Undulating Facades

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

Ric Bell, of the American Institute of Architects, in New York, can tick off a number of worthy architectural features in this glass design, such as its incorporating elements from adjacent buildings in its edifice. Bell used to live near the site of the proposed tower, in an old warehouse dating back to the 1840s. Contrary to popular belief, he notes, it didn't consist of brick or brownstone, but of timber and stucco. "It was one of many buildings that defined the Village as an eclectic mix of quirky, wonderful, and extraordinary architecture," he writes in an e-mail.

The average Village resident hasn't embraced the proposed design of this new building, and neither have the preservationists or politicians. Sure, the critics say, they wouldn't mind development on a site long considered an eyesore. But even if it were an architectural delight, they argue, a big, wavy glass building doesn't fit with the feel of the neighborhood. The Village, after all, is known for quaint, stone townhouses, not bold, flashy skyscrapers.

"It's mind-boggling how the commission could find any consistency between this undulating glass facade and the rest of the district," says Rick Mathews, a resi dent at the Horatio Street co-op where Lill lives. He can picture the proposed tower on the Upper East Side or in midtown or, for that matter, in Houston, Texas, where Hines has constructed similar glass buildings. Just not in the Village.

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.

"We live in a district where the architecture has stood the test of time," he explains. "So the idea that I have to come home and see this thing so out of place is disheartening."

Arthur Schwartz, a West 11th Street resident who serves on the local community board, says the landmarks commission has made a point of playing up its preservation duties. "The commission is usually concerned about not only maintaining the integrity of the historic district, but restoring as much of the original character as possible," he argues. "That's why the undulating glass is so odd. That's why people are so upset." When he and his wife sought to renovate the staircase to their 19th- century row house, commissioners quibbled over the choice of wrought iron. The staff, he says, didn't want to process the application, fearing the work would undercut a full restoration someday. Only after his wife, pregnant and recuperating from heart surgery, made a plea for a modern staircase did the commission OK the work.

The glass building was rejected in late February by Community Board 2's landmarks committee, which makes recommendations on applications before the city's landmarks commission. Andrew Jones, a committee member, lives in an 1820s Greek Revival house on West 11th Street and, over the years, has gone before the city commission repeatedly. Once, he filed an application to replace rotten window sashes. He took pictures of the old sash and the new, showing an exact match. But that didn't satisfy the commission, which asked him to submit cross-sectional diagrams as well. When the manufacturer didn't have the required renderings, Jones, an artist, drew them himself.

"I had to go through a lot of red tape even when it was clear I was doing the right thing," he says.

That's what a lot of folks tell Doris Diether, who heads the Community Board 2 landmarks committee. Diether hears the same complaint almost every day from average homeowners struggling to navigate the landmarks process: They're happy to comply with the rules, as long as those rules are applied evenly. Considering the commission's latest action, it's hard for Diether not to conclude otherwise.

"It seems the commission gives the little guys a hard time whenever they do anything," she observes, "and the big guys can get away with murder."


Tierney, the commission chair, defends the process as fair. "Our scrutiny is no less rigorous for a new building than for an application to change an existing building," he says. "We treat everybody the same."

He points out that, unlike developers building elsewhere in the city, Hines Development has had to appear before the commission to justify its Greenwich Avenue proposal—three times. Architectural drawings were filed at least twice, along with a 3-D architectural model. The public had a chance to testify. Commissioners requested a few minor changes that critics regard as improvements.

Asked if the commission had given a big developer an easy ride overall, Tierney replies, "I'm aware of that view, but I don't agree with it."

So what are Village residents to make of this latest approval? At the very least, it seems, the landmarks commission doesn't mind modern designs in historic districts—a welcoming sign for city architects. Already, the board has given the go-ahead to contemporary glass-and-steel structures in Soho and the Flatiron district—former loft neighborhoods dominated by industrial architecture.

"It's clearly a trend for the commission to allow these very modern, cutting-edge designs to be erected in historic districts," says Andrew Berman, of the Greenwich Village Historic Preservation Society, which has opposed the proposed tower. This decision, he notes, marks the first time the board has allowed a wavy glass building into an intimate, residential neighborhood. Residents and preservationists worry about the precedent.

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