St. Vincent’s gets approval to demolish landmark site

By Albert Amateau

The Landmarks Preservation Com-mission voted 6 to 4 on Tuesday in favor of the St. Vincent’s Hospital hardship application to demolish the quirky O’Toole Building to make way for a new hospital.

St. Vincent’s and its development partner, the Rudin Organization, hailed the vote, but neighborhood opponents to the hospital plan lost no time in saying they would go to court to try to overturn it.

The close vote, however, was not the last word that the L.P.C. will have on St. Vincent’s plan to build a 299-foot-tall hospital tower on the O’Toole site at 20 Seventh Ave. in the Greenwich Village Historic District.

“We will require that no demolition is attempted until all required approvals and financing for the project are in place,” said Robert Tierney, L.P.C. chairperson, who voted with the majority in favor of the hardship application.

The Oct. 28 vote was narrowly focused on whether St. Vincent’s proved its hardship case that a new hospital building is necessary to continue its charitable mission of providing healthcare and that O’Toole is the only feasible site for the new building.

The O’Toole Building, designed by Albert Ledner for the National Maritime Union, was built in 1964 and acquired by St. Vincent’s in 1975 after the historic district was designated. Tierney said the commission would consider later whether the design of the proposed 299-foot-tall hospital building is appropriate for the historic district.

Neighborhood opponents, who consider the planned hospital tower too big, contend that St. Vincent’s has not adequately investigated alternatives to the O’Toole site.

“This vote was clearly in violation of the standards for a hardship exemption to the Landmarks Law against demolition,” said Gary Tomei, one of the founders of Protect the Village Historic District, in an interview after the vote.

Albert Butzel, the lawyer representing P.V.H.D., said he thought the vote was “mostly a political decision,” and was based on a mistaken premise. “The O’Toole Building created no hardship,” he said. Referring to the dissenting L.P.C. votes, he added, “I don’t remember when there were four dissenting opinions as articulate as these.” Butzel said P.V.H.D. intends to file a legal challenge to the L.P.C. action within the next four months.

Commissioners who voted against the measure were Roberta Washington, Margery Perlmutter, Stephen Byrns and Roberta Gratz. Voting in favor of the hardship application in addition to Tierney were Joan Gerner, Diana Chapin, Libby Ryan, Christopher Moore and Frederick Bland.

Last May, the commission informally but definitely told St. Vincent’s to go back to the drawing board because its plan to demolish O’Toole to build a 325-foot-tall new hospital on the west side of Seventh Ave. at 11th St. would not be appropriate for the historic district.

The hospital came back two weeks later with the proposed hospital tower reduced to 299 feet tall and a residential tower on the east side of Seventh Ave. to be built by the Rudin Organization reduced from 265 feet tall to 200 feet.

The revised plan also called for adapting three existing historic buildings on the east side of Seventh Ave. to residential use rather than demolishing them.

And instead of seeking a certificate of appropriateness from Landmarks, St. Vincent’s filed the hardship application for an exemption to the Landmarks Law barring demolition in a designated historic district.

The L.P.C. held four meetings on the original plan, and three — including the one on Tuesday — on the hardship application.

In a joint statement on Tuesday, William Rudin and Alfred E. Smith IV, chairman of St. Vincent’s, said the hardship application approval “allows us to take another step forward to building a 21st-century, technologically advanced hospital for Manhattan’s West Side and Downtown.”

But in her dissenting vote, Washington, an architect who has designed hospitals, said St. Vincent’s did not adequately investigate alternatives to the O’Toole option. She cited the midblock of the current campus on the east side of the avenue as an alternative that could work. She said St. Vincent’s had a vested interest in showing that alternatives did not work, and called for more exploration of possibilities.

Perlmutter, a former architect and a land-use lawyer who has represented hospitals, said that demolishing the St. Vincent’s Nurses Residence and Spellman buildings for a new hospital on the east side of the avenue would be better than demolishing O’Toole. Perlmutter said she did her own analysis of a possible midblock site and came up with a potential 150-foot-tall hospital building with as much space as the proposed O’Toole site.

Gratz, a preservation advocate and author, said the proposed hardship application was the most serious challenge to landmarks preservation since Grand Central Terminal, a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that landmark protection of buildings was constitutional.

She said that O’Toole could still be used for St. Vincent’s outpatients and does not create a problem.

“They have shown that the east campus redevelopment is the problem and they need O’Toole to remedy it,” Gratz said, adding, “This would be a disastrous precedent.”

Commissioner Byrns said he was not convinced that the alternatives to the O’Toole site were adequately examined. He agreed that the midblock alternative on the east campus could yield a 150-foot-tall, new hospital comparable to the one proposed for the O’Toole site. Byrns also suggested that a building on the triangle site on the west side of the avenue could connect with a preserved O’Toole Building if W.11th St., which separates them, were closed and made part of an alternative hospital plan.

But the commissioners who voted in favor of the hardship agreed with St. Vincent’s that the alternative options and sites were either not viable for a 21st-century hospital or not available.

Tierney noted that St. Vincent’s has moved its psychiatric beds to Cabrini Hospital on E. 19th St., and that the hospital already owns the O’Toole site. The midblock option on the east side of the avenue would require the demolition of the Nurses Residence, built in 1925, and the Spellman Pavilion, built in 1941, Tierney said, adding that both were more historic than O’Toole.

Bland said he admired the O’Toole Building but it was not built as the architect intended in 1964. Moreover, the building was modified 10 years later after the hospital acquired it, he noted.

In a statement issued later on Tuesday, Brad Hoylman, chairperson of Community Board 2, said, “The community board is proud to have been an early and ardent supporter of the O’Toole Building, which we view as an important and rare example of Modernist architecture. However, now that the L.P.C. has decided that O’Toole can be demolished (barring any legal action), we plan to work closely with our elected officials and the local community during the uniform land use review procedure to ensure that the impact of the new hospital building and the Rudin condominium project on the surrounding neighborhood is minimized to the greatest extent possible.”

Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and a longtime critic of the project, said in a prepared statement, “Few L.P.C. rulings in recent memory have been so divided and few have been of greater import.” He noted that the commission has yet to rule on the appropriateness of the proposed hospital and on the Rudin east campus proposal. Significant zoning changes will also be needed for the hospital and residential project, Berman said, noting that a legal challenge to the hardship application was imminent.