Saturday, July 19, 2008

Rudin/St Vincent’s Proposed Greenwich Village Development- First Proposals

The following is Noticing New York's written comment to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission delivered in connection with its April 15, 2008 hearing on the Rudin/St Vincent’s Proposed Greenwich Village Development.

April 15, 2008

Hon. Robert Tierney
Chair, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission
One Centre Street, 9th floor
New York, NY 10007
fax: 212/669-7960 or 669-7955

Re: Rudin/St Vincent’s Proposed Greenwich Village Development
Dear Chair Tierney:

This comment is being offered in the name of Noticing New York, an independent entity dedicated to the proposition that developing New York and appreciating New York go hand in hand.

As an attorney experienced in real estate and urban planner, I am thankful to be able to offer this testimony with the benefit of having reflected upon the testimony that was offered at the portion of the hearing held on April 1, 2008.


Bringing up the rear with others having preceded me, the question now is where to begin. Or maybe the question is whether to begin at all since the Rudin/St. Vincent’s proposal has so many non-starters associated with it- (At the April 1st hearing it was astutely observed how appropriate it was that the hearing was April Fools Day.): To wit:

1. The application presents itself and is supported much as if it is a hardship proposal which it is not. Unless it is resubmitted as such it ought not to be considered at all except with respect to the Coleman and Link buildings (built 1984 and 1987 respectively).

2. Even if the application were a hardship proposal, the question would then not be whether all of the buildings in the Historic District proposed to be demolished should be (they should not be), but which buildings possibly should.

3. The whole proposal hinges upon St. Vincent’s intention to capitalize upon its special status to:
a. Demolish parts of the Historic District, while
b. Propagating the variances for extra density it could receive by selling to a private developer the benefit of density from a variance it has already received and simultaneously transporting across the street an ability to get increased density yet again.
The proposal does not acknowledge the extent to which St Vincent’s has already once before used its special status to demolish part of the Historic District and procure a density increase. This is something the LPC should be alert to; allowed to run rampant, the replication of such practices could be phenomenally destructive to historic districts. If available, there would be an inherent financial incentive for such a practice it to be rampantly replicated and abused.

These non-starters should make most of what is proposed in the application hypothetical so that it need not, and should not, be addressed. (Why design new buildings and present them for approvals before you know what might possibly be torn down and where new buildings could be built?) I therefore do not know whether the precaution of offering any comment on these questions in this testimony is good or bad.

Two Applicants:

The application ought properly to be divided into two parts. One part ought to be truly that of St. Vincent’s and the other ought to be that of Rudin as a developer prospectively purchasing property of which St. Vincent’s is divesting itself.

St. Vincent’s can propose modification or demolition of the Coleman and Link buildings pursuant to a certificate of appropriateness if its own use is to continue. That would not be a problem. For so long as the property is to be used by St. Vincent’s for its special purposes, variances (including variances for density) can continue to be appropriate. St. Vincent’s can also seek a hardship variance in connection with the use of its own property for its special purposes.

To the extent that St. Vincent’s is divesting itself of property and selling to another owner, that new owner should be complying with what is normally expected of owners within the Historic District and should not be looking to acquire any special status. Especially if buildings like Coleman and Link are acquired and demolished, the new owner should not expect to inherit a variance permitting greater-than-normal density.

The two applicants presenting together leads to certain confusions like the gap when the hospital testifies that a number of its older buildings are not well suited for hospital use but the developer does not explain why the same buildings are not suitable for reuse as apartment buildings.

Preservation of Historic District Buildings Which Won’t Be Owned or Used by St. Vincent’s:

Looked at as essentially two applications, and forgetting that the buildings are being acquired from St. Vincent’s, it seems preposterous that Rudin is proposing to demolish buildings in the district that have the feel of seasoned Park and Fifth Avenue apartment buildings in order to build- an apartment building.

As so many said at the hearing so far, those buildings work well within the district. They represent its actual history and that of the hospital and have a density and massing appropriate to the district and its historic feel and interactions. Accordingly, there is no question that the following buildings, all of which are quite susceptible to adaptive reuse (consistent with the apartment house use Rudin proposes) should be preserved:

∙ The Spellman Building (143-147 W. 11th Street), Built: 1940-41; Architect: Crow, Lewis & Wick.,
∙ The Student Nurses Residence Building (148-158 W. 12th Street): Built 1924; Architect: I.E.Ditmars,
∙ The Alfred E. Smith Building (168 W. 12th Street). Built: 1946; Architect: Eggers & Higgins,
∙ The Raskob Building (178 W. 12 Street) Built: 1950; Architect: Eggers & Higgins,
∙ The Jacob L. Reiss Building (134-136 W. 12th Street) Built:1953 - 1954; Architect: Eggers & Higgins.

