As early as 1963, Jane Jacobs urged that a fledgling NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) protect and designate the Greenwich Village waterfront and the Far West Village neighborhood in which she lived. However, in 1969, when the LPC did finally designate the Greenwich Village Historic District, it left out the entire Greenwich Village waterfront and almost all of the Far West Village (not to mention the Meatpacking District, the South Village, and most of the 14th Street, Broadway, and University Place corridors — oversights GVSHP has in some cases successfully worked to correct, and in other cases is still working to correct).
But five years ago this month, in May of 2006, landmark protections were finally secured for at least part of the Far West Village and Greenwich Village waterfront, after a multi-year campaign led by GVSHP.
The first stage of this successful effort actually came in 2003, when GVSHP got the city to landmark most, but not all of the Meatpacking District, as far south as Horatio Street and as far west as West Street. After this, GVSHP and a coalition of local community groups set their sights on the remainder of the Far West Village, an area which had come under intense development pressure in recent years, and where more and more of the old industrial buildings and rowhouses were being replaced with new glassy condos. In 2004, GVSHP submitted a proposal to the LPC for a single Far West Village/Greenwich Village Waterfront Historic District which included all historic, non-landmarked buildings in the area between the newly designated Gansevoort Market Historic District and the Barrow Street (where the West Village Houses, built in the mid-1970’s, began).
In 2005, the LPC came back with a proposal to landmark about half of that area, part as an extension of the existing Greenwich Village Historic District (the first in its history since 1969), part in a Weehawken Street Historic District, and part as a series of eight individual landmark designations, including the 13-building, full block Westbeth complex (actually, the LPC originally proposed to just landmark the eight individual sites and the Weehawken Street District, but GVSHP successfully pushed not only to add the three-block, 58-building extension, but to add three critical potential development sites to the proposed historic districts).
GVSHP also waged a concurrent campaign to downzone (i.e. reduce the allowable size and height of development) the neighborhood, anticipating that the City would be unlikely to landmark all the sites we called for. In 2005, the City passed a downzoning of much of the area, which while not going as far or covering as much territory as GVSHP and our allies proposed, did make a significant difference in terms of what could be built in the area, as well as in encouraging preservation of existing buildings (a further rezoning in 2010, also spearheaded by GVSHP and local community groups, added six more blocks which the City refused to include in 2005).
The results speak for themselves. Within the landmarked areas are dozens of buildings which, in the red-hot real estate market of the past few years, would likely have been torn down and replaced by larger and likely faceless new structures. In fact, at the corner of Charles and Washington Streets, a developer’s attempts to secure permission to build an out-of-scale and out-of-context new building have been repeatedly stymied by the landmark designation and the later zoning changes. And those larger buildings which the designations covered, while unlikely to be torn down, are now required to preserve their historic architectural detailing, which is all-too-often otherwise lost or degraded.
Have their been frustrations and disappointments as well? Absolutely. The City stubbornly refused to include either the Superior Inks or Whitehall Storage sites in either the landmark designations or the downzonings, resulting in the destruction of those venerable industrial structures (though in both cases, activism by GVSHP and community groups was able to favorably impact the final form of the developments there). And the City allowed two other developers, including the artist Julian Schnabel, to get around the newly-enacted more restrictive zoning in the neighborhood and build under the old, looser zoning rules, even after the new rules had been enacted.
And perhaps even more confoundingly, more than six years after the LPC promised to landmark eight individual sites in the Far West Village, fully half of them have not been landmarked, including the 13-building Westbeth complex, which is larger than the other seven combined (the LPC held a hearing on landmarking Westbeth in January of 2010. and publicly promised to hold a vote on designation before the end of 2010 — the 4oth anniversary of Westbeth’s founding — but still has not done so). If you’d like to urge the LPC to keep its promise and landmark Westbeth and other remaining sites in the Far West Village, click HERE.
But this five year milestone nevertheless remains a cause for celebration, and a testament to what community activism can accomplish. Just think of what these blocks and blocks of now-landmarked and downzoned historic lofts, sailor’s hotels, rowhouses, and former stables would look like now had these measures not been enacted.
Read more about the far West Village HERE.