When does a development project enhance a historic district? And when does development threaten to distort a district beyond recognition? The Landmarks Preservation Commission is faced with this very question as it considers a project that would transform an entire block of Gansevoort Street in the Gansevoort Market Historic District. The architecture firm behind the plan is BKSK Architects, one of whose principals recently wrote an article in this publication lauding the project.
The south side of Gansevoort Street between Greenwich and Washington Streets is the only remaining intact block consisting entirely of one- and two-story market buildings in the Historic District. This ensemble is a truly unique exemplar of the low-rise market architecture that is absolutely central to the character of this area. The developer proposes to demolish two of these buildings and radically alter a third. Instead of low-rise market structures, the western half of the block would be lined with 98-foot and 120-foot tall buildings (including mechanicals).
The developer’s rationale for this project is that during an earlier phase of the street’s history, it included several five-story tenement buildings. These buildings were altered in the 1930s to create the existing low-scale market structures. The developer claims that the proposed project would “return” the street to its previous condition.
However, in 2003 the Landmarks Preservation Commission chose to landmark Gansevoort Street in its current low-scale market configuration, the form in which it has existed for the past 75 years. The Commission did so for good reason.
The LPC’s designation report is clear: The Gansevoort Market Historic District was designated to preserve the area’s unique market character and history. The report describes the area’s “strong and integral sense of place as a market district” and specifies that low-rise market buildings (generally 1-2 stories tall) are an essential part of that history. The designation report twice states that Gansevoort Street has a “distinctive character of low-rise market buildings.” The report also warns, “The market buildings in the Gansevoort Market Historic District are among the last remaining examples of this once-popular building type in Manhattan.”
Furthermore, the designation report explicitly states that the 1930s alteration of the Gansevoort tenement buildings into low-scale market structures represents an essential phase in the district’s history: a time when the market expanded due to innovative new transportation projects (such as the Holland Tunnel, the Miller Elevated Highway and the High Line) and new land use patterns resulting from the great economic changes that were sweeping the country. The report goes on to note, “Typically, commercial redevelopments of neighborhoods in New York City involved the demolition of earlier buildings for structures housing new uses. However, one of the district’s unique qualities is that earlier buildings were retained and altered to market uses.”
Finally, let’s get the facts straight. The developer’s proposed structures would be nearly twice as tall as the five-story tenements he claims he wishes to replicate. Records from the Department of Buildings indicate that the pre-1930s buildings were almost certainly no higher than 50-55 feet, including cornices. By the developer’s own argument, this should be the upper limit on height if the LPC does decide to allow new construction at this site.
The market buildings of the Gansevoort block in their current form exemplify precisely the history and character that the Landmark designation is intended to protect. They should be preserved for posterity, not demolished or transformed beyond recognition.
Responsible development within a historic district should preserve history, not rewrite it.
Zack Winestine is a co-founder of Save Gansevoort. For more information, please see savegansevoort.org