Preservationists pressure Quinn to broker downtown landmarking deal

Update March 13: The City Council Land Use Committee has approved the rezoning with modifications; the council has also secured a commitment from the Landmarks Preservation Commission to schedule a vote on a historic district north of Houston Street and to study a district south of Houston.

On Wednesday, City Council members are scheduled to vote on a proposal to rezone Hudson Square, one of the last real estate development frontiers of lower Manhattan, to turn the manufacturing-turned-office district into a hopping hub where people would live, shop and work.

City planners expect the proposed zoning to make the sleepy downtown neighborhood near the Holland Tunnel a 24/7 destination, drawing 7,000 to 8,000 new residents and many more square feet of residential and retail space.

An affirmative vote from the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises and the Committee on Land Use this week would make passage in the full Council all but assured.

Residences and retail will descend on sleepy streets west of Soho if the City Council approves a zoning proposal sponsored by landowner Trinity Church. Photo: Rebekah Mintzer

The change has been requested by Trinity Church, which has substantial land holdings in the area – mostly office space in converted industrial buildings. The proposed rezoning — which covers an area bounded roughly by Houston Street on the north, Greenwich Street on the west, Canal Street on the south, and Sixth Avenue on the east – would encourage the development of apartment buildings and retail space as well as a school.

The zoning change could prompt the demolition and alteration of buildings – and not only in the area being rezoned. Historic preservationists warn that the neighborhood enveloping Hudson Square to the north and east could also be transformed.

Over the past few months, a group led by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has been lobbying City Council members in a grassroots campaign to stop the rezoning of Hudson Square until the city agrees to declare the entire neighboring South Village a historic district.

In particular, they have targeted City Council speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn, whose council district contains both Hudson Square and the South Village, asking that she use her influence to expand the historic district, in which any demolition or alteration must be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Currently, only about one-third of the area the preservationists seek to protect is landmarked.

“Literally on the other side of Sixth Avenue from what will be this hot new high-rise neighborhood are these tiny little historic, low-rise buildings of the South Village which are already being knocked down at an alarming rate because of the development pressure that exists now,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the preservation group. “That development pressure will be greatly increased.”

According to Berman, in addition to its architectural value, the area has cultural and historical worth.

“It’s a very strong case for landmark designation,” said Erin Tobin, regional director of technical and grant programs for the Preservation League of New York State, an advocacy group that works to protect the state’s historic buildings and landscapes.

The league placed the South Village on its most recent list of the seven most endangered historic resources in the state and has written to Quinn asking her to make the expansion of the historic district a condition of rezoning.

Trinity acknowledges that the Hudson Square transformation is likely to have a spillover effect on neighbors. Its environmental impact statement identified a “significant adverse impact” on the unprotected segment of the South Village if rezoning is completed without landmark designation. The statement also noted that the area is eligible to become a historic district.

Several historic buildings in the area, including the Provincetown Playhouse, Circle in the Square Theater and Tunnel Garage, have already been demolished.

Silvia Beam, a member of the Van Dam Block Association, said that she would like Quinn and the council to resist approving Hudson Square rezoning unless the remainder of the South Village gets landmark status first. She said she fears that if her South Village community is not designated, it could lose its small shops and its low-rise, neighborhood feel.

“All that should be preserved  — needs to preserved — but it doesn’t seem to be getting through to the people making any of the decisions,” she explained.

The landmarks commission would be the prime decision-maker on an existing proposal to landmark the entire South Village as a historic district, but it has not acted since creating a chunk of the district, north of Houston Street, in 2010. If the commission chooses to designate the rest of the area as a historic district, Berman said it could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for the application to make its way through the process, which includes a public hearing and a commission vote.

“We are considering the proposed South Village Historic District within the context of our other priorities,” said Elisabeth de Bourbon, director of communications for the commission in an emailed statement.

Berman and the historic preservation society maintain that Quinn, who has spoken out in favor of landmarking the whole South Village in the past, has by far the most political capital to spend on the effort.

“We’re grateful that she has said she supports designation,” said Berman. But now she’s being presented with a choice, which is either to use her maximum leverage to get landmarking for the neighborhood or not approve something that would be so damaging to the neighborhood.”

Quinn’s office said that as evaluation of the Hudson Square rezoning continues under the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, the speaker is trying to keep the process inclusive.

“As with all ULURP applications that come before the council, Speaker Quinn and staff are reviewing the proposal and working to ensure that an open dialogue with all interested parties is maintained,” said Justin Goodman, a spokesperson for the City Council, in an emailed statement.

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