Instead of meat, High Line will offload artistas at Dia museum


By Lincoln Anderson

Just when it seemed the Meat Market was on a fast track to continue morphing into a homogenous, hyped-up nightlife and entertainment district, the Dia Art Foundation’s proposal to relocate from West Chelsea to the south end of the High Line has suddenly stirred up the mix. And no one, from meatpackers to nightclub owners to neighborhood activists, seems to be complaining. Rather, everyone — including the Bloomberg administration, which is on board with the plan — is viewing Dia as an exciting addition to the neighborhood and the future High Line park.

On the other hand, another creative idea, by Meat Market preservation activists to transplant the Flower Market from Sixth Ave. to the Meatpacking District, never took root — even after a last-ditch attempt to link it to the Dia project — and is now officially kaput.

A leading contemporary art museum, Dia opened in a former warehouse in West Chelsea in 1987, helping drive the art gallery explosion in the former industrial district. Dia expanded to a second building across the street, but wants to consolidate its operations in a new facility that is up to code.

Two years ago, Dia opened Dia:Beacon in Beacon, NY, in a converted industrial building where the Nabisco company used to print its boxes.

The planned Meatpacking District Dia museum, first reported in the New York Times last week, would resemble Dia:Beacon in many ways. Like Beacon, it would have a sawtooth roof with north-facing skylights to let in limpid light ideal for art viewing. And it would be horizontal, on one level.

Specifically, the new museum would run along the north side of Gansevoort St. from Washington St. to West St. above where two city-owned Meat Market buildings currently stand. Maggio Beef, the eastern building, vacant for several years and water damaged from being under the High Line, would be demolished. It’s not clear if the western building, a former Fire Department high-pressure pump house containing some operations of Premier Veal, would be preserved or razed and rebuilt.

A one-story, rectangular slab — 225 feet long, 95 feet wide, with a 16-foot-tall ceiling — the museum would be on the second-floor level. It would connect with the High Line, the disused, elevated freight railroad soon to be converted into a pedestrian promenade and park. Just as boxes of beef used to be unloaded from freight cars into meatpacking buildings next to the High Line, people would be able to stroll right from the old elevated railway into the museum.

In the Maggio Beef site, beneath the High Line, the museum would have a gallery space for very heavy artworks that would be difficult to lift to the second floor, such as Richard Serra sculptures.

As for the other ground-floor space, the plan, for now, is for meat business use at the Premier Veal location to continue underneath the museum once it is built.

The museum would be perched on the southern edge of the one-square-block, city-owned Meat Market co-op building. The co-op property carries a deed restriction from when the Astor family gave it to the city requiring it to be used as an agricultural market. The restriction would have to be modified to allow the museum. Because of the spot’s manufacturing zoning, a special permit from the Department of City Planning would also be needed for a museum. (A commercial gallery would be allowed as of right, since the selling of art satisfies the zoning requirements; but because a museum attracts more people, a special permit is needed.) In short, a full city review, known as the Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure, lasting nine months to a year, would be required, with a Community Board 2 review as part of the process.

Michael Govan, Dia’s director, said the site in the Meat Market, also known as Gansevoort Market, was a perfect fit for the museum. They initially looked all over Manhattan for a new location, from Harlem to the Battery, mainly on the West Side, liking the openness of the Hudson River. When the High Line reuse effort gained steam, they started to look up and down the old railroad, at spots like the parking lots along 10th Ave. in Chelsea. But some locations had floor-plate size issues, while at others Dia would have had to include a residential component in the project, which they didn’t want to do.

Friends of the High Line, the advocacy group that has led the push to reuse the old railway viaduct, suggested that Dia put their museum at the southern end of the line at Gansevoort St. as a cultural anchor for the new High Line park.

Gladly railroaded

For Dia, being next to the High Line is a big plus, since it makes the museum accessible and links it to the West Chelsea arts district.

“For us, it’s definitely about being adjacent to the High Line. The High Line is one of the most exciting projects happening in New York right now,” said Laura Raicovich, Dia’s director of external affairs. “That’s what initially attracted us to the site.”

The Meat Market itself is an attraction, too.

“We’re big proponents of the Meat Market guys staying there — for the cool factor,” said Govan. “We like the environment. And from our own selfish point of view, we want them to be there so our light won’t be blocked by high-rises.” Dia says, if its museum happens, it will be the biggest defender of the meat businesses staying in the Market.

