After historic district wins, it’s back to the future

By Andrew Berman

May 2, 2006, is a day which will no doubt go down in Greenwich Village history. That’s when a 40-year chapter in our neighborhood’s history ended with the city approving a three-block extension of the Greenwich Village Historic District — the first such extension of that district since its 1969 designation — and the creation of the Weehawken Street Historic District, which, along with 2003’s Gansevoort Market Historic District designation, was the first new historic district in Greenwich Village since 1969. Coming on top of the downzoning of the area last fall, which for the first time ever limited the size and height of allowable new development in much of the far West Village, this went a long way towards fulfilling a goal this community had fought for since Jane Jacobs’s day — preserving Greenwich Village’s vulnerable, undesignated western edge.

I’m proud of the role that the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation played in leading the charge for all of these efforts. But of course none of it would have been possible without the support and participation of nearly every community group, block association and elected official in the area, and the support, in the end, of the city. And future successes will require the same

So is the work now over? Not by a long shot. May 2’s designations may have made a huge difference, but there is still much more work to be done.

In the far West Village, in addition to the recent landmark designations, the city also promised designation of six individual buildings, Charles Lane and the entire Westbeth complex by spring of 2006. But they are yet to take any action on these, so clearly continued pressure will be necessary to ensure this commitment is kept. And at the Superior Ink and Whitehall Storage sites — two large development sites the city “carved out” of the landmark and downzoning plans for which we fought — we need to keep pushing to ensure that the scale and design of these new developments the city O.K.’d are as compatible as possible with the surrounding neighborhood, though we have already gotten substantial improvements to plans for both.

Meanwhile, other areas of our neighborhood are still almost entirely lacking in landmark protections or appropriate zoning restrictions. The South Village, south of W. Fourth St. between Seventh Ave. S. and LaGuardia Pl., contains much of the “heart” of Greenwich Village — streets like Carmine, Bleecker, MacDougal, Downing and Sullivan. Yet this area is almost entirely outside of the Greenwich Village Historic District, with demolition and inappropriate development possible at any moment. Witness the recent case of the Tunnel Garage, at the very southern end of the neighborhood: an early art deco gem we fought to save, it was destroyed last month to make way for a new faceless luxury high-rise.

The East Village is one of New York’s most vital and historically rich neighborhoods, but due to the current lax zoning for the area, huge high-rises, especially dorms, are starting to pop up all over. So we are fighting to get new zoning in place that will limit the size and height of new development, encourage the retention of both existing buildings and affordable housing, eliminate the current bonus for building dorms and other university facilities in the area, and stop the unlimited transfer of air rights that currently allow grossly out-of-scale towers, like New York University’s planned 26-story dorm on E. 12th St. The city seems willing to consider such changes, but we are also pushing to get the city to include Third and Fourth Aves., the Bowery and the blocks in between — which the city has been less willing to consider, though they are clearly a prime target for developers and universities.

Parts of the Village, such as the Broadway corridor (extending to the east side of University Pl.) and the 14th St. corridor (down to 13th St. in some cases), also lie outside the Greenwich Village Historic District, and are increasingly threatened by inappropriate development and demolition of historic buildings. Similarly, the city carved much of Noho south of W. Fourth and east of Lafayette Sts out of the Noho Historic District designated in 1999. Lacking these protections for which neighbors continue to fight, new developments are sprouting up throughout this area without maintaining the distinctive character of this historic neighborhood. And in the Meatpacking District, while neighborhood groups struggle with noise, traffic and quality of life issues, the western edge of the neighborhood, also carved out of the Gansevoort Market Historic District by the city in 2003, faces plans for two big hotels by developer Andre Balazs — a very large one on Washington St. and a smaller one on 14th St. — that could have a huge impact upon the neighborhood. Also, the proposal to bringing the Dia Center for the Arts into the Gansevoort Meat Market Center holds some promising potential for the neighborhood, but also carries some broad implications that must be carefully examined.

Any plan for preserving our neighborhoods must also deal with N.Y.U.’s continual expansion. We’ve put together a broad coalition of neighborhood groups from across the Village, East Village, Noho, Soho and Union Square to push for N.Y.U. and the city to find a secondary campus for N.Y.U. outside of our neighborhoods, so we don’t have to absorb all of the largest private university in the country’s ongoing growth. And as long as dorms and other “community facilities” that don’t really serve a community purpose get a zoning bonus from the city to build larger than normally allowed in our neighborhoods, we must fight to have that allowance eliminated or reduced.

So, as you can see, closing up shop is not an option. Instead, let’s savor a well-deserved victory, and then get right back to work.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation