Two signs AIDS memorial park gaining strength

Architect Michael Arad.
Architect Michael Arad

BY NATHAN RILEY | Two weeks after Community Board 2 gave a conditional green light to plans for an AIDS memorial park in a triangular site adjacent to the former St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, two new developments –– one originating from the group advocating for the park and the other coming from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer –– signal the growing strength of the push.

On November 29, AIDS Memorial Park, an effort that grew out of the Queer History Alliance (QHA) formed to press for commemoration of the profound role the shuttered hospital and its West Village neighborhood played in the epidemic, announced a design competition headed up by a prestigious group with extraordinary credentials for the job.

Michael Arad, a New York City architect who won the competition to create the National September 11 Memorial at the site of the former World Trade Center, will chair the jury judging the competition.

The panel also includes Richard Meier, an architect who designed the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Frankfurt Museum of Decorative Arts, and the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art; Barry Bergdoll, the principal curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art; Robert Hammond, executive director of Friends of the High Line; Marjorie Hill, the CEO of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC); Elizabeth Diller, a Princeton architecture professor; Suzanne Stephens, the deputy editor of Architectural Record; landscape architect Ken Smith; choreographer Bill T. Jones; and journalist and novelist Kurt Andersen.

Meanwhile, Stringer, in his official recommendations regarding redevelopment of property occupied by the shuttered hospital, called the proposal for creating an AIDS memorial park “compelling.”

A leader of the campaign, urban planning professional Chris Tepper, hailed Stringer’s November 25 statement. The borough president, he said, is “the first elected official to publicly support the project.”

Stringer’s recommendation is advisory –– required by law in the case of large-scale development projects –– and forms part of the backdrop to a November 30 City Planning Commission public hearing. The Planning Commission’s findings create binding terms that go to the City Council for final approval.

The area under discussion in the push for an AIDS memorial is the triangle bounded by 12th Street and Greenwich and Seventh Avenues. That triangle must be preserved as a park as a condition of Rudin Management’s right to redevelop property to the north and east, largely for high-end residential occupancy.

In his 23-page assessment, Stringer wrote that the impact of the AIDS crisis was “immeasurable.”

“Over the past 30 years, more than 100,000 people in the city have been lost to this terrible disease, most significantly in our LGBT community,” he said. “But the devastating effects were not only felt by those infected; an incalculable number of individuals dedicated their lives to taking care of their friends and neighbors –– many of whom were lost. Their kindness not only demonstrated the resolve of the human spirit, but also what it truly meant to be a community.”

Tepper, who, with Paul Kelterborn, founded QHA and AIDS Memorial Park, said Stringer’s support “strengthens the positive parts in the Community Board’s resolution.”

Tepper works at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation as a director of development and planning, and Kelterborn is the public programs director at the Municipal Art Society of New York.

Among those that have endorsed the proposal are GMHC, the LGBT Community Center, Housing Works, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the Stonewall Community Foundation, Bailey House, Greenwich House, and amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.

Like Community Board 2, Stringer noted that the proposal represents challenges –– ranging from the technical feasibility of creating a street level, well-treed park over an existing basement space that the AIDS memorial advocates want to use as a learning center to the need for modifying the redevelopment master plan already hammered out between CB2 and Rudin.

“Unfortunately,” his letter stated, “proposals to introduce a new use on the Triangle Site or to significantly redesign the park after a design process will require the modification of the special permit in a follow-up action.”

Such changes happen routinely in development projects. Modifications can be “major” or “minor.” It’s too early to say whether modifications for the AIDS memorial project would be deemed minor, allowing the community board and the City Planning Commission to agree to the changes, or major, in which case the cumbersome application process required under the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) would be back at square one.

An AIDS memorial project design that flows organically from existing plans would likely prove the least disruptive to the timeline.

The effort to surmount the hurdles noted in his recommendation, Stringer argued, is well worth the effort. The QHA proposal is “not only an appropriate but a laudable endeavor to find a way to commemorate those who have been lost to, those who lived through, and those who continue to live with the epidemic.”

Then, in an embrace of the group’s efforts to preserve the underground space for an HIV learning center, the borough president added, “Furthermore, placing a strong emphasis on education and awareness is critical to stopping the spread of the illness.”