Similarly, the Howard R. Cronin Research Building (133-141 West 11th Street) Built:1956; Architect: Eggers & Higgins, is quite consistent with the neighborhood feeling and its history and should be easy to adaptively reuse. It should be treated as other old buildings in a historic district would be.

These buildings cry out for reuse. The proposed destruction of these buildings is so highly inappropriate the question is why it is even proposed at all. The proposal is harder to comprehend given that, as later considered herein, the quality of the new non-historic buildings which are proposed to replace these buildings is comparably poor. It makes the proposal itself suspect. One wonders: “How could there be benefit from this kind of churning?” Alternatively, is the proposal simply a kind a ruse designed to propose much with much associated destruction only so that little may actually be done with less associated destruction?

St. Vincent’s and the O’Toole Building:

Perhaps the hardest building to comment on is the O’Toole Building about which much has been said and argued. Much of this difficulty comes out of my personal experience with the building. Community Board 2 has commented that they value the building and the precept that community boards should be listened to in these matters is worth adhering to. Is the end it should probably govern.

It is clear that much can be said that intellectually and from the standpoint of architectural art justifies preservation of the O’Toole building. There are convincing arguments that the O’Toole Building achieves and does well what it was intended to do. I have even more or less come to terms with the building as aesthetically aware New Yorker while not really “liking” it. I spent a lot of time in the neighborhood a generation ago. At the time I found the building oppressive, unfriendly and repetitive. Because of its lack of interaction with the street it is not the kind of building I would support building today. It may be that many such modern buildings, in doing a lot of things well also, more than other styles, fail to be good neighbors and fail to have good interaction with the street and pedestrians. And, for instance, though it doesn’t apply to the O’Toole building, I also wonder about how accommodating modern glass buildings are if they require their occupants all to use the same 1950s/60's style lighting in order to work their effect. Nevertheless, I have come to terms with the O’Toole Building as sort of a long term acquaintance that I don’t especially like but have accepted into my world as a definite reference. My personal reactions to the building not matter, however, since they are so personal.

Properly evaluating the O’Toole Building is perhaps complicated by its care. When building owners wish to tear down buildings they do not care for them the same way as those they would like to keep. St. Vincent’s has also not taken care of the nearby triangle that was supposed to be public space. I haven’t returned to the building recently to appraise the building’s condition but this may be part of the problem.

Quality of New Buildings Proposed to Replace Historic District Buildings:

Overall it should be commented that the proposed replacement buildings are generally inappropriate and inferior to the buildings they would replace. Generally, the buildings proposed to be replaced are to be replaced without need or necessity. The exception is that the design quality of the Coleman and Link buildings is not superior.

New Generic Midblock Townhouses. The proposed new generic townhouses, or faux “townhouses” are new and not up to the standard of the Historic District of which they would need to become a part. Not only do they lack history and feel for it, they do not feel like New York and look like much of what is being replicated cheaply around the country. They have an uninspired modernism and lack the value of detailing such as appropriate cornices normally seen in better neighborhoods with a wealth of history.

Much was made about how these buildings are an appropriate scale for the midblock. There is nothing wrong with their proposed scale, but there is also nothing wrong with the greater scale of the buildings they are proposed to replace representing as it does the kind of variation of scale that is historically typical in the Historic District. There is value in preserving that variation. By contrast it isn’t desirable to decrease scale along the midblock in order to introduce a new and unprecedented scale along the avenue with a giant new apartment building.

One also wonders whether the switched around scale scale and massing (with the resulting destruction of old buildings) is being proposed merely to introduce commercial frontage along the midblock. People testified that commercial frontage on the midblock is not typical of the district’s historic character. I don’t know that this is the reason to avoid it: mixed use is often underappreciated and use is perhaps not a specific Landmarks concern- Still the attraction of street level commercial space to a developer should not be a reason to tear down valuable old buildings contributing to the essential success of a historic district.

New St. Vincent’s Hospital Building. There is a temptation to note that the proposed new St. Vincent’s Hospital Building would, in most aspects be an improvement over the existing Coleman and Link Buildings, but the new building would not replace these buildings. The new hospital building would replace the O’Toole Building. Coleman and Link have already replaced other old buildings that were in the Historic District.

While the proposed new St. Vincent’s Hospital building might be better in design than the Coleman and Link the buildings, it could be better designed. It could be better designed even without reduction of its mass to help achieve this result.

The new Hospital building’s setbacks help the design. Above the setbacks, the building is curved. It has been described as the “prow of a ship.” Maybe this is a good description and this may have been done intentionally as an apology or some sort of maritime recompense for the elimination of the maritime O’Toole Building if it is, in fact, destroyed to make way for the new building. Maybe it was anticipated that someone would suggest, as someone did, that the O’Toole Building be kept as a base for this new skyscraper. Were that ever to be done, the prow of the ship would come complete with its own set of watery waves.

