In Greenwich Village: a Case for a Planning Landmark, or, Simply, a Dash of Nostalgia

Sam Hall Kaplan's picture
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There is a certain irony in community stalwarts in testy Greenwich Village wanting to have the stale housing slabs hovering over the bland park composing Washington Square Village declared an architectural landmark that will somehow thwart New York University from overdeveloping further the singular super block.

"Fugataboutit," would be a relative polite New Yorker's observation by anyone who has ever been to this dance before, as I have. The plea is really just a feint to get the retro-redevelopment realists involved into a backroom of one of the proposal's big buck backers to splice and dice the project so it can be swallowed by all without choking to a political death.  

And that process has actually already started, with NYU agreeing to cut back the project by "almost a fifth," according to the latest puffs of smoke coming out of the Manhattan Borough President's office.

The proposal that was originally floated by the University, known as NYU 2031, and the subject of much debate and derision, calls for a mix of 2.5 million square feet of dorms, classrooms and commercial uses – a total equal to the Empire State building -- being crammed into super blocks already dominated by the two apartment slabs of nearly 1,300 units, and edged by a suburban strip of stores and restaurants. Keep in mind whatever NYU gets will be a windfall, having paid a mere $25 million for the ailing project in 1962 and then watch its value exponentially increase.

The city's powers-that-be and potentate Mayor Bloomberg see the project as yet another critical element in the city's intellectual and institutional ascendancy, and point to the recent approvals of the ambitious expansions of Columbia and Cornell universities. NYU's apologizing academic overachievers are somewhat more base, knowing well who butters their bread.

Smart street initiatives hyped by the city's Transportation chief Sadik-Kahn may have been snaring headlines, pleasing planning advocates as myself and stirring the profession's rank and file and students. But frankly, in New York, the payoff of planning is not finessing public spaces, rather it's to be found in wangling zoning, and being able to squeeze the last buildable square foot of out of a site's last square inch. It is the city's blood sport and the basis of much of its historic wealth.

And NYU 2031 being typical, the rationale for these schemes, the students, get the short end of the stick, with 770,000 square feet of classrooms being buried underground. If any user should be interned, it is the tenured professors who are rarely in their offices and the administrators who programmed these outrages.

Then there is the question of whether the superblock originally designed in the mode of Le Corbusier's scheme of high-rise housing separated from the street has any historic merit from an urban design perspective. Rationalize as you will, the residential slabs hovering over the hard edged park does not relieve the impression of a stock slum clearance project. The long hallways and cramped apartments don't help either.

If anything, the project could be a planning landmark, if there was such a designation. It was the project‘s excrescences in proposing Fifth Avenue be extended through adjacent historic Washington Square Park in order to lend the housing a prestigious address that polarized neighborhood activists, led by Jane Jacobs. This prompted a series of political confrontations that in time brought the imperious Robert Moses down, while providing the grist for Jacob's classic planning tome, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

This was happening in the 50s when the Village was my high school stomping grounds, and remained so during my college summers as a railroad inspector working nights on the nearby waterfront, including what is now the high line park, and working days on my social life and chess game in Washington Square Park.  A few years later I was writing features about the park, and planning, for The New York Times, met both Jacobs and Moses, and with prejudice observed the drama unfold.  

I was not concerned about the density then, as I am not now, being born and ill bred in New York. Further, the village always attracted tourists and students, as I was, given the cost of housing there always being a few dollars too much. And it still is, as I was reminded recently when passing the old Hudson Street haunts where Jane and Bob Jacobs lived, and checking out a notice in the window of one of the area's now ubiquitous real estate offices. Advertised was a rental for $9,000 a month. I distinctly recall the Jacobs paid $7,000 to purchase their building a few doors down. That of course was a few years ago.

It will not improve. I suspect the Village will continue on to another pricey pinnacle, and no doubt when it scores its entitlements NYU will make a mess of the supersized block. But, hey, that's New York. You have to love its chutzpah, and constant change.

Sam Hall Kaplan is a venerable planner, writer and academic persevering in Los Angeles.

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