PROGRESS REPORT: Working to keep real estate and mayor in check

Andrew Berman. Villager photo

BY ANDREW BERMAN | The de Blasio administration, a booming real estate market, an aggressive and well-financed real estate lobby, and spiraling retail vacancies present huge challenges for preservation in our neighborhoods. But in spite of these enormous obstacles, we are making progress.

The area between Union Square and Astor Place is facing an unprecedented wave of development pressure. This stems from a combination of a lack of landmark or zoning protections and an aggressively expanding tech industry that sees this area as a new and natural extension of the existing “Silicon Alley” to the north. Office and condo towers of 300 feet in height or greater are rising in the area, from University Place to Third Ave., as are hotels of more than 300 rooms. And the mayor is seeking to rezone a site on 14th St. east of Fourth Ave. for a “Tech Hub” that will accelerate the area’s transformation as center of the East Coast tech world, unless protections for the residential neighborhood to the south which we have fought for are included. Newly elected Councilmember Carlina Rivera has pledged to fight for these protections and to condition the needed City Council approval of the Tech Hub upon these safeguards being provided, which is the only leverage we have to force the mayor’s hand on this matter.

The outcome of that battle, which will decide the fate of this corner of Greenwich Village and the East Village, will be decided later this year, and will likely hinge upon efforts of the freshman councilmember.

There has been some important progress to report already, however. A developer had planned to tear down the twin 1866 cast-iron buildings at 827-831 Broadway, between 12th and 13th Sts., and replace them with a 300-foot-tall tech office building. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation led the charge to get these buildings landmarked, highlighting their role at the center of the late-20th-century art world, housing Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Jules Olitsky, Larry Poons and many other prominent artists and art world figures. After a-year-and-a-half-long campaign we led, the buildings were landmarked and saved from demolition late last year.

On the Greenwich Village waterfront, we dodged a bullet when we won a restriction on the use of Hudson River Park “air rights” for development anywhere in Greenwich Village a little more than a year ago. Three years earlier, in the last days of its session, the state Legislature passed a measure allowing 1.5 million or more square feet of development rights from the park to be moved inland, which could have potentially completely overwhelmed this and other West Side neighborhoods. Due to this restriction we fought for and won, that danger no longer exists.

The Small Business Jobs Survival Act, intended to help save small businesses, has been reintroduced in the City Council with a commitment from new Speaker Corey Johnson to give the bill a hearing and vote. G.V.S.H.P. has been supporting a campaign in favor of the bill, which would make it harder for landlords to refuse to even negotiate with commercial tenants for lease renewals. The current state of affairs often leads to storefront spaces being left vacant for months or years at a time, while landlords seek enormously inflated rents, often from chain stores.

And we recently helped stop an attempt by Mayor de Blasio and real estate interests to lift a nearly 60-year-old limit on the size of residential buildings in New York City, which literally would have made the sky the limit for new such developments. The current limit allows buildings like the 1,550-foot-tall tower rising on W. 57th St., which will eclipse even the World Trade Center (minus its spire) in height. But that’s not enough for our mayor and big real estate — they want no limits whatsoever. This would allow them to upzone not just Midtown and the Financial District, but residential neighborhoods like the Upper East and West Sides, and parts of Brooklyn, Queens and even potentially the Village.

Proponents of the measure attempted to sneak it into the recently passed state budget, but failed in the Assembly. But this attempt to “lift the cap” has now returned, so while we won the first battle, the war continues.

As always, the forces aligned against preservation have vastly more resources and access to power than we do. But the passion and tenacity of those seeking to protect what they love about their neighborhoods has prevailed before. And in spite of the odds, I firmly believe we will again.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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