At the hearing the proposed building’s architects said that the curve that creates the ship’s prow effect was selected in order diminish the overall feeling of massiveness for what is an imposing mass of a building and to allow the side of the building to be oriented to all of the streets where the City’s street grids collide. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. The curve that eliminates reference to any particular street, relates to all the streets and communicates the building’s massiveness to all the streets involved, seeming massive everywhere and, like the looming side of an elephant, insinuates that there is much more unseen in addition to what is seen. While we are told that the building works well functionally on the inside, breaking the surface up into different planes could allow a very similar interior without the unbroken expanse on the exterior. Complexity of planes would relate just as well or better to the complexity of the colliding street grid while celebrating it as well.

Service Building. Given how massive and endlessly huge the new St. Vincent’s Hospital is proposed to be, it is a bad idea to propose that any necessary monotony associated with the hospital’s new vastness should be continued by having its Service Building match the hospital. The Service Building should be a different style that associates itself with the park and public space proposed for the triangle. Among other things that will help communicate that the park is a freely accessible open space and not merely a hospital planting area. Ideally, the Services Building should be made as small as possible with any portion of it underground that can be underground. Rooftop use of the Service Building should flow creatively to the ground level use of the other public space.

Whatever is done with the triangle space, the hospital should not continue to waste people’s time and test their patience with perpetually postponed park promises.

Rudin’s Avenue Apartment Building. One of the most amusing parts of the presentations at the hearing was the way that the proposed Rudin apartment building was repeatedly shown exactly and squarely from its side so that none of its front or back plane could be viewed. It was like someone worried about their weight trying on a bathing suit turning sideways to the looking glass and sucking in their gut.

The new building is unimpressive in terms of design. It doesn’t compare with what it would replace.

The new apartment building is large and unprecedented in the neigborhood, massive and aesthetically unappealing. We should all also as citizens of the City be concerned about the creation of too much extra parking whether or not this is a concern that the LPC is, per se, permitted.

Of course, the new building probably cannot be built at all since it is unlikely that permission would be granted to tear down all the buildings that would constitute its site. Probably permission will only be granted to tear down the Coleman and Link Buildings. Likely, the designers know this and have reserved their effort to design something better when the actual permitted building site is known. May we expect that the effort will come when the developer is seeking a variance or change in zoning to build on that actual reduced site at a greater density than now permitted?

Faustian Bargain of Overall plan:

Historic Districting, like zoning, is akin to a tax upon the community that pays itself back in kind. Everyone must make an effort and take extra steps in their lives to comply with Historic Districting to make it work but the overall value they get back makes it all worthwhile. One owner might be able to seize value by tearing down historic buildings and replacing them with something else but overall values increase if that is not done.

The community has spoken convincingly and eloquently about how they value the Greenwich Village Historic District, internationally known and one of the best preserved neighborhoods in our city and nation.

The first thing one notices when one looks at the Rudin/St. Vincent’s plan is the immense and incongruous increase in density. Then you notice the buildings missing from the historic fabric of the neighborhood and streets whereby this has been accomplished. In essence, St. Vincent’s proposes to step outside the shared community of respect to Historic Districting to procure a benefit that it would enjoy with the developer apart from the community.

Not taking the community into account, is there value for an individual owner in destroying and replacing some of the buildings comprising a historic district? Perhaps sometimes, but it is hard to believe that there is value even for the individual owner in tearing down many of the buildings proposed to be torn down by virtue of this proposal except for a potential resulting increase in density. With an increase in buildable square feet however, tearing down buildings at the expense of the community becomes very attractive. It becomes so attractive that our hospitals and religious institutions face a strong lure away from their core purposes to join in the craze of the real estate business.

We give special status to a religious hospital like St. Vincent’s. You can’t let special status institutions sell zoning changes or sell the right to destroy historic district properties. If we let an institution like St. Vincent’s use that special status as a magic wand to transmute the value of real estate property for developers by removing properties from the strictures of Historic Districting, then we set the precedent for major problems and a fundamental undermining of historic preservation.

We would turn our privileged and special-status institutions into traveling and fast-moving zones of demolition. There would be an unavoidable incentive for any hospital to abandon recently constructed buildings artificially early before they had played out their roles and run their useful lives. The practice would be environmentally unsound and not based on true underlying economics but it would be falsely incentivized. In fact, we must ask if it has already begun. The Hospital’s very sizable Coleman and Link Buildings were built only 24 and 21 years ago. Their building involved tearing down buildings that constituted part of the Greenwich Village Historic District and also involved building bigger buildings, using the hospital’s special status to get a variance.

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