Fighting to keep projects at bay amid landmark gains


New York University promises to continue its role as the 800-pound gorilla of development threats in the neighborhood. The university has finally begun to release its “2031” 21-year expansion plan, with a proposed 3 million square feet of new space — the equivalent of four-and-a-half Javits Convention Centers, or 17 of N.Y.U.’s new 26-story dorm on E. 12th St. — shoehorned into our neighborhood.

While N.Y.U. has claimed to have undertaken a more transparent and inclusive planning process, its two already-initiated projects under the new system, the demolition of the Provincetown Playhouse and the construction of a new Spiritual Center on Washington Square South, have met overwhelming resistance in the neighborhood and do not bode well for future plans.

N.Y.U. reportedly plans to begin with a proposed 30-to-40-story tower on the landmarked open space in the Silver Towers complex along Bleecker St., near the Picasso sculpture. Not only would this be an unprecedented request to allow large-scale construction in a landmarked area, it would require lifting strict zoning restrictions regarding preservation of open space, and could be the tallest building ever erected in Greenwich Village.

New construction is not the only concern about N.Y.U.: The university’s willingness to keep its commitments to the community is another huge issue. In 2008, N.Y.U. won over some supporters of its plan to demolish the Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments with a commitment to preserve in perpetuity the tiny entrance facade and four interior walls of the theater space. But in 2009, G.V.S.H.P. discovered that, hidden behind construction walls, N.Y.U. had secretly demolished a large chunk of the tiny remnant of the theater that the university had promised to preserve and build into its new law school building.

The fate of another institutional development plan, that of St. Vincent’s

Hospital, took a troubling turn. The original plan to develop a large new hospital on the site of the O’Toole building and convert half the hospital buildings east of Seventh Ave. to residential use and tear down the other half to replace with new condo development was approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. However, that plan went into limbo when St. Vincent’s closed down many of its operations and approached bankruptcy due to $700 million in debt. While the plans for the new hospital building seemed almost certainly dead, the fate of the Rudin plan for condo development and conversion east of Seventh Ave. seemed murkier.

St. Vincent’s approvals to tear down the O’Toole building could not be

transferred to another entity, but the Landmarks approvals for Rudin’s plans could still be used by Rudin or even potentially given to another developer. However, the development planned for the hospital’s east campus still required zoning changes that had not yet been approved; as a result, what, if any, development or new uses would be allowed east of Seventh Ave. remained to be seen.

The original new hospital/Rudin condo development plan was never realistic, since it would have added at least a half billion dollars in debt to the financially imperiled hospital. When St. Vincent’s emerged from bankruptcy in 2007, it was advised to find another healthcare institution to partner with to help make them financially solvent. Instead, it pursued a grandiose plan for an expensive new hospital that a controversial, speculative real estate deal would have only partly paid for. So, unfortunately, instead of getting a new hospital, the Village got no hospital at all.

The South Village has also been an area of intense preservation activity. Since G.V.S.H.P. first approached the Landmarks Preservation Commission about landmarking this historic 38-block neighborhood south of Washington Square in 2002, historic building after historic building has been demolished or compromised, including the Provincetown Playhouse, Circle in the Square Theater, Sullivan Street Playhouse and the Tunnel Garage. In late 2009, L.P.C. finally held a hearing on designating the first one-third of the South Village Historic District we had proposed, and there was overwhelming support. But six months later, L.P.C. still has not voted to designate, and while it has committed to look at the remaining two-thirds of the neighborhood, there has been no commitment about when. 

In the meantime, more critical historic sites are being lost. The building at 178 Bleecker St., in the center of a row of 1861 houses between MacDougal and Sullivan Sts., was demolished to make way for an eighth-story apartment building that G.V.S.H.P. and neighbors contended would be illegally tall. The city initially approved the new building plans, but then after G.V.S.H.P. and community groups held a demonstration in front of the site, the city rescinded the approvals, temporarily. A final decision from the city on the new building is still pending, but the historic character of this row of houses in the center of the South Village and abutting the MacDougal Sullivan Gardens — one of New York’s oldest and most diminutively scaled historic districts — has already been compromised.

On the other hand, the designation of the 235-building first one-third of the proposed South Village Historic District, long overdue but expected any day, would be the largest expansion of landmark protections in Greenwich Village since 1969. In further good news, a coalition of neighborhood groups recently was able to stop a developer-requested rezoning of a stretch of Sullivan St. between Spring and Broome Streets that would have allowed more commercial development in this area, and potentially been used as a precedent for other developer rezonings in the South Village. 

Finally, the East Village has seen a great deal of preservation progress in recent years, but is so lacking in appropriate protections that it still has much catching up to do. A community-initiated rezoning in late 2008 reduced the allowable size and height of development in most of the neighborhood and eliminated zoning bonuses for hotels and dorms. The rezoning left out the Third and Fourth Ave. corridors and the Bowery, two parts of the neighborhood with the most egregious zoning and some of the worst new development, such as a 26-story N.Y.U. dorm and glassy hotels. After much lobbying, the city agreed to support a modest rezoning of the Third and Fourth Ave. corridors proposed by G.V.S.H.P., neighbors and Councilmember Rosie Mendez, though it has been slow to implement the plan. The city has resisted, however, a more far-reaching rezoning proposed for the Bowery by other community groups, and as a result, out-of-scale development continues unabated. 

More good news came in the form of nearly a dozen new individual landmark designations adopted or being considered in the East Village during the last year or two, including a Russian Orthodox cathedral, La Mama Theater, a former Children’s Aid Society headquarters, a former tenement synagogue and a former public bath.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation