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Andrew Berman is standing beneath the iconic arch in Washington Square Park, facing south toward Lower Manhattan. Not so long ago, the leader of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation would come to this spot to take in the downtown skyline. But no more.
"You can see why this building is so hideously ugly," he says, motioning to a hulking structure called the New York University Kimmel Center. Its curved-glass and yellow-stone facade interrupts the horizon, standing out among nearby brownstones. Berman points to another building rising up behind an old church, dwarfing it in size. That's the NYU law school, once the site of Edgar Allan Poe's house, now home to what looks like, in his words, "a grain silo tipped on its side."
When it comes to development, he adds, "NYU does not have a good track record."
Which is part of the reason Berman and his 2,000-strong organization have submitted a proposal to the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission that would make the South Village a historic district. The district would consist of 800 buildings and 40 blocks, covering those south of West 4th to Broome streets, between La Guardia Place and Seventh Avenue.
Since Italian immigrants settled here in the 1870s, the neighborhood has served as an epicenter for most of New York's great countercultural movements, from bohemian in the 1920s to Beatnik and folk in the '50s and '60s to gay and lesbian in the '70s. If approved, the area would mark the city's first tenement- and immigrant-based historic district. Backers are hoping to prevent big and boorish developmentluxury condos, glass hotels, and, of course, NYU buildings.
Locals tick off the names of lost buildings as if reciting the names of the dead. The old Circle in the Square Theater is now an uninspired 10-story apartment building. The historic Sullivan Street Playhouse has just been replaced by a glass-fronted condominium tower. The 1920s art-deco parking garage known as the Tunnel Garage has become a hole in the ground. Construction crews are currently laying the foundation for swank housing.
Though South Villagers worry about these developments, they're especially worried about NYU. Folks still remember an exploratory meeting on the GVSHP proposal four years ago, when Berman outlined existing boundaries. Back then, an NYU official had surprised the crowd and embraced the idea.
"They basically said, 'These boundaries are fine,' " recalls Stu Waldman, who lives on Bedford Street and who attended that 2003 meeting.
While some residents are now accusing the university of backpedaling, a spokesman for NYU, John Beckman, says the university has always had questions about the boundaries.
"This whole kerfuffle deserves to be in the annals of misinterpretation because we all support the same goal," Beckman said. "I know that as New Yorkers we all like to fight over everything, especially real estate and development, but in this case we all agree [on the need for a district]."
Berman is gearing up for the next hearing on the proposal in June, calling residents and business owners, urging them to sign on to the movement. But he suspects that NYUand any big developer who has designs on property herehas already gone straight to City Hall. In response,
Beckman says NYU has been in contact with the city: "We wrote a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission supporting the district; that's the extent of it."