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.

"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."

So far, environmental analyses have been done in bits— one for the waterfront, one for the highway, one for the inland west of the highway. (They've drawn criticism from local activists.) Congressman Jerry Nadler has supported a comprehensive federal environmental analysis of the entire waterfront and surrounding area, a proposal enthusiastically supported by critics of the Hudson River Park Trust. "It's the best idea to come down the pike in a long time," says the West Village Committee's Bowser.

Organizing residents around these issues hasn't been easy. For one thing, getting people to oppose what is ostensibly a park, given the area's appalling paucity of green space, has been a daunting task. Moreover, the fragmented nature of the development in the Village makes it difficult to analyze all of this activity from a macro perspective. "It's very hard to get an overview," says Winestine. "And nobody is really in a position to understand the cumulative effect of all of these projects."

But some effort is underway. Katy Bordonaro, a resident of Morton Street, has spearheaded the Greenwich Village Community Task Force, which is fighting to preserve the manufacturing zone. Robert Malkin is working to galvanize the block associations in his area, and wants to challenge development on environmental grounds, namely its impact on air quality.

It all may seem enormously complex. But there's a simple solution: extend the Village's landmark district to the waterfront, thus protecting the blocks along Washington and West streets. That idea was first proposed by activists when the original district was established in the 1960s. And there's a legitimate reason for doing this. In addition to stopping overdevelopment, landmarking the area would protect cobblestoned streets and historic manufacturing sites that marked the area's ascendancy as a shipping port. Such a proposal has been suggested by the local community board and a number of public officials for years, but it has yet to catch fire at Landmarks. "At the moment, there's no formal discussion for expanding the district," says Terri Rosen Deutsch, a spokeswoman for the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. "It doesn't mean that it can't happen, but currently it's not on the table."

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