Some amazing victories, but many challenges ahead

PRG2014COVERBY ANDREW BERMAN  |  Preservation of the historic architectural and cultural character of our neighborhoods is the mission of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

The past year, we’ve made some remarkable progress — including the largest expansion of landmark protections in Greenwich Village since 1969, and a stunning victory in court against N.Y.U.’s expansion plan. And in the last 10 years, we managed to secure landmark designation of more than 1,100 buildings, and community-friendly “contextual” rezonings of nearly 100 blocks of our neighborhood.


But we still face considerable challenges, and an uncertain future. The real estate industry is waging an all-out campaign against landmarking; it’s unclear where the new administration stands on preservation issues; and there are immense challenges created by 2013 state legislation allowing millions of square feet of air rights to be transferred from the Hudson River Park into our neighborhood for development.

But first, the good news. In December, after a 10-year effort spearheaded by G.V.S.H.P., the city finally approved designation of the South Village Historic District, covering more than a dozen blocks and 250 buildings south of Washington Square. This was actually the second phase of G.V.S.H.P.’s proposed South Village Historic District, the first phase of which the city approved in 2010, covering about 230 buildings between Sixth and Seventh Aves. and W. Fourth and Houston Sts. A third and final phase, covering about 200 buildings south of Houston St. between Sixth Ave. and West Broadway, is yet to be considered by the city.

This new landmark district protects some of the most historically rich sites, not only in the Village but in the entire city. The story of generations of immigrant struggle and success is embodied in these blocks, as are decades of innovation and progress in music, theater, literature and social justice.

A map by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation showing the progress in landmarking the South Village. Still not landmarked is the third and final section.
A map by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation showing the progress in landmarking the South Village. Still not landmarked is the third and final section.

Equally importantly, G.V.S.H.P. fought for and got several potential N.Y.U. development sites included in the landmark district. These include low-scale and architecturally significant buildings on Washington Square South, like the Vanderbilt Hall Law School building and the Kevorkian Center. Not only are these worth preserving, but without landmark designation, a 300-foot-tall dormitory could be built on the site of Vanderbilt Hall.

Speaking of N.Y.U., in January, G.V.S.H.P. and a coalition of community groups, preservationists, local residents and N.Y.U. faculty scored a major victory in court when a State Supreme Court judge agreed with our lawsuit contending that public park land had been illegally given to N.Y.U. by the city for the university’s expansion plan. As a result, two of the four massive, planned N.Y.U. buildings became impossible to build, and a third extremely difficult.  Even the fourth is now in jeopardy, since the legal and environmental assumptions of the plan as approved by the city in 2012 have now been upended. G.V.S.H.P. and our coalition partners argue that the entire plan must now go back to square one, and a bevy of elected officials, including our co-plaintiff Assemblymember Deborah Glick, joined us for a press conference in January urging N.Y.U. to do just that.

There were some other nice victories as well. In February, in the face of strong opposition, a developer withdrew an application for a zoning variance to increase by 34 percent the size of a proposed office tower on 13th St. and 10th Ave. in the Meatpacking District. Also in February, after significant public shaming and phone and e-mail zap, we got Equinox to take down an illegal three-story billboard it had erected on the facade of its building at 12th St. and Greenwich Ave., in the heart of the Greenwich Village Historic District.

Of course, not all the news has been good. Rather than willingly restart the process to come up with a more reasonable plan, N.Y.U. is appealing the judge’s ruling and seeking to move ahead with its entire expansion plan as is. And it’s not yet clear if Mayor de Blasio’s administration backs N.Y.U.

In general, we are waiting to see where the de Blasio administration stands on a whole host of preservation and development issues. The mayor has not yet appointed a new chairperson of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. (Bloomberg’s appointee, Robert Tierney, remains in that position until he does.)

We do know that the Real Estate Board of New York is working hard to try to affect the direction of both the commission and the mayor. For the last year, REBNY has waged a campaign to paint landmarking as out of control, preserving nothing but gas stations and vacant lots, and (paradoxically) preventing economic development and making New York City unaffordable to all but the very rich.

In response, G.V.S.H.P. gathered affordable housing advocates, as well as neighborhood preservation leaders from Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant, for a press conference outside REBNY’s Midtown headquarters, where we refuted this organization’s baseless claims about affordability and diversity. G.V.S.H.P. placed a series of op-eds explaining how landmarking can actually help preserve neighborhoods’ affordability while at the same time encouraging new economic development through adaptive reuse. One need only look at landmarked neighborhoods like Soho, or the Meatpacking and Flatiron Districts, to see that landmarking in no way stifles economic development. And one need look no farther than the Village’s two landmarked affordable housing complexes, Westbeth and 505 LaGuardia Place (the latter within the I.M. Pei-designed Silver Towers complex), to see that landmarking can be a useful tool in helping to preserve affordability.

But perhaps the greatest challenge we face may come from a provision passed by the state Legislature in 2013, allowing the transfer of air rights from the Hudson River Park to be used for development inland. The scheme, intended to raise revenue for the park, also raises the possibility of vastly increased development up and down the West Side waterfront. And it provides real estate interests with a long-sought-after tool to potentially allow even larger development in our neighborhood than the already-generous zoning allows.

Unless safeguards are put in place, this could result in millions of square feet of additional development along the waterfront between W. 59th and Chambers Sts. — in addition to the tens of millions of square feet already slated to be built in that area in the near future. This is especially true after the revelation last month that the new provision actually allows for hundreds of thousands, or possibly millions, more square feet of air rights to be moved from the park inland for development than originally disclosed.

But G.V.S.H.P. and a coalition of West Side community groups are pushing to put limits in place that would prevent overdevelopment and the overuse of air rights, while still allowing revenue generation for the park. We’re waiting to see if local state Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Richard Gottfried, who authored the air rights provision, and state Senators Brad Hoylman and Dan Squadron, who voted for it, will support such measures.  Support will also be needed from local City Councilmembers Corey Johnson and Margaret Chin, as well as Borough President Gale Brewer. Without these safeguards, the air rights transfer provision is likely the single greatest threat to preserving the West Side of our neighborhood and preventing large-scale overdevelopment.

So we’ve made some amazing progress over the past year in preservation of our neighborhood. But looking ahead, with a new mayor, REBNY, N.Y.U., and Hudson River Park air rights, we still have our work cut out for us.


Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation