It has been 20 months since St. Vincent’s Hospital and Rudin Management submitted their original plans to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for a new hospital tower and housing complex in the heart of the Greenwich Village Historic District. And while the hospital and developer’s plans have changed considerably on their way to receiving final approval from the commission today, they have not changed as much as the village is bound to over the next decade as a result.
Following a 40-minute presentation by Dan Kaplan, a principal at FXFowle Architects, which is designing the housing component of the plan, the commission voted 9-1 in favor of the scaled-back complex, now in its fourth iteration. Kaplan highlighted eight major changes his firm had made in response to criticism raised during the last meeting on the project on June 19. Most every commissioner approved of the changes, acknowledging that the combination of six new and historic buildings would actually be an improvement on the blocky 1980s hospital structure they would replace.
“This matter has posited, without question, some of the most complex historic preservation questions in my memory and I think in our current institutional memory,” Robert Tierney, the commission chair, noted before adding his favorable opinion: “I believe the applicant has addressed our concerns and successfully knitted together new buildings with old ones and the surrounding district.”
Commissioner Christopher Moore concurred: “A year ago, this was in no way an acceptable project, but it has come a long way, and now it is." Even some who had criticized the hospital portion of the project supported the condos presented today. “I would agree that the architect has been very responsive,” commissioner Stephen Byrns said. “This is going to be a huge improvement over what is already there.”
The one dissenting vote came from commissioner Margery Perlmutter, who joked, “I fear I’m the sole dissenter, but I must stay on message.” She argued that the new condo tower remained too tall, in part because it was taking advantage of additional air rights granted to St. Vincent’s when it built its earlier building in an otherwise low-scale neighborhood because the medical uses were considered a public benefit, outweighing the needs of preservation.
The decision concludes one of the most arduous, involved, and complicated matters the commission has ever considered.
It began in December 2007, when the hospital and Rudin submitted plans to demolish Albert C. Ledner’s one-of-a-kind National Maritime Union Headquarters, now operated as office space by the hospital. That building would be replaced with a 329-foot hospital tower designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Across 7th Avenue, St. Vincent’s would sell its current hospital campus to Rudin for $310 million, which would go toward construction of the $850 million hospital tower. Rudin would then develop that land into a sizeable housing complex that demolished a number of the historic hospital buildings.
That proposal was overturned in May 2008, based on the fact that it would be inappropriate for the historic district. The hospital returned in June with a hardship application, arguing that it could not continue its charitable mission without demolishing Ledner’s building and building atop it.
In a narrow vote, the commission found in favor of the developer in October. Pei Cobb Freed then presented new plans for the hospital, which were approved in March of this year. Ultimately, the hospital tower went through considerable revisions in height, massing, and street-level and facade detailing, including reducing its height to 278 feet from an original 329.
The condo complex went through a comparable redesign to reach its current form. First, FXFowle agreed to save three buildings it had originally proposed demolishing, as well as reducing the size of the new buildings it had proposed. Most notable was the main building on 7th Avenue. It has been reduced from a block-long building to one replacing only the 1980s buildings. Furthermore, designs presented today called for breaking the massing in half and stepping down the facades of the two masses in numerous places to create a less monolithic appearance.
“The attempt here was to differentiate the parts of the project but within the confines of the district, to create individual buildings that still read as part of a whole that fits into the district,” Kaplan told the commission.
All told, the project shed 17,000 square feet from June for a total of 591,000 square feet of residential development. Similarly, the 7th Avenue tower has shrunk from 266 feet and 21 stories to 203 feet and 16 stories. Kaplan noted that this makes it the eighth tallest building in the district and actually smaller than some of its neighbors.
But the process is not over, as the project must now go through the city’s land-use review process, received approval from the state department of health, and there is also an outstanding lawsuit challenging the hardship application. Still, even the project’s most vociferous opponents seem to have acknowledged the new St. Vincent’s is here to stay.
“There could have been greater review of the details,” Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, told AN. “We will have to live with the results forever.”
Given that the commission seemed to acknowledge that the parts of the project approved today were actually an improvement over the existing buildings they replaced, might the Village actually be gaining, at least from an architectural perspective? Commissioner Stephen Byrns did not believe so.
“I think with the hospital, it’s a real downer for the village,” he said after the meeting. “East of 7th Avenue is an improvement over what is here today. But it will never make up for what’s been lost across the street.”