For years, Andrew Berman fought to secure official historic status for Gansevoort Street, home to the market-style buildings that serve as the meatpacking district’s backbone. So when Berman first saw renderings of a developer’s plan to install multistory structures where low-rise meatpacking buildings currently stand, he didn’t believe it.
“I thought it had to be a mistake,” says Berman, who is the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “It seemed so ludicrously outside the bounds of what should be approved in this landmark district.”
But by the end of the summer, it was clear there was no mistake. In August, developers publicly laid out a plan that would redesign much of the southern side of Gansevoort Street between Ninth Avenue and Washington Street. Under the proposal, the row of former meatpacking buildings would be partly transformed into larger spaces designed to attract high-end retailers. And while some of the properties would only see superficial modifications and modest increases in size, the tallest of the five buildings would reach 120 feet into the sky, significantly higher than the low-rise buildings that dominate the block’s aesthetic.
The proposal has infuriated many nearby residents, who say the development will destroy the historical integrity of their neighborhood, a tourist destination adjacent to the High Line and Whitney Museum. Meanwhile, the plan’s designers counter that the block was home to multistory buildings in the past and that they have made painstaking efforts to respect the neighborhood’s market-style architecture.
But to some preservationists and critics of the development, the dispute speaks to a problem that extends beyond Gansevoort Street. “It’s emblematic of what’s happening across the city,” argues Zack Winestine, a nearby resident and organizer of Save Gansevoort, a community group that is trying to stop the project and circulated a petition that has garnered just more than 1,100 signatures. “You’ve got developments everywhere that look the same that are homogenizing the city. Who wants to live in a city where every neighborhood feels and looks the same?”
At an October 15 committee hearing on Community Board 2, it was clear many residents opposed the plan, and they regularly interrupted a presentation on the proposal with groans and hisses. Still, Todd Poisson, a partner at BKSK Architects, calmly clicked through a slideshow that detailed how each building on the block would change.
He spoke about the development as “a combination of preservation, restoration, and new construction” that respects the neighborhood’s historical context. The first three buildings on the block would retain much of their character, Poisson explained, and their restored marquees would contain aluminum lacework — a nod to the neighborhood’s former elevated subway trestle. The Gansevoort Market building would stand virtually untouched (though Poisson said there will likely be no returning tenants in the redeveloped buildings).
During his description of the last two buildings on the block — which would be almost completely rebuilt at more than triple the current height — it was clear no design flourish was going to mollify the roughly 90-person crowd gathered at the hearing, which was held at P.S.3 on Hudson Street. “Oh my god,” a woman gasped in exaggerated horror after Poisson showed the two-story setback penthouse at the top of 70-74 Gansevoort Street. It’s the tallest part of the development and designed to look like the city’s rooftop water towers.
“I think there’s always concern about change,” Poisson told the Voice following the meeting, after being asked about the community’s mostly negative response to the project’s unveiling. “We’ve gone building by building and reached out to its history. We would never propose this design anywhere else but here.”
Because the properties fall within the Gansevoort Market Historic District, which was designated in 2003, the future of the project rests with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which will determine whether the proposal is consistent with the neighborhood’s historic designation. The LPC, which is expected to hold a hearing on the proposal on October 27, could accept, reject, or send the proposal back for revision.
“The city definitely allows — on a case-by-case basis — changes, development, even demolitions in historic districts,” says Berman, who campaigned for Gansevoort’s historic designation. “And we knew that in the meatpacking district, a place where buildings have changed over time,” there might be more of an allowance for change. Still, Berman says, “My hope is that the commission will find this application and its approach fundamentally flawed.”
Winestine, the Save Gansevoort activist, largely agrees — but he emphasizes the irony in trying to capitalize on a historic district by fundamentally changing it. “You have to ask, ‘Why does the developer want to put a massive building right here?’ ” he says. “It’s precisely because this area was landmarked and because this area has a special feeling and a special character. But you can’t kill the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg.”
The Gansevoort Street properties are owned by William Gottlieb Real Estate, which has partnered with Aurora Capital as the developer. Neither company responded directly to questions about the proposed development for this story, though Gottlieb spokesman Marty McLaughlin says, “We think it’s a really good project. We think the landmarks consultant did a really good job, and it’s up to [the LPC] to see what they think.”
When asked about the community’s response to the project, McLaughlin said, “I’m not going to get into a big long discussion,” and ended the interview.
It’s nearly impossible to predict how the commission will rule, according to Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, which plans to evaluate the Gansevoort proposal before the LPC hearing and is serving as Save Gansevoort’s fiscal agent.
Bankoff says the commission has both approved and denied plans for buildings he thought were too tall for their respective neighborhoods, which makes it difficult to conclude that any particular decision will set a precedent. Still, he says, the LPC’s decisions can fundamentally alter a neighborhood.
“You risk changing the context and changing the character of the historic district forever,” Bankoff explains. “There are a lot of people in the preservation community who are watching this.”