Diamond in the Rough

Diamond in the Rough

Long before it became a real estate commodity, the High Line was considered a blight on its neighborhood. But since the construction of a park on the rail trestle received the Bloomberg administration’s approval in 2002, and the West Chelsea rezoning passed three years later—allowing for higher density residential development along the park—the High Line has morphed from eyesore to eye candy.

Not, however, for a pair of brothers heavily invested in the Meatpacking District. Darryl and Stewart Romanoff, whose family has owned and developed buildings in the area since the 1940s, argue that the High Line, by covering 23 percent of a two-story market building they own, prevents them from taking full advantage of the site.

Claiming hardship, the Romanoffs have filed for a variance with the Board of Standards and Appeals, requesting a 50 percent boost in the lot’s density. They then hope to replace the current building with a 215-foot-tall office building designed by James Carpenter Design Associates and architects Gerner Kronick + Valcarcel. Preservationists are aghast, and the local community board ambivalent.

“The fundamental issue is that the applicant is using the High Line as justification for a hardship,” said Brad Hoylman, chair of Community Board 2. “But many members of the community board see it as a windfall.” In a separate interview, Bo Riccobono, a member of the board’s preservation committee, was more direct. “I think it’s bullshit,” he said.

On January 22, the board voted 32-2 in favor of the project, which is located at 437 West 13th Street, though some preservation groups couched the vote as a rejection because the board called for the floor-area ratio to remain at its current density of 5 FAR, not the 7.73 the Romanoffs requested. Of the other variances they seek, the board supported two—one eliminating rear yard requirements, another concerning height and setback waivers—and one that it modified: a request for 30,000 square feet of retail, up from an allowable 10,000 square feet. The board requested that retail square-footage be limited to 20,000 square feet, fearing that more might encourage big-box stores.

Gary Tarnoff, the developers’ counsel, said the Romanoffs appreciated the board’s comments and will take them into consideration, but intend to proceed with their original proposal. “We saw the board’s vote as a recognition of the hardship,” Tarnoff said, “and now we expect the BSA to make a final determination on these matters.” Tarnoff said he expects the project to go before the BSA in late March or early April.

Though the Romanoffs’ argument that the High Line has created a hardship on the site may seem disingenuous, variance hearings at the BSA deal primarily with financial matters. The burden of proof lies with balance sheets, not ideas of appropriateness, context, or scale, which are the sticking points for preservationists.

“What they’re seeking to do would forever change the neighborhood and we can’t stand to see that take place,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which led the charge against the project. Still, when the Landmarks Preservation Commission created the Gansevoort Market Historic District in 2004, the building was excluded because it was not found to be historically or architecturally significant.

At the corner of Washington Street and West 13th Street, the project is  at the crossroads of two architectural territories: the historic brick and cobblestone meat market and the cutting-edge glass-and-steel High Line (see: neighboring Standard Hotel, High Line Building). With one of the few active meat packers left in the neighborhood residing inside, 437 West 13th Street is more than just an architectural throwback. Carpenter said he took extra care to bridge these two competing neighborhoods through his design.

While the West 13th Street facade rises the full height of the building, in concert with the Standard Hotel across the street, a setback on the Washington Street side provides a simple yet clever gesture with a threefold purpose: reducing the scale on Washington Street to match the neighboring buildings, gesturing toward Diane Von Furstenberg’s adjacent building with its distinctive oculus, and creating an overall massing that parallels the tracks. “The form of the building sort of announces the High Line to the broader community,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter added that the facade will be akin to the curtain wall at 7 World Trade Center, both in appearance and spirit. “We try and work a sense of depth into [the building’s skin], like there’s something behind the glass,” Carpenter said. “We’re trying to develop a very quiet building that doesn’t have the busyness or noise of the other glass buildings nearby, like the Standard.”

So far, the design has won the project supporters. “There’s nothing wrong with building a really good building that people are going to like and that somewhere down the road we might consider landmarking in its own right,” said David Reck, an architect and chair of the board’s zoning committee. Hoylman said that the board endorsed the project, albeit in shorter form, because there was general support for the design.

David Dellvillars, in-house architect for Diane Von Furstenberg, said Carpenter went out of his way to accomodate the fashion designer’s building, which Carpenter himself called the neighborhood’s newest landmak. "We’ve been collaborating to make the designs as integral as possible," Dellavillars said. "We like the simplicity and the simple gesture Jamie’s made for us." WorkAC’s Dan Wood, the designer of Von Furstenberg’s building, said, "It could have been worse for us, I’ll say that. It’s good company, frankly."

Annie Washburn, executive director of the Meatpacking District Initiative, called the existing building “a black hole” and said the new building is more in line with the ongoing development of the neighborhood. “The meat market is leaving,” she said, “so we need to create another marketplace here. It’s becoming a creative marketplace, and this is precisely the sort of building that that calls for.”

Matt Chaban