West Village Development Roundly Criticized by Area Residents

Rendering of the proposed building. Image credit: LPC

Project would entail the demolition of two former service station buildings, and the erection of a new six-story-plus penthouse corner structure with residential and commercial uses. Landmarks considered an application for a new development spanning two lots at 536 and 544 Hudson Street on July 25, 2017. The site, at the corner of Charles Street, lies within the Greenwich Village Historic District. The property’s developer is William Gottlieb Real Estate.

The two utilitarian existing buildings at the site were, until recently, part of automobile service station. The larger two-story structure at 544 Hudson is thought to originally date to the 19th century, but underwent extensive alterations and remodeling in the 20th century. The site has long been surrounded by a sidewalk shed. The one-story building at 540 Hudson was constructed in 1927 as a gas station and is currently vacant.

Consultant to the applicants Elise Quasebarth, of Higgins Quasebarth, said the existing buildings were not characteristic of the district in their architecture nor building types, and possessed no noteworthy qualities that should prevent the site from being developed. She noted that both buildings were described in derisive language in the designation report, and the building at 544 Hudson had been repeatedly refaced, reconfigured and added to, retaining little or no original historic fabric.

She described the immediate area as being characterized by 19th century tenement buildings and larger 20th century apartment building.

Quasebarth stated that there were multiple buildings in the district similar in height and scale to the proposed new development, and that the proposed design drew on aspect of the district’s architectural vocabulary in a contemporary manner. The building would incorporate curvilinear aspects in a nod to the rounded forms of turn-of-the-century corner buildings, and curved bases found throughout the district. The façade would be composed of brick, the area’s “predominant building material.” She said the proposal was “of a reasonable scale,” and unlike the existing structures, would “make a contribution to the streetscape.”

Architect Morris Adjmi described the plan for the new building, in which he sought to distill characteristics found in the immediate neighborhood.  The building would be energy efficient to passive house standards. Both facades would be shaped into curved forms, creating undulation on both facades. The depth of the undulations would increase as the facade rose. The undulations would create a version of bays, three on Hudson and two on Charles Street, echoing the arrangement of the district’s historic buildings.

The facades would be clad entirely in red brick, as would the smooth projecting cornice, which would follow the facade’s undulations. The mortar used would be red, in a shade matching the brick. Rusticated brick would be used at the base, where a series of storefronts would face both Charles and Hudson Streets.

Protruding window frames would be chamfered, and windows would set into the façade six inches. The corner window at the ground floor would be curved, but not the windows above. The penthouse, set back ten feet from Hudson and fifteen feet from Charles, would be visible from several street viewpoints. It would be clad in light-colored zinc to help it blend in with the sky. Rooftop mechanical equipment would be invisible from public thoroughfares. The planned streetwall would be four-and-half feet taller than the adjoining building immediately to the east, and 20 feet taller than the adjoining townhouse on Hudson Street. Quasebarth said that other visible penthouses had been constructed in the district under Landmarks’ aegis.

A representative read a joint statement from Assembly Member Deborah Glick and State Senator Brad Hoylman that objected to both the scale of the proposal and its design. The elected officials claimed the development would negatively impact the area’s low-rise character, and that the design was “far too modern.” Local Council Member Corey Johnson and Borough President Gale Brewer also submitted joint testimony that said the site was an appropriate one for development, but that the design required more horizontal and vertical articulation, that the penthouse was inappropriate, and the ground floor lacked distinction. A representative of Community Board 2 read from a resolution recommending denial of the application for its unacceptable mass and bulk that would overwhelm nearby historic buildings, and for its design that failed to relate to the district’s architecture.

Rendering of the proposed building. Image credit: LPC

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s Andrew Berman said the “imposing and monotonous” proposal should be reduced in size, the facades visually broken up, and the penthouse and storefronts reconsidered. Patrick Waldo of the Historic Districts Council lamented the increasing disappearance of service stations, “that unloved but necessary part of the urban fabric,” and said the proposed development was “over-scaled and incongruous with its surrounding neighbors.” The Society for the Architecture of the City’s Christabel Gough testified that the building was excessively tall, and there was “no facade of this unbroken length nearby.”

Over a dozen local residents attended the hearing to speak against the application. Zack Weinstein said of the proposal that “the bulk is all wrong,” and it should be reduced by at least one story, and lacked detailing on the facades.  Augustine Hope, owner of a neighboring property, said 544 is a “classic example of a two-story one-family tradesman’s house,” with original fabric underneath the exterior cladding, and merited protection. Tom O’Keefe said the application was “ugly” and “meritless.”  One nearby resident praised the design, but she said it would be more appropriate for a different site in a different neighborhood. Area resident Bill Bahlman said that, if built, the proposed building would be a “monster in a neighborhood of gentility.”

There was no public testimony in favor of the application.

Quasebarth countered criticism by stating that the existing buildings were not identified as having any significant aesthetic qualities in the designation report, and any remaining original fabric was “de minimis” at best.  She rejected the assertions that the proposed structure was out-of-character or out-of-scale, as did Adjmi, who said it “absolutely typical of the Village” in its massing. Adjmi contested testimony that the facade lacked articulation, saying a strong cornice above the storefront and divisions created by undulations define and divide the building in a contemporary manner.

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan stated that redevelopment of the lots was appropriate, and presented an opportunity for the corner with its current “very sad” condition.  She determined that the district possessed a variety of building heights, and a six-story building could theoretically be appropriate for the site. However, the proposal’s design and massing were “not there as yet.”

Srinivasan said the penthouse should be removed, or set back enough to completely disappear from view, and the building’s scale and design should be refined to better align with the neighboring building on Charles Street. She said the uniformity of windows and brick read as “too repetitive,” and encouraged the applicant to further consider the design of the cornice.

Commissioner Michael Goldblum found that the proposed building’s height and depth, considered together, gave the project a scale and bulk excessive for the district, where the streetscape occurred in “smaller increments.”  He thought the building should be lowered to bring it in line with the adjoining cornice on Hudson Street.            Goldblum suggested that the applicants look patterning and texture in the brick to add more visual interest, and that the base be differentiated more strongly from the residential stories above. Commissioner John Gustafsson found the proposed facades “monotonous” and visually akin to a warehouse in some renderings.

Commissioner Jeanne Lutfy applauded the use of passive-house technology, and the contemporary interpretation of Village design elements, but said the storefront required further thought and the penthouse should be made invisible. She agreed that the “understated” articulation could potentially read as monotonous.

Commissioner Michael Devonshire stated that he had once had the opportunity to examine the building at 544 Hudson, that it was in very poor condition, with little or no remaining original fabric. Devonshire found the proposed project required the diminution of its streetwall height and cornice in order to be appropriate. Commissioner Diana Chapin said that the height of the proposal wasn’t inherently wrong for the site, but that the “presentation is just too uniform.”

Chair Srinivasan found there was a consensus that the site could be developed, but asked the applicants to further refine the design, and to consider ways to break down the scale, before returning to landmarks with a revised plan.

LPC: 536 Halsey Street, Manhattan (18-3361) (Architects: Morris Adjmi Architects).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).

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