Group gets top attorney to help battle St. Vincent’s

By Albert Amateau

A new group opposed to the current St. Vincent’s/Rudin plan to redevelop the hospital campus in the Greenwich Village Historic District emerged last week at a Community Board 2 landmarks forum attended by more than 500 people.

The group, Preserve the Village Historic District, was organized earlier this month by three Village residents, Thomas Molner, Phillip Schaeffer and Gary Tomei, who engaged Albert Butzel, an environmental and public advocacy lawyer, to focus on the legal aspects of the St. Vincent’s project.

“I just want to say two things,” said Butzel, addressing the standing-room-only crowd at the Jan. 22 C.B. 2 meeting. “There are a lot of legal objections to what St. Vincent’s and Rudin are trying to do. And we’re not going to let it happen — we’re going to defeat them,” he said.

In response to a question about a potential lawsuit to block the proposal for a new 329-foot-tall hospital on the west side of Seventh Ave. and a residential development that includes a 272-foot-tall condo on the east side of the avenue, Butzel said later in a telephone interview, “I don’t think we’ll need to go that far.”

“We’re going to make a stand at the Landmarks Preservation Commission that the project presented to us doesn’t qualify at all as appropriate for a historic district,” Butzel said. “And we’re certainly going to work with elected officials and the developer to get changes during the environmental review process. We’ll then review our options.”

Butzel was the lead attorney in a lawsuit that resulted in the defeat of the $2 billion Westway Hudson River landfill project in the 1980s and was a plaintiff two years ago in a Friends of Hudson River Park lawsuit that won the city’s agreement to take garbage trucks off Gansevoort Peninsula by 2012 or pay high penalties.

Butzel was formerly president of Friends of Hudson River Park, but left that position at the start of the year.

“We want to be ready for anything,” said Molner in a telephone interview later last week, in response to a question about a possible lawsuit. “We intend to work closely with others in the community, including the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which also fight to protect the integrity of the Greenwich Village Historic District,” said Molner, a lawyer like the other two founders of Preserve the Village Historic District.

Andrew Berman, G.V.S.H.P. executive director, said that while the society’s bylaws do not allow it to go to court to further preservation aims, G.V.S.H.P. intends to work closely with the new group.

The approval process for the largest development project in the Village since the creation of the Greenwich Village Historic District 49 years ago began on Dec. 31 with application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Community Board 2 will hold a Feb. 25 hearing on the Landmarks application for the demolition of eight existing St. Vincent’s hospital buildings and for the appropriateness of the proposed new residential project and the new hospital.

However, the C.B. 2 Landmarks Committee this week voted unanimously to disapprove the project.

Shelly Friedman, land use attorney for the project, told the Jan. 22 meeting that he hopes L.P.C. would hold its public hearing on the project in March. The commission may ask for more information or revisions and there is no set timetable, but Friedman said he hopes for a timely decision. Applicants for certificates of appropriateness may appeal adverse L.P.C. decisions and overturn them if they can demonstrate that the decisions impose economic hardship.

An environmental impact study of the project and the uniform land use review procedure — with City Planning Commission hearings and final City Council oversight — would follow the Landmarks approval process.

Neighborhood objections to the project, as in several previous meetings, related to the height and bulk of both the proposed hospital and the proposed residential tower across the avenue. The demolition of existing buildings and the addition of about 400 residential units in a district where public schools are already overcrowded are other concerns.

While neighbors repeated that they were not against the modernization of the hospital, many of them insisted the project size was driven by the Rudin Organization’s effort to maximize its profit from residential development.

One Village resident, Dr. Gil Horowitz, of 2 Fifth Ave., harked back three generations to criticize the Rudin family.

“It’s not the first time the Rudins violated the historic character of the Village,” he said. “Sam Rudin, grandfather of Bill Rudin, demolished 11 Rhinelander brownstones to build 2 Fifth Ave. It’s a nice place to live — but I want to preserve the historic district,” he said.

Frank Nervo, a member of Village Independent Democrats, faulted the Rudin side of the project for failing to include any provision for affordable housing.

On Monday morning Jan. 28 a group of 11 neighbors met with St. Vincent’s executives to outline their main objections to the project and to formally present a community plan suggesting alternatives. The alternative plan calls for a new 190-foot-tall hospital on St. Vincent’s current O’Toole Building site on the west side of the avenue, to be connected by an existing tunnel under the avenue to a smaller hospital building on the east side.

The alternative also calls for converting five of the eight hospital buildings currently on the east side of the avenue to residential condominiums and replacing the 272-foot-tall residential tower proposed for the east side of Seventh Ave. with a smaller building.

“It was an opportunity for a face-to-face talk about our main objections to the proposed project and to offer our solutions,” Berman said of the Monday meeting with hospital officials.

“They were interested about the community alternative, and they said they would consider our suggestions,” Molner said.

Michael Fagan, St. Vincent’s vice president for community affairs, said the hospital wanted to look at the suggestions. However, Henry Amoroso, St. Vincent’s chief executive officer, told the Jan. 22 landmarks forum that splitting the hospital into two sites on the east and west sides of the avenue was not viable. In addition, Arthur Webb, president of Village Center for Care, which is building a new nursing and convalescence center on W. Houston St. near Varick St., agreed that a hospital on two sites was impractical.

Lloyd Bishop, vice president of the Greater New York Hospital Association, also supported the St. Vincent’s/Rudin financing plan.

“Making best use of its real estate assets to finance the needed capital investment is consistent with the options that New York hospitals have available to them,” Bishop said.

Bruce Richard, of Local 1199, which represents many St. Vincent’s employees, also supported the project.

One frequent complaint about the project was the proposal to put the ambulance entrance on the narrow 12th St. side of the hospital and making 12th St. two-way instead of one-way for the single block between Seventh and Greenwich Aves. But Bernadette Kingham-Bez, St. Vincent’s senior vice president for communications and planning, said at the Jan. 22 forum that the hospital is re-evaluating its proposal for 12th St.

“Our traffic consultant, Sam Schwartz, is looking at whether a Seventh Ave. ambulance entrance would be appropriate. The issue is still under review at the Department of Transportation,” Kingham-Bez said.

Chelsea residents also weighed in on the project at the landmarks forum, mostly on the side of the opponents. Pam Wolff recalled the community’s defeat last year of the General Theological Seminary’s proposal to exceed Chelsea Historic District zoning with a project that included a residential developer as a partner. The seminary subsequently redesigned its project to conform to Chelsea Historic District zoning even before the Landmarks Preservation Commission ruled on the original plan.

“I’ve lived in the Village and then in Chelsea since 1954 and St. Vincent’s has been the hospital of choice for me and my family,” Wolff said. “But I must strongly disagree with the current push throughout the city of service institutions like St. Vincent’s to capitalize on the impulse of developers to build inappropriate, high-rise luxury housing in neighborhoods that have long been protected by hard-won historic district designation.”

Steve Shore, a Chelsea resident who opposed the seminary’s original proposal, urged neighbors to continue their opposition to St. Vincent’s plan.

Mary Swartz, president of Save Chelsea, submitted a statement urging reuse of St. Vincent’s existing buildings and reducing the size of the proposed hospital and residential buildings.

“This plan has huge ramifications,” Swartz said, “not just for Greenwich Village but for any neighborhood which depends upon historic district regulations to preserve its character.”