Koch should have dusted off his forgotten notebook

By Ed Gold

Ed Koch, of course, has a perfect right to serve as cheerleader for St. Vincent’s new hospital plan, but it would have been more helpful if he had taken the time to talk to some of the community activists who have raised serious questions about the current proposal.

Koch once was one of the great community activists in Greenwich Village as he climbed the political ladder from district leader to councilmember to congressman and finally, mayor.

He used to carry a small notebook in his jacket pocket and assiduously take notes on every community problem that was called to his attention.

But he soured on the local scene in the early ’80s when his political club, Village Independent Democrats, upset with his turn to the right, chose Mario Cuomo over him for governor. That led to an exodus from V.I.D. by many of his key supporters, who formed Village Reform Democratic Club. But V.R.D.C. failed to support him for a fourth mayoral term, so he picked up his marbles, settled on Fifth Ave. and turned his back on almost all Village activity.

Periodically, close friends would ask him to support some good local cause but he ignored these requests, an exception being an appearance for Greenwich House where nostalgia won out; he had studied guitar there.

To his credit, when he was mayor he served the Village well on at least two notable projects. He was instrumental in creating the so-called Archives Fund, which permitted Community Board 2 to make recommendations for worthy capital improvements in its district, totaling $1.6 million over the years.

He was also in City Hall when the vocational school on W. 13th St. was vacated and he supported its conversion into what’s now known as the L.G.B.T. Community Center.

So, it would have been constructive if he had met with some of today’s community activists and listened to some of their suggestions, concerns and criticisms of the hospital plan before launching massive phone and mail promotions as a spokesperson for the Friends of the New St. Vincent’s. His unquestioning enthusiasm may have in part been prompted by his historic close

ties with leaders in the Catholic Church and his longtime friendship with members of the Rudin family, who are real estate partners on the project with the hospital.

He has applauded the open discussions between the hospital and Rudin family, on the one hand, and the Community Working Group, made up of a diverse range of community activists, on the other.

But so far there is no indication that the hospital or Rudin has made any adjustments to assuage community concerns.

It would have been easy for Koch, a quick learner, to check with some of the Working Group activists, like his old political running mate, Carol Greitzer; or the landmarks and zoning maven, the ubiquitous Andrew Berman; or the articulate and outspoken David Marcus; or David Gruber, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Institutions Committee, who knows quite a bit about real estate.

To name a few issues they might have brought up:

• The bulk and height of the two proposed new buildings, including the new hospital to be built on the O’Toole site on the west side of Seventh Ave., and the luxury-priced condo, set for the east side of Seventh, running from 11th to 12th Sts. St. Vincent’s might seek an F.A.R. of 10, which could create a hospital building that would rise 100 feet above the existing residential buildings at 175 W. 12th and 175 W. 13th Sts. The condo would also be taller than the two residential buildings.

• The indication that all residential construction — the large condo on Seventh Ave. and the proposed 19 townhouses planned to replace existing hospital-owned buildings between Sixth and Seventh Aves. — will be for the rich only. St. Vincent’s is counting on the sale of its property to cover half the cost of new hospital construction, giving cover to the Rudin organization for seeking top dollar to justify its risk and providing the hospital with maximum funding.

• Questions have been raised about educational needs in the area to serve the increase in residential population, and in the face of existing enrollment limitations at the neighborhood’s two public elementary schools.

• Current properties owned by the hospital lie in a landmark district, and there are suggestions that several of these buildings deserve landmark protection.

• There is a lot of discussion about how the St. Vincent’s Triangle will be used. St. Vincent’s has indicated it might convert most of it into a park/garden. But such promises in the past have not been realized. There is no community consensus on how the Triangle should be used.

• Koch, perhaps unintentionally, raises an issue about the new St. Vincent’s capacity. He indicates there will be large growth in the city’s population and “a large amount of that growth will happen here.” But the hospital’s current plan calls for a reduction in beds from a current 727 to 375!

• There is worry that the entire construction job could take up to 10 years, a very conspicuous impact on the residents now living in the area. The plan is to build the new hospital first, then begin removal and new construction on the east side of Seventh Ave.

Virtually everyone in the community recognizes the important historical role of St. Vincent’s in the community and supports the creation of a new, green, state-of-the-art institution. During an earlier construction period, an angry leader from the W. 11th St. Block Association told the then-hospital president, Sister Margaret Sweeney, “This street isn’t big enough for me and the hospital.” I asked when he was going to move.

But Koch is stuck with a deep-seated narcissism. As one of his great friends, Dan Wolf, first editor of The Village Voice, once said: “When Ed Koch looks in the mirror it’s the greatest love story since ‘Tristan and Isolde.’”

Instead of taking out a little notebook and talking to serious activists about serious questions involved in the proposed construction, he opted to be a constituency of one, an unfortunate decision for the community in which he has spent most of his life.