Lafayette Street- Urban Planning That Still Resonates Today
Greenwich Village is not the only part of the City which defies the New York City grid. NoHo also challenges the regularity of the 200+ year old grid with what I like to call Gridus Interruptus (its Latin, sort of). Each of its streets has its own story but today we will look at NoHo’s “newest” street, Lafayette Street. Located in both the NoHo Historic District and the NoHo Historic District Extension, Lafayette Street was built in order to accommodate New York’s ever expanding transportation demands. The construction of this thoroughfare dramatically changed the cityscape of this area and its legacy is still evident today.
Starting before the Civil War, what we now call NoHo (a name which only came into use in the 1970’s) developed into a commercial and manufacturing center supplanting its previous iteration as a high-end residential area in the early- to mid-19th century. As early as 1880, City planners discussed widening Elm Street, which ended at Prince Street, and having it continue north to Lafayette Place, which ended at Great Jones Street, in order to create another major north/south thoroughfare relieving the burdens of the overly crowded Broadway and Bowery.
The project to extend Elm Street to Lafayette Place, originally set to conclude by the turn of the century, was delayed due to the construction of the Interborough Rapid Transit subway (IRT). The IRT was New York’s first underground railway and, upon its completion, carried travelers in electrified trains from City Hall all the way to 145th Street and Broadway in upper Manhattan. The enormous undertaking of constructing the subway, which utilized a cut-and cover technique for laying tracks beneath the street’s surface, coincided with the extension of Elm Street, and as a result the thoroughfare was under a constant state of construction for nearly ten years. The subway was dedicated in October, 1904 and, in 1905, the newly-enlarged and extended street was officially designated Lafayette Street.
In looking at the above maps, two things are striking. One is the amount of building stock that was removed to make way for this street, the addition of which resembles a scar in the urban fabric. While building owners were compensated, there was much dispute over valuations. In 1897 The New York Times wrote an article on the history of Elm Street and the changes it was undergoing at that time with photographs documenting the destruction of the buildings in the path of the new thoroughfare. The other striking thing evident by looking at the maps is the odd shaped blocks and lots that were the result of the creation of this street which was angled slightly in order to connect to the existing Lafayette Place. This is the legacy that we still see today in NoHo, which provides design challenges for present-day architects.
A recent landmarks application at 363 Lafayette Street shows just such a design challenge. Located on the east side of Lafayette Street between Great Jones Street and Bond Street is a cleaver shaped lot created by the cut through of Lafayette. The proposal (here) calls for a multi-story building at the north half of the lot and a single story wing at the south end of the lot or the flat iron section. Given that this south end tapers to a width of six feet, its program would be to serve as display for a commercial tenant.
This application was heard at the Landmarks Preservation Commission on June 12, 2016. GVSHP testified on this item critiquing the design and massing’s appropriateness within the NoHo Historic District Extension (click HERE for the GVSHP testimony). The LPC had a number of criticisms for the design as well (click HERE for the NY YIMBY article). No action was taken at the hearing and the applicant was asked to alter the design according to the Commissioners responses and present at a future public meeting.
The revised application was presented at today’s public hearing (click HERE). While the new design did change in accordance with the commissioners’ comments, unfortunately it did not reflect all concerns expressed by GVSHP, the Community Board, and other preservation groups. Specifically the new design does not include the addition of more vertical elements, especially along the Lafayette facade, as well as a change to the massing by making the new building one height.
For information on this and other applications, please see the GVSHP Landmarks Application webpage.