Ten Years Ago: Far West Village Protests, and Progress
April 18 and 19 mark two incredibly important Far West Village preservation anniversaries — each from 2004. At that time, GVSHP and allied community groups were engaged in a heated battle to try to prevent the wholesale destruction of the Greenwich Village waterfront and Meatpacking District, both of which had recently become “hot neighborhoods” where developers were tearing down low-rise and often historic structures, replacing them (or seeking to) with huge, out-of-scale high-rises. In response, we were calling for new landmark and zoning protections for the neighborhood, and for the City to uphold the integrity of the zoning and building rules we had — rules which developers were looking at new and more clever ways to get around.
Toward that end, on April 18, 2004, GVSHP staged and led a massive demonstration through the streets of the Far West Village which helped lead to adoption of a raft of new landmark and zoning protections for the neighborhood. And the very next day, on April 19, the City finally reversed itself and blocked a plan to allow a nearly 500 ft. tall tower to move ahead in the Meatpacking District. It was a lot of progress in two days, but it was a long road to get there.
Starting in 2000, GVSHP began a campaign to secure landmark designation for the imminently endangered Meatpacking District (read more about that effort here). Landmark designation was finally secured in September, 2003, but several key sites were left out by the City, and the remainder of the Far West Village, and Greenwich Village waterfront to the south, remained highly endangered as well.
One site left out of the Gansevoort Market (Meatpacking District) Historic District by the City was 848 Washington Street, the old Swift Meatpacking Plant site. There, a developer had sought a zoning variance for a super-tall residential high-rise designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. At nearly 500 feet tall (450 feet of occupied space, with mechanicals on top), GVSHP opposed the development not only because of its scale-shattering size; we also opposed a zoning variance to allow residential development in a neighborhood whose manufacturing and commercial zoning prohibited such uses. Residential development would have no doubt accelerated the loss of meatpacking businesses in the neighborhood (which were unfortunately forced out — or in some cases cashed out on their properties and moved elsewhere — pretty swiftly nevertheless), and also encouraged a much faster rate of new demolitions and new development in the non-landmarked parts of the neighborhood than we have even seen, as residential development is much more lucrative than the office and hotel development which has taken place here instead.
In 2003, GVSHP and our allies were able to stop the granting of the zoning variance for 848 Washington Street around the same time we secured landmark status for much if not all of the neighborhood. But in 2004 the developer tried to make an end run around the zoning by asking the City to consider the planned 500 ft. tall development a hotel, not a residence (which, unfortunately, would be allowed by the zoning). Their argument: they would make 51% of the units hotel rooms, and 49% condos. Since the zoning regulations said a hotel must be “primarily” rooms rented for transient occupancy, with auxiliary uses like conference rooms and restaurants allowed, they argued, their “51/49” arrangement would be legal.
GVSHP disagreed vehemently, but at first the Department of Buildings supported the specious plan and agreed to move ahead with the project. Around this time GVSHP was also turning its sites to pushing for expanded landmark and zoning protections for the Far West Village south of the Meatpacking District — an area also under tremendous development pressure where historic buildings and a low-rise, human scale were being lost to large-scale, high-rise development.
GVSHP led a series of efforts to secure these protections and get the City to reverse its “51/49” decision on 848 Washington Street, including a standing room-only Town Hall meeting, a letter-writing campaign, and several demonstrations, including a huge one along the Greenwich Village waterfront on Sunday, April 18th, 2004.
GVSHP and our allied community groups were joined by State Senator Tom Duane and City Councilmember Christine Quinn (back when we agreed more often than we disagreed with the soon-to-be-Speaker). By the hundreds, we marched from the site of the third Richard Meier tower, then under construction at West and Charles Streets, to tiny Weehawken Street — a street whose very existence was threatened by the overwhelming scale of new development going on around it. We called for the landmark and zoning plans we advocated for to be adopted, and for the City to reverse its ruling in 848 Washington Street.
The very next day, on April 19th, the City did in fact reverse itself, and denied the permits for the 500 ft. tall condo & hotel tower, which as a result was never built. Just a few weeks later, at a packed community meeting, the City announced they would be moving ahead with a joint landmarking and rezoning plan for the Far West Village — more modest than what GVSHP proposed, but nevertheless based upon the plan we had put forward and providing many, if not all, of the protections we sought.
The rezoning was adopted by the City Planning Commission and the City Council in 2005. The first and largest stage of the landmarking plan was adopted a year later in 2006. Additional pieces were added in subsequent years, culminating in the 2011 landmark designation of the full-block Westbeth Artists Residence complex. But the City broke their promise and a handful of sites which they promised to landmark in 2005 (perhaps not coincidentally, just on the eve of Mayor Bloomberg’s first tough campaign for re-election) were never landmarked, in spite of vociferous protests from GVSHP. Nevertheless, the landmark designations and zoning protections which were enacted went a long way towards stemming the tide of demolitions and out-of-scale new developments in this area, which has remained (with the exception of 303 West 10th Street, now nearing completion and carved out of the landmarking and rezoning area by the City) largely quiet in terms of demolitions or new high-rise construction since then.