Welcoming the whitney's return

| 21 Apr 2015 | 11:39

After almost 50 years uptown, one of Greenwich Village's famed museums is coming home.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, which got its start a century ago when Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded her Studio Club in the neighborhood, will once again open downtown.

“People have been very positive about it,” said Tobi Bergman, chairman of Community Board 2. “It started in the Village and it'll be great to have it back. It will be great to have an art museum here.”

The Whitney's newest incarnation — a $422 million, Renzo Piano-designed building at Gansevoort and Washington streets — opens its doors May 1 and hosts a block party the following day. Its neighbors mostly seem ready to embrace the museum as their district's cultural beacon.

While the Whitney calls the bustling, predominantly commercial Meatpacking District home, the quiet, tree-lined Village blocks just south of Gansevoort Street retain a cozy atmosphere, where children ride scooters past charming brownstones and baby carriages line the sidewalk outside a nursery school on Horatio Street.

On a recent afternoon, neighborhood residents said they were generally looking forward to what the museum's visitors would bring to what was one of the Village's — and the city's — quieter enclaves just a few years ago.

Merav Harris, who lives a block south of the museum on Horatio Street, said the Whitney would change the neighborhood's texture for the better, even though she worried her rent would increase.

“I think we need the arts,” said Harris, 29, about the commercial district. “It's all about shopping.”

Bergman, the community board chairman, noted that this pocket of the West Village isn't overwhelmed with foot traffic, although he expects more taxis will travel the area's cobblestone streets in route to the museum.

Lauren Danziger, executive director of the nonprofit Meatpacking District Improvement Association, said the organization is in talks with the museum as well as with the city's Department of Transportation and the local police precinct about the anticipated influx of traffic to the area. The city council also recently approved a business improvement district in the neighborhood, she said, which will bring more sanitation, landscaping, maintenance and public safety resources to the Meatpacking District.

Danziger reflected on the near-constant change that's taken place in the district. In the last few decades, “it's been a meatpacking hub, and then it was a nightlife and LGBT playground, and then it's where fashion designers relocated because it was gritty and cheap,” she said.

“The Whitney is the coup de grace so to speak,” she said. “It will do wonderful things for the neighborhood, but the neighborhood is already doing wonderful things.”

And unlike the New Museum, which signaled change for the Bowery neighborhood when it opened its new building on that street in 2007 in what was once a parking lot, the Whitney is set to open in an already attractive and vibrant district anchored by the High Line, boutique hotels and a velvet-rope nightlife.

Ricky Madan, a video editor who works at Goldcrest Post on the corner of Horatio and Washington streets, said he's curious to see how the Whitney will add to already swelling crowds in the neighborhood.

“It's going to be interesting,” he said. “Especially because this neighborhood already has a lot of foot traffic.”

But he welcomes the presence and proximity of the institution.

“I think it's great,” he said. “I can go on my breaks.”

Lindsay Herbert, who moved to an apartment on Horatio Street near West Street from Boston six months ago, said that although the museum will attract yet more people to the neighborhood, they will be something of a corrective to the boisterous weekend throngs that fill the Meatpacking District's bars and restaurants.

“I'm looking forward to it,” she said. “I would like more culture here. It's fabulous.”

But one local, Phillip Spaeth, said he feared an influx of tourists would further transform the district and, before long, make it difficult for smaller commercial establishments to meet already rising rents.

Spaeth, 28, an actor who walks his French bulldog in the neighborhood, bought an apartment on Horatio Street about six years ago. He thinks places like Nonno Gourmet grocery and Kava Café, both a block south of the museum on Washington Street, could struggle, and the imminent openings of more commercial establishments on Horatio Street just west of Washington could further herald the loss of the neighborhood's “small-town, small-city kind of vibe.” The district, he said was “turning into Soho,” with high-end boutiques themselves more akin to museums than inviting retail shops.

For all the Whitney could portend for the area, though, he said he would be among the Whitney's visitors.

“I'll enjoy it,” he said, noting that three membership offers have arrived recently through the mail. “I'm happy it's here. I just think it has implications.”

For Upper East Side resident Carol Marcus, the opening of the Whitney's new building is bittersweet. She frequented the museum's Madison Avenue and 75th Street location, just around the corner from her apartment.

“I will miss it dearly,” Marcus said on a recent afternoon, as she visited the Whitney's new neighborhood. “But I will make it down here.”