BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | A pair of design experts told an audience of 100 concerned Villagers to try looking at Gansevoort St. without the “landmark filter” to appreciate how the “underlying zoning” actually allowed taller buildings. They hearkened all the way back to the 1800s, when the block sported taller buildings, to try to justify the plans of their employers, a development team that wants to build up the south side of low-scale Gansevoort St., between Greenwich and Washington Sts., in the landmarked Gansevoort Market Historic District.
However, the plan, by William Gottlieb Real Estate and Aurora Capital Associates, is facing staunch community opposition. The proposed scheme includes demolishing two buildings, constructing two new ones — one of which would rise 122 feet — plus adding three stories atop a row of historic two-story buildings, boosting them to 98 feet tall. Yet, the street, along with much of the rest of the Meatpacking District, was landmarked by the city in 2003.
Under a restrictive declaration dating back to 1979, the block was limited to meat market and other light-industrial uses. Those restrictions were modified in 2013 to also allow retail and restaurant use, though office and hotel use are still prohibited.
For their part, the audience at the special meeting of Community Board 2 on Oct. 15 was having none of it. Not one member of the crowd spoke or rose their hand in support of the proposed project. Meanwhile, many testified passionately against it. The opponents wore stickers on their breasts reading, “Save Gansevoort Street.”
C.B. 2: No way!
Ultimately, the C.B. 2 Landmarks and Public Aesthetics Committee did what it was expected to do, and, reflecting the sentiment of the community, passed a resolution calling for the entire proposal to be scrapped. Subsequently, the full board of C.B. 2, at its monthly meeting on Oct. 22, unanimously voted to support the committee’s resolution on what is known as Gansevoort Row.
“This proposed project alters the very essence and distinct characteristics that made this district historic and worth preserving by designation,” C.B. 2 said in its advisory resolution.
“…[A]ny appropriate development for this block will need drastic reduction in scale,” the resolution concluded, “especially minimal height and considerable setback of additions atop existing buildings — and a design that is sensitive to the buildings and to the district. Essentially a new proposal will be required; therefore, proposed modifications to the application should be presented to the C.B. 2 Landmarks Committee prior to a hearing before the Landmarks Preservation Commission.”
There’s not a whole lot of time left to do that, though. L.P.C. is set to consider the application Tues., Nov. 10, at a time to be determined.
Meanwhile, on Oct. 15, the two design experts, Todd Poisson, a partner at BKSK architects, and Cas Stachelberg, from Higgins Quasebarth and Partners, did their best to try to sway the crowd and the members of the C.B. 2 committee.
In all, the project involves five buildings on three lots.
On the east end of the block, 46-48 Gansevoort St. includes a Moderne-style building, which the developers would leave standing. But a small building they described as “no style” next to this, at 50 Gansevoort St., currently home to a nightclub, would be rebuilt to three stories.
Nos. 52 to 58 were four buildings that were cut down and made smaller in the 1930s to create a market building. The home of the current Gansevoort Market food court, this structure would be preserved and not vertically enlarged, though the developer wants to do a rear horizontal extension on the second floor.
Nos. 60 to 68 were five separate residential tenement buildings dating from around 1880. In 1939, their top three stories were removed as the property was then being used by meat businesses. The developer proposes to reconstruct the removed upper stories.
Nos. 70 to 74 were once three five-story tenements that were cut down to one story. The developer proposes to demolish the existing structure and replace it with a six-story building with a two-story penthouse.
As they spoke, while squiggling a red power-point laser over blown-up historic photos and diagrams of the buildings, Poisson and Stachelberg argued that Gansevoort St. has basically always been in flux and had a variety of uses over the years.
“This market is about change,” Stachelberg asserted. “It’s about adaptive reuse.”
‘A careful building up’
“The underlying zoning, without the landmark filter, allows 155,000 square feet in the envelope,” Poisson said, adding, “What we are proposing is a very careful building up, from east to west.”
In fact, the developers would only use 114,000 square feet of that envelope, “leaving 40,000 square feet on the table,” Poisson noted.
As the pair showed renderings of the rebuilt, taller buildings, the audience responded with hisses and sarcastic chuckles.
When the largest building, at the block’s western end, was shown, one woman exclaimed, “Oh, my God!”
This corner building would have a large faux “water tower” on top of it, only adding to its height, which one of the designers said was to evoke the “water tanks and other exuberant rooftop structures” common to the area. This structure would actually be glass, with wooden slats inside of it.
“So, at night, this will be quite an illuminated presence?” queried a member of the C.B. 2 committee after the presentation.
“Correct,” came the reply.
‘People treasure this’
But committee member Jon Geballe, sidestepping the nitty-gritty of the plan’s design details, got right to the point in his statement.
“The buildings that are there now were there when it was designated. I think a lot of people here tonight treasure this,” he said of the existing landmarked block of Gansevoort St., as the audience responded with sustained applause. “Did you consider that when you were planning this?” he asked.
Geballe added that this block has basically looked this way for the past 75 years, a long time. So, the block has been that way essentially for the entire lives of those people who have resided in the neighborhood that long, he said.
Ritu Chattree, another committee member, urged the developers to “consider the work and the energy and the thought that went into preserving this as a landmark district,” again garnering applause.
