BY ANDREW BERMAN | Imagine a young developer from a big New York real estate family wants to make a name for himself. He decides to do so by developing a luxury high-rise tower in the heart of Greenwich Village that will be one of the tallest, if not the tallest, structures ever erected in the historically low-rise neighborhood.
Now imagine that there were no landmark protections to prevent him from building this tower, and that the zoning actually encouraged this kind of development: There were no height limits, which made it easy to build a tall, narrow tower on a large plot of land, requiring no public approvals or review whatsoever.
Unfortunately, this awful scenario is no fantasy; this is exactly what is set to happen at 110 University Place at 12th St., where the Bowlmor Lanes has stood for decades. Billy Macklowe, scion of Harry Macklowe, is demolishing the existing structure and plans to erect a 23-story, 308-foot-tall residential tower in its place — about the height of the concrete-sheathed 30-story N.Y.U. Silver Towers.
Unlike most of Greenwich Village, this site has no landmark protections — much like almost all of University Place and the blocks extending east to Broadway, and west to Fifth Ave. along 12th St. and to the north. And the current zoning, which dates from 1961, encourages tall towers on large development sites, and grants zoning bonuses for including things like plazas and university facilities.
And if this current development scenario is not sufficiently nightmarish, consider that it could actually be worse. Under existing conditions, one could build an even taller building in this area, and unlike Macklowe’s planned residential development, it could be a hotel or even a dorm.
This is not how it should be. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing that can be done to change the rules that would govern this development: Landmark designation, even if it were enacted tomorrow (which is virtually impossible), would not invalidate existing permits granted for demolition or construction on this site. And a zoning change, which by law requires at least several months of public hearings and review, would not affect a development for which even the most modest amount of construction work has been undertaken, allowing the project to be finished under the terms of the old zoning.
But we can’t simply throw up our hands and say all is lost. Additional and even more outrageously inappropriate developments could be built in this area if we do not seek changes to the status quo. And that is exactly what the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation is seeking to do.
We have been meeting with local elected officials and community leaders to discuss possible proposals for zoning changes and extensions of landmark and historic district protections for this area — to protect its distinct historic architecture, and to ensure that any new development matches rather than overwhelms the scale of the neighborhood.
We think that zoning which reinforces the residential character of the neighborhood, imposes appropriate height limits on new development, and requires developments to meet the street wall and more closely resemble the shape and form of existing buildings should be enacted here. And we think that historic district and landmark designations that protect the beautiful array of 19th- and early 20th-century architecture on these blocks — and that ensure design review for any changes or new development, so that the historic character of this part of the Village is maintained and reinforced — should be enacted as well.
Toward this end, we’re having an open public meeting on Thurs., Dec. 4, at 6 p.m. at the Baha’i Center, 53 E. 11th St., east of University Place, to discuss what zoning and landmark protections here might look like and what pursuing them might involve. Anyone who is interested in the future of this area and protecting its character and preventing inappropriate new development is encouraged to attend — to find out more and learn how you can help.
To be sure, securing landmarking and zoning protections for this neighborhood will be no easy task, though G.V.S.H.P. is certainly up to the challenge. Since 2003, we have helped secure landmark protections for more than 1,100 buildings in our neighborhood, and new zoning protections for nearly 100 blocks. To do the same thing here, we need to at the very least establish a strong consensus in favor of such changes from residents, Community Board 2, and elected officials representing the area. We’ve already heard and gotten strong support from some, but we need to go further. And that is what the Dec. 4 meeting will be focused on achieving.
If we are able to get this support, the real key will then be getting buy-in and approval from City Hall, and that may be biggest challenge of all.
So far the de Blasio administration has shown itself to be ambivalent at best about extending historic district protections, mirroring the wish list of the real estate lobby, which has called for an end to expanding historic district protections, especially in Manhattan.
And the administration has thus far been focused solely on rezonings that increase the allowable size of development, as opposed to limiting development or ensuring that it is in context with its surroundings.
So we have our work cut out for us, but it’s more than worth the attempt. Without landmark and zoning protections, the University Place and Broadway corridors could become home to many more high-rise condo, hotel and dormitory towers. With these safeguards, however, we can prevent further such destructive developments from taking place, and preserve and protect the remaining historic character and scale of this irreplaceable part of the Village.
The public meeting on potential landmarking and rezoning proposals for the University Place and Broadway corridors will take place Thurs., Dec. 4, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Baha’i Center, 53 E. 11th St., east of University Place.
Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation