early 20th century character.
Between 1920 and 1948, he designed more than 100 structures, ranging from apartment buildings and movie theatres, including more than two dozen garages. Virtually all of these parking structures were the first generation of this building type. This suddenly gave the Jane Street garage an air of importance.
Further, “this particular block of Jane Street,” says Gregory Dietrich, principal of his own preservation consulting firm here in NY, with 15 years in the business, “has an extraordinary richness from its diversity of historic building types, which includes Felson’s garage.”
Near the end of the hearing, Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron announced that she would like to see redevelopment plans that would include adaptive reuse of the garage.
The project architect, London-based David Chipperfield, who made the presentation himself, must certainly have felt he was on hostile soil. A barrage of exclusively negative testimony was delivered by various residents and community leaders—including representatives of Assemblywoman Glick and Councilman Corey Johnson, and by a proxy of Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick.
Andrew Berman [Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation] and Martica Sawin, the widow of venerable architectural historian James Marston Fitch, both offered impassioned rebukes.
An unexpected objection—which could give commissioners additional pause—was the claim that the plan closely resembled work that Chipperfield had previously executed in several European towns. This kind of repackaging certainly happens. But it’s thoroughly inappropriate when trying to fit into the unique, delicate, historic fabric of the West Village.
While public oral testimony appears now to be closed, Landmarks says it will still accept comments through its website: email@example.com.