standing up for the village News

| 19 Jul 2016 | 11:28

Though in general the Alexander Hamilton craze may be slowing down, the founding father’s legacy popped up last week in an unexpected place, and this time Hamilton the musical wasn’t mentioned once. At a Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing on the conversion of 85-89 Jane Street into a mega-mansion complete with a separate glass tower, one community member’s testimony in opposition to the project cited Hamilton’s personal connection to the area as a reason not to allow the proposed development.

“Jane Street was just a country lane … when Alexander Hamilton died in the Bayard Home in 1804,” she said of the William Bayard House that once stood at 82 Jane Street. “The house was demolished, but the memory of Hamilton is still living, and is an important part of Greenwich Village’s history.”

In recent months, the far West Village and the Meatpacking District have seen several large, luxury projects appear before Community Board 2 and the LPC that have brought residents out in droves -- the LPC received 250 emails from residents in response to the 85-89 Jane Street project alone -- to stand up for their historically diverse neighborhood, which was given landmark status in 2006.

“While it’s incredibly charming, it’s usually very simple,” Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said of Greenwich Village architecture. Berman described some of the recent proposed developments as “castle-like” and out of scale. “I think what the applicant [for 85-89 Jane Street] is bumping up against is they have a very grand idea of what they want their home to be like, and as the commissioner said, it’s intriguing, it’s inventive, but it doesn’t belong in this spot,” he said.

After nearly two hours of discussion last week, the LPC ultimately took no action on the glass tower and renovated row house that were designed by Steven Harris Architects LLC for 85-89 Jane Street. The commissioners’ comments on the huge single-family home made it clear that they did not find the buildings to be appropriate for the neighborhood, despite its striking aesthetic. “It is a very interesting presentation, and intriguing in terms of drawing from different building typologies and thinking creatively,” LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said. “But I think in the end all these ideas are not reflected in this building. I just grapple with the idea that this tower is representative of what has been identified as the inspiration, which are these water towers and other industrial-type smokestacks … The execution fails to make that transformation.” Srinivasan’s comments were loudly applauded by the audience, and went on to be echoed by every other commissioner.

The conversion of a one-story garage at 11-19 Jane Street into a five-story residential building inspired similar ire and also resulted in no action from the LPC when it was brought before them in late June.

“Certainly the trend we’ve been seeing in the far West Village is these areas are becoming increasingly expensive and desirable for new people moving in,” Berman said. “And in a lot of cases what that’s resulting in is a desire to make some pretty dramatic changes to the landscape even in areas that are designated historic districts or landmark districts.” Ironically, though wealthy buyers targeted by projects like 85-89 Jane Street are moving in because of the old, charming architecture, they appear not to be interested in preserving it.

Zack Winestine, a founder and co-chair of the Greenwich Village Community Task Force, thinks the new era of the neighborhood he has called home for 28 years began a while ago. “I wouldn’t say that they’re going to usher in a new era because I think that, fortunately or unfortunately, that era has started some time ago,” he said. Winestine lamented the loss of the mix of industrial and residential buildings with small businesses that made the community feel like home. “Formerly, [85-89 Jane Street] had been the Steinway piano showroom,” he said. “It was a place where pianists could come down and practice. The building was serving a cultural function.”

But Jane Street is not the only road in this part of the Village that could soon look dramatically different. At 500 Washington Street, a block in from the Hudson River across from Pier 40, Westbrook Partners and Atlas Capital Group came before Community Board 2 in late May to present a massive residential-commercial development featuring three tall towers. The project would be made possible by a transfer of air rights from the aging Pier 40 to the St. John’s Center at 500 Washington Street between Clarkson and Spring Streets in exchange for the developers’ investing $100 million in the renovating of the pier. At the time, GVSHP’s special projects director Harry Bubbins expressed concern about the precedent that could be set for more “projects of this enormous scope” to be built so close to the waterfront.

And at 46-74 Gansevoort Street, just two blocks from 85-89 Jane Street, the LPC recently approved a proposal to redesign the whole block on the eastern side between Washington and Greenwich streets. “There are definitely cases where we feel that they have been too weak, much too weak in fact,” Berman said of the LPC. “They have approved things that really I think don’t hold up to the standard that they’re supposed to enforce which is appropriate for a historic district.” He acknowledged that he has seen them be appropriately critical of some of the more outlandish projects, like with 85-89 Jane Street, but he said he’s “not counting our chickens before they hatch.”

In his testimony at the LPC hearing last Tuesday, Berman emphasized that he is not opposed to change in Greenwich Village and said the project may come to be a “welcome addition” to the area with direction from the commission. At the moment, however, like the other luxury developments that propose to drastically alter the face of a simple, charming neighborhood, it is most unwelcome.