By Brian J. Pape, AIA
550 West 20th Street, just north of the Meatpacking District, was originally built as a YMCA in 1931, primarily for sailors and longshoremen working the many docks along the Hudson River in New York’s Chelsea district. It was a better alternative shelter than the several “seaman’s” hotels or brothels that dotted the West Street neighborhoods. The property has two buildings, one with eight stories and another with six, containing 108,000 square feet in total.
The gilded mosaics that still adorn the cornices of the building glitter beautifully in the afternoon sun. Ocean liner images decorate the art deco façade. The High Line elevated rail viaduct was built on the same block as this facility just a few years prior.
Thirty-six years later, in 1967, the Narcotic Addiction Control Commission purchased the YMCA and turned it into a drug rehabilitation center. But just seven years after that, in 1974, the Department of Correction took over the 229-bed facility and used it as a medium-security prison for female inmates, known as Bayview Correctional Facility. The view of the bay of the Hudson River was obscured by the West Side Elevated Highway and the pierhead structures, now called Chelsea Piers. By 2010, the facility had the highest rate of sexual misconduct reports in the nation, according to the Bureau of Justice, as well as unsanitary conditions and a lack of proper medical care.
Owned by New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the jail facility closed shortly after Superstorm Sandy battered New York City in 2012, with the building sustaining $600,000 in damage from the flood waters.
In 2014, the state, through the Empire State Development Corporation (ESD), announced that developer Goren Group, in partnership with Warren Buffett’s son’s nonprofit, the NoVo Foundation, would turn the jail facility into office space, rented to organizations that provide women’s services, thus dubbing the project the Women’s Building. In the fall of 2019, NoVo announced it had backed out of the development process, sending it back to the state.
Today: what does the future hold?
Now sandwiched between the Sir Norman Foster-designed luxury condo tower at 551 West 21st Street and the Jean Nouvel-designed luxury condo tower on West 19th Street, this property faces the same pressures for redevelopment as all West Street properties do. As testament to the trending appeal of this stretch along Hudson River Park, Hugh Jackman and his wife Deborra-Lee Furness are leaving their Richard Meier-designed 176 Perry Street 11,000 sf triplex condo after 14 years, putting it on the market for $38.9 million. They are moving into their $21.1 million penthouse at 100 Eleventh Avenue (West Street), a 4,700-square-foot, four-bedroom apartment with 14-foot floor-to-ceiling windows and 3,700 square feet of outdoor space, including a roof terrace with separate dining and lounging areas. This Jean Nouvel building is directly adjacent to, and abutting, the former Bayview Correctional Facility, although all picture windows and private terraces are oriented toward the south and west, turning a virtually blank wall to the one-time jail below them on their north side. Is it slumming, or a calculated investment in gentrifying?
After a decade of disuse following Superstorm Sandy, ESD will seek proposals to revamp the facility as supportive housing for formerly homeless people, hoping to get at least 60 affordable apartments, while offering social services at the former jail site, said the agency’s vice president, Gabriella Green, during a recent public meeting.
As part of the agency’s $40 billion Penn Station redevelopment plan for real estate redevelopment around Penn Station, ESD is trying to balance building housing. The Penn Station plan will allow developers to construct 18 million square feet of mostly office space in the area. The state hopes to also include up to 648 units that would be “rent restricted and/or offer supportive services.” Sounds far-fetched, or underwhelming?
Under the Penn agreement, excess tax revenue produced by the new buildings will first be used to cover up to 100 percent of the cost of improving streets and sidewalks around Penn Station. Up to half of what remains would be used to pay for subway-entrance improvements and similar costs. Only 12.5 percent would go to rebuilding the train station.
The former jail is outside of the Penn project area but is within Community District 4, which does include parts of the Penn redevelopment area. “I don’t know that folks in the community will see it (the jail conversion) as appropriate mitigation to what’s happening around Penn Station,” Jeffrey LeFrancois, chair of Manhattan’s Community Board 4, said in The City website’s July 25th article. “But it could potentially meet one of the long-held social service goals of Community Board 4.”
The city definitely needs more housing. But will pressures mean the state sells to luxury developers? Or will the state use the jail conversion as an excuse to justify 18 million square feet of office buildings at Penn Station? Or will pressure to close Rikers lead to re-establishing the facility for use as a local jail? Watch for future developments for the YMCA building.
Brian J. Pape is a citizen architect in private practice, LEED-AP “green” certified, serving on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee (speaking solely in a personal, not an official capacity). He is also co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, a member of AIANY Historic Buildings and Housing Committees, and a journalist specializing in architecture subjects.