West Village, R.I.P.

Developers target a legendary neighborhood's last open spaces

"Our fear has always been that whatever they put on the waterfront will encourage development inland," says Stuart Waldman, chairman of the Federation To Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront & Great Port. The state legislation that created the Hudson River Park Trust last year "forbade a lot of development on the waterfront. But at the same time, it's going to invite development on the other side of the highway. And there's a lot of potential for that here: We are the last remaining low-rise area in Manhattan."

So far, the problem has been characterized as one solely for the far West Village, since the rest of Greenwich Village is landmarked. This is a mistake, warns Robert Malkin, a resident of 11th Street: "People in the regular Village should be very concerned, because they are going to lose lots of light. The quality of life will be lost, and the Village will be lost forever."

Gentrification in Greenwich Village is not exactly a recent phenomenon. Since at least the early 1980s, the area's declining manufacturing base and burgeoning white-collar populace have yielded high rents and an accompanying decline in its bohemian character. But the neighborhood's architecture and streets have remained mostly intact, thanks in large part to the creation of the historic preservation district by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1969.

The boundaries for the district, however, go no farther west than Washington Street, and often stop at Hudson Street, leaving the waterfront and many historic streets vulnerable to development. Still, with those areas mostly zoned for manufacturing, developers were pretty much kept out. What's more, rail tracks running along Washington Street were still in place until the early 1990s, further stymieing new construction. But during the last real- estate bull market, in the 1980s, the Rockrose Development Corporation successfully got the City Planning Commission to change parts of the neighborhood's zoning laws from manufacturing to commercial. Warehouses were converted into residential lofts, and new apartment buildings went up. Construction also hit the Village's existing residential zones, most notoriously with the Memphis Downtown, a 20-story high-rise on Charles Street. "It's the ugliest damn building in the neighborhood, if not the city," grumbles Bill Bowser, president of the West Village Committee, the group founded in the 1950s to stop Robert Moses.

There were plans for other construction, but the 1987 stock-market crash and subsequent recession put those plans on hold. Meanwhile, proposals to develop the waterfront under various guises continued. The effort culminated last year when the state legislature established the Hudson River Park Trust, an agency whose board will consist of members appointed mostly by the mayor and the governor. The state and the city coughed up $100 million each, with the remaining $130 million or so (many believe the price tag will be higher) to come from private sources, presumably commercial ventures on the waterfront. Revenues collected from those ventures will go into the maintenance and upkeep of the park.

One proposal floated for raising money involves imposing "impact fees." In an op-ed piece in the Daily News recently, Tom Fox, former president of the Hudson River Park Conservancy (the precursor to the Trust), advocated a onetime fee on "new commercial and residential projects adjacent to the park."

Here's where the red flags go up. A cash-strapped agency might solicit development if it would bring money to its coffers. According to one reading of the language that created the Trust, Fox's notion of "adjacent" could extend up to 800 feet inland from the river's bulkhead, possibly stretching three blocks, to Hudson Street. As far as the viability of projects on the waterfront, look no further than the South Street Seaport and Chelsea Piers, neither of which has been a community success.

"We're afraid they'll destroy the park in order to build it," says Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, one of the very few civic groups to oppose the Trust. (The group that was formed to back the Trust, the Hudson River Park Alliance, had the support of nearly every major environmental and preservation group in the city.) "Nothing will happen on the waterfront without the mayor and the governor agreeing, and community voices will be peripheral, at best."

Fox makes no attempt to hide his disdain for critics of the park, contending that they have only themselves to blame for inland development. "They've been asleep at the switch, and they're using the park as a scapegoat," he says. "They have focused their energy foolishly on stopping the park, when they should have been protecting their own neighborhood." Fox also disputes any notion that initial fees could lead to overdevelopment. "It's not a driving variable," he adds. "Those who find conspiracies at every turn see that as the case."

But park opponents don't see any conspiracies behind the potential environmental effects of the project. "What is this going to do to traffic, to sanitation?" asks Jack Hoyt, an executive committee member of the local Sierra Club. "This will bring major changes to the infrastructure."

"You're talking about an enormous development operation, and there has not been a comprehensive environmental analysis," adds Ben Green, president of the Federation To Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront & Great Port. "That's staggering."

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