West Village, R.I.P.

Developers target a legendary neighborhood's last open spaces

"This doesn't feel like the village," says Zack Winestine, a filmmaker and activist. He is looking down Horatio Street, a cobblestoned sliver surrounded by large-bulk buildings, some dating back to the early part of the century when rail freight roared through these parts, some born of the real-estate boom of the 1980s. The worst— a massive edifice officially known as 99 Jane Street— is still under construction. With protruding balconies, vast windows, and a starting price of $835,000 for a three-bedroom, the red-brick behemoth is the sort of complex more suited to Yorkville than Greenwich Village. It has delivered the final blow to Horatio Street's diversity. Looming facades of brick and concrete now shadow the entire street, shielding parts of the Hudson River from view.

"The net effect from this development is that it walls off the community from the river," says Winestine, who heads a group called West Villagers for Responsible Development. "The smell of water, and the sense of openness and light are gone."

Ninety-nine Jane Street is a project of Rockrose Development Corporation, owner of much property near the Village's waterfront and the bane of many local activists. But Rockrose is just one of many companies with designs on the Village. Development, which began to encroach in the 1980s and has reared its ugly head again, could irrevocably alter the character of the neighborhood, which is mostly low-rise, with a long and faded legacy of shipping and industry.

Looking east on Jane Street from the corner of Washington, Winestine points out a thriving, diverse economy: a meat-packing firm, a fashion studio, a photography studio, a company that rents motion-picture equipment, all side-by-side with quaint homes. "This is everything we want to protect," he declares. "And this," he adds, pointing to the glut of construction near the Hudson, "is everything we want to overcome."

Village activists have slain many Goliaths over the years, from Robert Moses and his Lower Manhattan Expressway of the 1960s to Westway, the multibillion-dollar superhighway of the '80s. But the latest wave of development to hit Greenwich Village is proving to be an elusive foe. This time, the development threat is more insidious, popping up piecemeal along a small, though vital, part of the community unprotected by zoning or landmark laws. There isn't one project to fight, there are many, coming from disparate elements but emblematic of the same problem: an absence of planning and a political culture wedded to real-estate interests. Residents are left to confront one controversial proposal at a time. (On February 10, for example, they will gather at the Manhattan Development Center on 75 Morton Street to battle a garbage-truck parking lot proposed for the West Street block between Leroy and Morton.)

In addition to 99 Jane Street, several other incongruous condos— usually in the vicinity of 10 stories, not including penthouses, water towers, and elevator mechanicals— are sprouting up along the West Side highway and its environs. They include:

  • 493 West Street: Slated to be completed in July, this 11-story building will feature penthouses and an open yard for its inhabitants. There will only be nine units in the building, and they should run over $1 million a pop. Not a likely haven for artists, unless you're talking about Jeff Koons.

  • 424 West Street (corner of 11th Street): Construction is scheduled to begin in a couple of months. Ten stories, eight units, cheapest place: $1 million.

  • 359 West 11th Street: A two-story garage was razed to make way for this nine-story, 25-unit building. There's already a 1980s high-rise; when this and 424 West Street are completed, the block will be dominated by large-scale apartment houses.

    Overall, some 300 "soft sites"— lots either vacant or containing a building smaller than the size allowed by zoning regulations— are potential targets for new construction. "A lot of my constituents are concerned," says Deborah Glick, the local assemblywoman. "They're worried that the community's mixed-use nature is disappearing and becoming homogenized into a residential area with a lot of restaurants and larger buildings. We're worried about the Village becoming the Upper East Side."

    While battling lavish housing on one side, the community is trying to fight off noxious eyesores on the other. On Leroy, between Greenwich and Washington streets, ground has been broken for a massive five-story garage and truck terminal for Federal Express. (That's right around the corner from the lot where the sanitation department wants to park its truck fleet.) The former St. John's Park Freight Terminal— a huge four-story building occupying several blocks, bordered by Clarkson and Spring, Washington and West streets— will gain additional stories (on stilts, no less) for film studios. The increase in truck traffic comes in an area that's already got some of the city's worst air pollution. In addition, the FedEx building will have virtually no windows, creating a dangerous corridor that could lead to crime, local residents fear.

    What's driving the latest real estate bonanza? One answer is the market itself, now bullish again after the early '90s recession. "Development feeds on development," says Winestine. "As more buildings are constructed, remaining soft sites are attractive to developers."

    The other major force is the upcoming Hudson River Park. One of the most ambitious public works projects in the city's recent history, the 500-acre "emerald necklace" will drape Manhattan's West Side from Battery Park City to 59th Street. On its surface, nothing about the park— a revitalization of decrepit piers and shoreline along one of the world's most beautiful rivers— is objectionable. But Village activists hardened by perennial wars with real-estate moguls see more sinister plans in play: they note that the operation will be overseen not by an accountable city agency like the Parks Department but by an entity called the Hudson River Park Trust, which will have unsettling public authority­like powers.

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