Undulating Facades

Landmarks panel gives green light to wavy glass tower in the Village. But try fixing up your Village townhouse.

Ken Lill can tell you all about the reams of information he's had to submit to the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission for permission to fix up his Greenwich Village home—the rolls of photographs documenting the postwar building's facade, the stacks of diagrams outlining proposed renovations. For homeowners in this neighborhood, trying to repair even a minor leak can turn into a major headache.

"This was our latest project," says Lill, pointing to a small crack in the brick facade of his Horatio Street co-op. An architect by trade, Lill represents residents of the 14-story, 160-unit building whenever they need the landmarks commission's approval for changes. Lill has had to compile what he calls "an entire package of materials" just to patch the leak. He has submitted drawings and pictures, along with a permit application. When commissioners questioned the color of the grout and brick, he offered up two samples.

But as Lill was jumping through red tape, he was watching the big developer across the street breeze through the process— and not for a simple repair. The developer, David Penick of Hines Development, an $11.7 billion firm based in Houston, wants to erect an 11-story undulating-glass structure on a Greenwich Avenue parking lot, near the corner of Eighth Avenue and 13th Street. Penick (who declined to comment on the plan) has had to apply for a "certificate of appropriateness," and thus make a case for a building that residents describe as modern, glossy, and utterly out of keeping with the rest of the district.

Flight Into Egypt, 1998–2001, by Mary Vaccaro, shows the parking lot where the 14-story glass building would go.
illustration: Mary Vaccaro
Flight Into Egypt, 1998–2001, by Mary Vaccaro, shows the parking lot where the 14-story glass building would go.

Lill and Penick entered the process at essentially the same time. Three months later, Lill emerged with an OK to fix his mortar's five-foot-long crack. Two weeks later, on May 2, the landmarks commission voted to give Penick the green light, 11 to zip.

A double standard seems apparent to Lill and many other people in Greenwich Village. Little guys who want to renovate their houses have to abide by all types of regulations in order to maintain the historic character of the district. Big guys, no. "We want to do the right thing," Lill says. "This big developer pops up and wants to build a modern design. And the commission is just letting him?"

The outcome has raised questions about the role of the landmarks commission, which aims to maintain or restore the historic character of the city's 88 historic districts. Simeon Bankoff, who heads the Historic Districts Council, explains that new construction happens all the time on vacant lots in these districts. And when it does, he says, "the goal of the commission is to protect, preserve, and enhance the districts so you can guide development." That's why historic districts include vacant lots in the first place, he adds. "People know someday, someone will put something there and they say, 'Wouldn't it be better if it was appropriate to the area?' "

Interestingly, the rancor over the Greenwich Avenue glass tower is happening at a time when more people are pushing to turn their neighborhoods into historic districts in order to stave off development. Also last week, the landmarks commission extended westward the boundaries of the 2,035-property Greenwich Village Historic District by three blocks, a decision residents spent two years campaigning to get. Even before the remapping, the district was the city's largest.

Now, those same local activists have learned that the designation won't necessarily stop a wavy glass building from erupting on their quaint streets. As Jane Street resident Elaine Young has it, "We're all left scratching our heads and wondering, 'Why is this one getting built?' "

It's a question that Robert Tierney, the chair of the landmarks commission, answers simply. "For us," he says, "the standard of review is whether the building is appropriate to the district." In the case of the proposed glass tower, he says, the commission tried to weigh whether the new building would relate to the style and spirit of the Village, whose historic boundaries stretch from West 4th to 14th streets and from Bank Street to University Place.

Tierney suggests that the undulating glass could blend with the brick-dominated district just fine. "Glass is a material, and that's only one of multiple factors that we consider," he tells the Voice. Others include the scale of the structure, the quality of its design, and the immediate environment. The Greenwich Avenue site, as defenders of the project like to point out, is an ugly parking lot, papered with movie billboards and Delta Airlines ads. The area has a few early-19th-century buildings and an old, tiny park, along with a gas station and a deli.

At the May 2 meeting, Tierney cited this patchwork condition when explaining his vote. "This building wouldn't go anywhere in the district," he acknowledged, "but right here, on this lot, it is the right solution."

Other commissioners justified their support by drawing connections—saying the curving glass would mimic the area's bay windows and cornices, for instance. "I think this is a really wonderful and interesting building," offered one commissioner.

Another echoed the sentiment: "It stands confidently and appropriately in the district."

Landmarks' stamp of approval has generated a fair share of praise, especially among architects. They like the idea of high-style modern architecture dotting the historic landscape; if the proposal has architectural merit and respects landmarks, the argument goes, build it.

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