On Topic: A Changing Village and a Call for Voices

Written by Our Town Downtown on . Posted in On Topic OTDT, Opinion and Column, Our Town Downtown.


In and around the Village, we’re seeing an extraordinary burst of development activity with far-reaching consequences. Trinity Realty will soon file an application to rezone Hudson Square and turn it into a 24-hour high-rise mixed-use community.

Jamestown Properties is seeking to rezone Chelsea Market to enable the construction of a huge hotel and office complex atop its buildings.  And in the East Village, developers are rushing to get building permits before the long-promised landmark protections are enacted by the city.

But the two proposals currently under consideration with perhaps the most far-reaching impact, both in terms of precedent and effect on their surroundings, are the New York University (NYU) 20-year expansion plan and the Rudin condo development of the former St. Vincent’s campus.

NYU is seeking a raft of city approvals that would allow them to shoehorn 2.5 million square feet of space—the equivalent of the Empire State Building—into the blocks south of Washington Square. To do so, the city must overturn long-standing neighborhood zoning protections, gut open space preservation requirements, undo the terms by which public land was given to NYU years ago and hand over public green space to the university to build upon.

If approved, the impact would be enormous—several huge buildings would be erected south of the park; light, air and green space would diminish, while shadows and crowding would increase; and perhaps most importantly, more and more of the Village would feel overwhelmed by this single institutional entity. Suggestions that NYU consider alternative locations for their growth, such as the nearby Financial District, where community leaders have welcomed the idea, growth possibilities are limitless and NYU’s proposed development would be contextual and in line with long-term planning goals for the neighborhood, have been brushed aside by the university. Somehow, university officials say, though they are building campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, building one a five-minute subway ride from Washington Square is untenable.

At the former St. Vincent’s east campus in the West Village, Rudin Management is seeking a rezoning to build several large new condo buildings to replace half the hospital’s former buildings (the remainder would be converted to condo use). One proposed structure, on Seventh Avenue, would be larger and taller than the mammoth St. Vincent’s Coleman Building currently on the site, while on 12th Street, an enormous new parking garage would be built underneath another new condo tower that would replace the contextually appropriate Reiss Building. The scale of the proposed new developments, the impact of the garage and the loss of a historic building within the Greenwich Village Historic District are troubling to many and one reason for the widespread opposition to the plan.

But there are more fundamental issues at stake with this proposal, as with NYU’s. The St. Vincent’s campus was rezoned in 1979 to allow larger than normally allowable new hospital buildings on the site because they served a public purpose. In its requested rezoning, Rudin is asking that the same privileges afforded St. Vincent’s be granted them; that the site be upzoned to allow larger than normally allowable condo buildings because larger hospital buildings were once located there.

This is wrong on its face—market-rate luxury condos do not provide the same public benefit as a full-service hospital and thus do not deserve the same special zoning considerations. If this plan is approved by the City Council, it would not only have a huge impact on its surroundings but would fundamentally change the way development is regulated in New York. Special considerations given to facilities that provide a public service could be given or sold to private developers looking to make the maximum profit on their real estate, with little or no public benefit.

Similar principles are at stake with the NYU proposal. Here, too, extra-large buildings were allowed in the past with the understanding that they would remain surrounded by open space and low-rise buildings in perpetuity as compensation.  The university not only wants to change the rules under which large-scale development was allowed on public land in the first place, they want more public land, currently used as playgrounds, gardens and dog runs, given over to them to build upon. The private entity wins, and the surrounding community loses.

In spite of an air of inevitability these applicants have sought to convey, both projects are far from a done deal. While Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and the City Planning Commission have already approved the Rudin project, the City Council’s approval is still required. The NYU plan, just embarking upon this process, will be voted upon by the borough president, City Planning Commission and City Council in the coming months. Now is the time to make our voices heard on these enormously important development proposals.

Andrew Berman is the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

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