West Village Houses Rally for Preservation

By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

WASHINGTON STREET showing the tall smokestacks of the Beadleston and Woerz Brewery (formerly Nash, Beadleston), and partially cleared lots where the elevated roadbed of the New York Central Railroad will be erected along the left side of Washington Street. September 24, 1930. Photo Credit: NYPL digital collection

The WestView News April, 2017 issue began a series on West Village Houses, an affordable housing cooperative under the Mitchell-Lama rental and the Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) cooperative Programs during its first three decades of existence. Here is an update on the developments of the West Village Houses (WVH).

On March 9, 2018, WVH officially lost its tax-exempt status, raising the co-op’s tax bill to $3 million annually from $500,000. It began the process of transitioning from HDFC-regulated housing to a market-rate co-op by revising its by-laws and shareholder agreements.

A developer buy-out from Madison Equities was supposedly ‘off the table’ for the co-op board, but residents say one of WVH shareholders is heavily invested in Madison, and there is still some kind of residual option for partial redevelopment possible. June 26th will be the co-op’s annual meeting to elect board members, and after the traumatic play of considering Madison Equities’ offer, residents are looking for a different approach.

Many long-time residents formed a group called Shareholders for the Preservation of West Village Houses (SPWVH), with a goal to continue affordability for those living there, including the renters, by preserving WVH in much the same configuration as the four and five story walk-ups that now exist. The co-op has already completed many energy, maintenance, and resiliency (flooding) upgrades and protections. The board’s lawyer is meeting regularly with residents, and SPWVH’s lawyer, to explain and discuss the proposed by-law changes.

Frank Ferrucci, who is a board candidate, got married and raised a family at WVH, says the ‘spirit of Jane Jacobs’ remains. Jessie Chaffee, who was born, raised, and remains in WVH, loves the community gardens for socializing and considers it a safe environment for children. Jessica Agullo said, a recent study showed that 50% of WVH units could be served by new elevators built onto existing buildings. “This is a very alive building. Jane Jacobs was right. She understood community. Her ideas work,” playwright Suzanne Stout said. Architect Jeffrey Lydon maintains that a sale of the co-op’s Perry Street garage, worth an estimated $60-63 million, would go a long way toward making improvements for all the owners.

Many residents say Jacobs’ vision of community endures. The June 26th elections could make the difference for the future if residents get involved and get out the vote.

When activists like Jane Jacobs and Rachele Wall first conceived of the West Village Houses in the early 1960s, to replace the demolished portion of the High Line Railroad, they envisioned an intimate community-based co-op for moderate-income households. This industrial waterfront area, a rough fringe focused on maritime activity, had been the site of the Newgate Prison until 1826. After that, it was the huge, Nash-Beadleston Brewery until the1920 Prohibition Act. Then, the crash, and Great Depression of 1929, degraded the quality of life for the area.

Designed by Perkins and Will, by the time WVH opened in 1974, under Mitchel-Lama, the houses had lost all the architectural features initially proposed. In 2002, WVH was sold under the (HDFC) cooperative Programs to 380 of 420 tenants for about $150,000, funded in part by a 25% “flip tax” (percentage of profit) paid to the co-op. Sales must be to ‘natural persons’, meaning not a corporation, while the other 40 units retained low rents.

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