“This is an area that is dear to residents, businesspeople and tourists,” she added.
As the meeting was opened up to testimony from the audience, Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, first took the microphone.
“This proposal is absolutely, fundamentally wrong,” he said bluntly.
In response to the two designers repeatedly saying the district has always been about change, Berman retorted, “This is not change. This is obliteration. This would completely overwhelm the character that made the Gansevoort district unique.
“This is a unique surviving ensemble,” he said of Gansevoort Row. “There is not another site in the Meat Market where we have this intact ensemble.”
As to the design for No. 74, the largest proposed building, he said, “It looks institutional, not like anything in the Meatpacking District.”
And adding three stories atop Nos. 60 to 68, he said, “would destroy one of the most iconic rows of buildings in the Meat Market.
“I think this needs to go straight back to the drawing board,” he concluded.
Zack Winestine, one of the co-leaders of the ad hoc group Save Gansevoort, asked how many people in the room opposed the plan, and everyone in the audience shot up their hand.
“This is the only remaining block of one- and two-story market structures in the Meatpacking District,” he stressed. “It’s the gateway to the Whitney Museum. It’s the gateway to the High Line. It’s a very important block. In many ways, it’s the gateway to the Meatpacking District. People come from all over, and around the world, to see this. The existing structures are ‘market structures’ — that’s what the [L.P.C. 2003] designation report says.”
Elaine Young, his co-leader on Save Gansevoort, also referred to the district’s designation report, noting that the very image on the report’s cover, in fact, is a photo of 52 Gansevoort St. from the mid-20th century, when the buildings had already been cut down to their current heights.
Young said she remembered walking around the district with Jo Hamilton and Floret Morellet when the two activists were working to landmark the area.
“The words ‘low-scale streetscapes’ came up over and over again,” she recalled. “The whole sense of the Gansevoort Market Historic District is wiped out by these boring, generic structures,” she said of the developers’ plan.
Save Gansevoort has a petition against the proposal posted on its Web site, www.savegansevoort.org .
Kim Handley said of the block, “It’s special. It’s unique. On a good day, it looks like an Edward Hopper painting.”
Soho activist Lora Tenenbaum emphasized, “This block of Gansevoort St. is the epitome of grittiness. It’s the poster baby of the historic district. To allow this project would put the lie to landmarking.”
Pete Davies said, if the developers want to flash back to 1879 and call that “history,” well, what about the fact that Gansevoort St. was originally an Indian trail?
“Henry Hudson saw an Indian village at this site — Greenwich and Washington Sts. — Sapokanikan,” he said.
Needless to say, there were probably no duplexes, or tall abodes of any sort, in Sapokanikan.
‘This is a market district’
Similarly, Keith Anderson said it “isn’t applicable” to focus on the block’s former tenement history. Residential use has long been prohibited in the district, which was rezoned for manufacturing use, though today some grandfathered residential apartments remain.
“This is a market district,” Anderson said.
“The Whitney, with all that outdoor space, looks at this,” he added. “I think we need to get that Italian architect here, he’ll be horrified by this,” he said, referring to Renzo Piano, the new Whitney’s designer.
Parents whose toddlers attend the West Village Nursery School co-op on Horatio St. said the construction fallout and racket from the proposed project would jeopardize the children’s health. The tots play in an outdoor backyard that abuts where work would occur.
“These are not adult lungs,” one mother said. “These are children’s lungs. These are children’s lives.”
Another resident, who has been in the neighborhood since 1993, said it has changed greatly since the Meat Market mostly moved out, both for the better and for the worse.
“I don’t miss the flies, the fake transgender hookers, but I do miss the quiet,” he said. “Increasingly, there are no services that I need in the neighborhood. There is more garbage since the Whitney opened, more car horns. We don’t need this commercial development,” he concluded.
Bill Gottlieb did nothing
Speaking after the meeting, Jill Liebman, a Horatio St. resident for 43 years, said that when Bill Gottlieb owned the block, he didn’t do anything too radical.
“He didn’t do nothing,” she said. “He didn’t raise rents. Then the sister took over, and she died, and now whoever’s running it is doing this.”
As for why the building heights on Gansevoort Row were lowered long ago in the first place, Berman said, “This was mostly done during the Depression, when the buildings were converted to meatpacking plants. The upper floors were not needed, and the more space they had, the more taxes they paid. So I think both the need for less space and the need to avoid unnecessary tax payments during hard economic times led to the removal of those upper floors.”
Winestine said the reason Gansevoort Row has survived this long is solely because the city protected it as a market. But pressure to strip away that bulwark has been mounting.
“Right now, this block is probably among the most prime real estate in the world,” he said. “Gottlieb bought the entire block for just $2.5 million in 1986.”
Glick: ‘It’s reprehensible’
On Sept. 8, Assemblymember Deborah Glick wrote to Meenakshi Srinivasan, the L.P.C. chairperson, to express her strong opposition to the plan.
“This drastic increase in height and the removal of two buildings along the block that is the historic district’s namesake is unnecessary and reprehensible overdeveloment in a neighborhood we have fought hard to preserve,” Glick wrote. “These are dramatic and unwarranted changes that go against the very nature and purpose of historic districts and would bring harm to the surrounding communities and set a negative precedent for the viability of landmarked buildings and historic districts throughout the city.”