Undulating Facades


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.

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.

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.

“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.

“These smart people in the real estate industry watch the [commission] closely and they’ll say, ‘You know, you’ve allowed this glass building here, so why not here?’ ” says Bankoff, of the Historic Districts Council. Just over 2 percent of all buildable lots in the city are in historic districts. The implications are real. He adds, “The commission starts setting a small precedent, and the water starts coming over the dam.”

Project defenders like Bell, meanwhile, see the proposed glass tower as a positive example. “Its value in defining the missing edge of a significant and under-utilized public space, and its attention to scale and proportion, make it a good precedent,” he writes.

That’s little consolation to Village residents. Because Hines is seeking to build its glass tower 15 feet higher than zoning regulations allow, it must now seek an exception from the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals. Few expect the agency to stand in the way of progress. So while the big, wavy glass building has yet to materialize, residents can do nothing but contemplate its existence.

It’s not a pleasant thought. “Personally, I feel cheated,” says Carol Kino, of the Horatio Street co-op near the Greenwich Avenue site. When she bought her home in the district, she figured the landmarking would preserve her streetscape. She figured she could count on security from the all-glass facades rising just outside the Village’s landmarked boundaries these days, on Astor Place, on Perry Street, and along the Hudson River.

“It’s like, ‘If there isn’t security here, where is there?’ ” she says. “What does the historic designation mean if this type of development can happen?”