St.Vincent’s wins hardship battle on O’Toole Building

Landmarks approves demolition of the O’Toole Building in a split decision. On October 28, 2008, Landmarks, by a vote of six to four, approved St. Vincent Catholic Medical Center’s hardship application to demolish the O’Toole Building, making way for a new hospital in Greenwich Village on Seventh Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets.

After Landmarks advised that it would not approve a certificate of appropriateness for the proposal, St. Vincent filed a hardship application, arguing that it could no longer pursue its charitable activities in its current facilities. In support of its application, St. Vincent presented an array of expert testimony over several hearings. State and federal health care experts stated that the hospital’s current facilities were outdated and inefficient, and failed to meet current standards for best practices and patient care. St. Vincent also provided evidence that purchasing land elsewhere in the City would be too costly. Preservationists and some residents testified in opposition, asserting the architectural significance of the O’Toole building, and taking issue with the size and scale of the new hospital. 5 CityLand 85 (July 15, 2008).

At the October 28th meeting, Landmarks Chair Robert Tierney, in explaining his yes vote, stated that he believed the demolition of O’Toole constituted the “least negative impact” to the area, considering the alternative was to demolish four buildings on the east side of St. Vincent’s campus, two of which, the Spellman Building and the Nurses’ Residence, were widely deemed to be of historic value. Tierney assured the audience that there were “multiple safeguards” in place to ensure that all permits for the new hospital would be acquired before demolition went forward. Commissioner Joan Gerner emphasized that St. Vincent was “the only level one trauma center on the West Side,” and that if there were another 9-11 type tragedy, St. Vincent’s continued operation “could be a matter of life and death.” Gerner admitted that she voted to allow demolition “with a great deal of regret.”

Commissioner Margery Perlmutter voted against demolition, stating that St. Vincent did not adequately explore other alternatives, and expressed skepticism that “St. Vincent’s needs could only be achieved over O’Toole’s ashes.” Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz called the application “the most disturbing challenge to the Landmarks Law since the Grand Central Station case,” and claimed that the question of the hospital’s worth to the community was outside the Commission’s purview. Gratz argued that approval of the demolition would set a “disastrous precedent.” Landmarks ultimately voted to approve the application by a vote of six to four, with Tierney, Commissioners Gerner, Fred Bland, Diana Chapin, Libby Ryan, and Pablo Vengoechea approving, and Perlmutter, Gratz, Stephen Byrns, and Roberta Washington opposing.

LPC: 20 Seventh Ave., Manhattan (08- 8617) (Oct. 28, 2008).

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