Though final plans aren’t set, the museum will likely be contextual in its exterior materials and shape. In contrast to a glittering museum edifice, like Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, Govan said the Dia museum will be “just the opposite” — that it’s Dia’s interior that matters.

“We’re happy to negotiate and work with what blends in,” Govan said of the building’s exterior. “It’s going to look like a factory, a nice one.” Plus, they will go horizontal, not vertical. “As of right, somebody could build a very tall building there,” he noted.

Govan said the museum should have a minimal impact, if any, on views and light of the West Coast apartments, a converted former refrigerated warehouse, just to the south.

As for what will go on inside the museum, as opposed to MoMA or the Whitney, Dia tends to focus on longer, single-artist — rather than group — shows of two to three months, often commissioning the artworks.

Art over beef

Dia will lease its space from the city and is hoping for a reasonable rent. According to Govan, the city subsidizes the rent of the meatpackers in the co-op building.

As for what happens with the Premier Veal building, Govan said it’s up to the city, since it owns the co-op building, but that Dia can renovate it or rebuild it and has designs for either scenario.

“If the Meat Market people want modern space, we can do that,” he said.

One thing’s certain, they want meat business to stay beneath the museum. Govan said when they presented their proposal they made it clear they weren’t planning to take anyone’s space.

“In some weird way, it’s the cultural people who romanticize the industrial sites,” he noted. “We clearly like the industrial environment — the meatpackers probably think we’re crazy.”

As for the area’s newer businesses, Govan said the museum could be a good “counterweight” to the burgeoning nightlife scene.

“We really like the mix,” Govan said, of the Market’s around-the-clock scene of meatpackers, nightclubs, restaurants and high-end designer boutiques. “You add something cultural to the mix, I think it’ll be a really exciting neighborhood — not that it isn’t now.”

Govan said Dia met with key stakeholders in the area, to get a sense of the community’s sensitivities, and that everyone seemed to like the idea of the museum.

The project will cost $55 million, $20 million of which will be for an endowment. Govan said he’s not worried about meeting that goal, since, pending the project’s approval, he’s already got half of the funds committed. The museum could open as early as two years from now, when the first phase of the High Line park is completed.

Dia’s director said the Bloomberg administration is behind the plan.

“The city is letting us make our proposal,” he said. “They said they’re willing to sponsor us.”

In a statement, Kate D. Levin, commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, said, “This is a very preliminary conversation. But it is also an intriguing proposal. It preserves an extremely important cultural organization that would be an extraordinary partner with the High Line at its critical southern end. The proposal is sensitive of the community and provides for market-use space. Dia as an organization has an excellent track record of serving artists and audiences and being a wonderful neighbor.”

In addition to the mayor, local elected officials are qualifiedly bullish on the Meat Market museum.

“I’m supportive of it,” said State Senator Tom Duane. “I want to make sure it’s complementary to the High Line. Should they ever leave, I want to make sure it converts back to a more conforming use, a market use. But I believe it’s basically complementary to what’s there and I’m supporting it.”

Councilmember Christine Quinn said, “Dia will be a great addition to the Gansevoort Market Historic District. As a cultural institution that is sensitive to and an advocate for community concerns, Dia will compliment both the High Line project and the Meatpacking District, all while again proving to be an enormous cultural asset to our city. While the Flower Market would have been a welcome addition, as well, I am continuing to work with the Flower Market Association to ensure its needs are met.”

High Line advocates are confident the museum would mesh with the old railroad and be an excellent addition.

“We’re very excited about the potential,” said Joshua David, a co-founder of Friends of the High Line. “The arts community has always been a very strong part of the High Line process and having an art presence on the line is something we feel strongly about.” The museum will help increase the new High Line park’s “safety and use and vibrancy,” he said. FOHL might also get an office and maintenance facility in or next to the new structure, though that’s not certain, he said.

Cultural corner

Referring to the corner at Gansevoort and Washington Sts., where there would be an entrance leading up to the High Line next to the new Dia Museum, Robert Hammond, FOHL’s other co-founder, said, “I think that corner can be one of the most exciting corners in New York — where the High Line was cut and then the Dia. The High Line used to unload freight — now it’ll be people. I also like the idea that they are going for a warehouse esthetic,” he added.

Both Dia and FOHL say they find neat the historic connection in which the boxes printed at Nabisco’s Beacon factory used to be shipped down the old New York Central railroad and High Line to Nabisco’s sprawling Lower West Side cookie factory complex — now the Chelsea Market, 85 Tenth Ave. and Super Ink building. On another historical note, Dia’s Govan added, sawtooth skylight roofs like the one the museum would have were common along the Hudson River waterfront in the late 19th century.

Co-op’s cooperating

James Ortenzio, chairperson of the Meat Trade Institute of Greater New York and known locally as the Mayor of the Meat Market, has been representing the meatpackers in the co-op building in their talks with Dia and the city on the project. He said the co-op is firmly behind the concept. He personally thinks Dia will be a strong presence with staying power.

“They will absolutely reinforce the southern end of the Meat Market,” Ortenzio said.

Noting how residents on the edges of the Meat Market, and those few living in the Market, are in a panic over the area’s explosion into a party scene, Ortenzio said the museum will lend some civility to what has become “Klondike.”

Ortenzio wants to make sure the museum works. For that reason, he thinks they should even build higher or add offices above to offset the project’s cost.

“Who cares if they’re 15 or 20 feet taller than the Maggio building? I don’t,” he said.

He’s not concerned about whether meat businesses continue below the museum. In fact, he indicated he thinks the museum might be better off without them. But what about the old Astor deed restriction for agricultural market use, which would have to be lifted for the Premier Veal space?

“It’s time for a change,” said Ortenzio, who is a co-op director. “The people who enjoy that covenant will be willing to give up part of it for the greater good — that part that will accommodate our future partner.” Ortenzio said Premier Veal has moved the bulk of its operations to Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, anyway.

Bob Wilkins, owner of Lamb Unlimited on Washington St., said, from what he’s heard and read, the museum sounds terrific.

“It certainly sounds like it will provide some space to enable some of the meat companies to stay in this area and anything that does that I’m for that,” he said. “Conceptually it sounds like a great idea. It sounds like fun.” Wilkins suggested that maybe museumgoers on the second floor would be able to look down somehow and watch the meat business activity on the first floor.

Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which has fought to preserve the area’s market character, said he is concerned about the height, scale, design and use of the museum and how it impacts the High Line and Meat Market.

“There are certain conditions under which the Dia proposal could be acceptable,” he said. “If they are going to be moving into the Gansevoort Market superblock, there’s got to be assurances that it would stabilize the Meat Market, rather than help push it out. In talking with Dia they’ve been very responsive and thoughtful.”

Leading Meat Market preservationists Jo Hamilton and Florent Morellet hatched the idea to relocate the Flower Market to the Meat Market. Last May, The Meat Market Blooms effort raised $100,000 at a benefit and auction at Diane von Furstenberg’s house for a feasibility study for the relocation plan.

Cordelia Persen, executive director of the Flower Market Association, said the plan involved space in the city co-op building as well as a nearby state-owned parking lot on West St. left over from the Route 9A reconstruction project when it was a staging area. Persen said the Flower Market needs a lot of ground-floor space but that the co-op building’s tenants have leases through 2019.

“It would have been a very difficult situation, because it would have included a state site and a city site, whereas Dia just needs the city site,” Persen said. “It could have worked, but it was a complicated, long-term proposal. I think it comes down to Dia’s one fairly well-funded [institution] and we’re 32 small businesses. We would have loved to have been in Gansevoort, but with luck there’ll be another space.”

Ortenzio said he was also involved in trying to make the relocation work, but with almost three dozen flower businesses with 100 trucks total it simply wasn’t feasible.

‘No negatives’

David Rabin, president of the New York Nightlife Association and the Meatpacking District Initiative, an organization representing the area’s businesses, sees no downside to Dia. Rabin, who owns Lotus nightclub on W. 14th St., said two weeks ago, Dia showed M.P.D.I. their preliminary plan.

“I told them I think it’s great,” he said. “It’ll bring a lot more daytime traffic, which will be great for the retail and restaurants. It fits in with the High Line. I can’t think of any negatives at all. I imagine they’ll have openings and that will bring more people as well.”

Noting that Andre Balazs’s hotel, slated for the block just to the north, is also coming soon, Rabin said of the museum, “It’s one more piece in this puzzle of making it a neighborhood that encompasses the best of New York.”

Speaking of nightlife, how late would the museum be open? According to Govan, Dia’s hours would be geared to the hours the High Line park would be open, the latter which are still being worked out.

“If the High Line becomes the place to be in the summer, we’ll try to stay open later,” he said. From the interest the High Line and Dia are already generating, it sounds like they might not be closing early.