Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The Opposite of Good Planning

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I will never be able to afford to live in the West Village. That’s just a simple facet of supply and demand: The demand is through the roof, and the supply is static. The flip side to the rarity of such neighborhoods as the West Village is that they’re quaint right up until they’re “discovered” – ever the euphemistic term – and then they’re jealously guarded. Part of me can understand why there would be an impetus to protect the architectural form of the heterogenous but cohesive low-rise, pedestrian-oriented, human-scaled neighborhood. The city planner in me, however, balks at calling it a “neighborhood” after a while.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s absolutely no sense of community – for all I know there is, though I don’t know a single resident to confirm or deny this. But what I see is a city planning failure. I know that’s a harsh judgement to levy on Jane Jacob’s prized baby, and I just got through singing its praises, but consider:

This is Starrett City, aka Spring Creek Towers, a high-rise cooperative housing development built on landfill to deal with the massive demand for affordable housing in New York, and indeed one of the largest of its kind in the United States. It’s a mile’s walk from the terminus of one of the subway lines in the ass end of Brooklyn.

This is Co-op City, a high-rise cooperative housing development built on landfill and probably the largest of its kind, constructed explicitly to address New York’s incredible demand for affordable housing. It is separated from the terminus of a subway line in the outer stratosphere of the Bronx by a mile’s walking and I-95.

This is a street in Greenwich Village, a mix of mostly low-rise apartments and townhouses literally around the corner from a major subway transfer station that services the first six letters of the alphabet.

To me that’s wasted potential.

Now, of course, there are two ways to solve this issue: Run trains out to where the people are, such as a currently-shelved (natch) MTA plan to open a MetroNorth station to service the Co-op City housing development in the outer Bronx, or build housing where the trains already are. Needless to say, the latter plan is far cheaper and thus likelier to happen than the former. You can see from the picture of Bleecker Street that there are indeed some high-rises in the neighborhood already, so such higher-density development wouldn’t be unprecedented or necessarily out of character. Nothing forces us to make things quite as ugly as Starrett City, after all.

But here’s the rub: Where would you build those buildings? Greenwich Village is protected land. The West 4th Street subway transfer station is straddling three historically preserved neighborhoods: Greenwich Village Historic District, Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II, and the newly-approved South Village Historic District. The message is clear: Nothing should ever get built here! Okay, we can work around this, can’t we? I mean, just make ’em walk six blocks further so as to protect the character of the district…

…wait, that’s historically preserved, too. In fact, South Village’s latest victory is surrounded on all sides by protected land. Clockwise from its southern boundary, we have:

  1. The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District
  2. The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District Extension
  3. The MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District
  4. South Village’s Third Phase of historical preservation
  5. The Charlton-King-Vandam Historic District
  6. The Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II (aka South Village’s First Phase)
  7. The Greenwich Village Historic District
  8. NYU’s campus (and, beyond it, the NoHo Historic District)

Venture further east and you hit the East Village historic districts. Any further north and you hit the Chelsea historic districts. Further south and you hit the TriBeCa historic districts, and further west you hit the rest of the Greenwich Village historic districts.

This is beginning to sound less like a neighborhood and more like a living museum. Greenwich Village is apparently the Venice of New York. I’ll grant that it’s aesthetically pleasing and currently walkable, but it’s also inorganic, and this arrested development is killing the very character it’s meant to preserve. Neighborhoods have to grow if they are to survive. This is why it’s of no surprise to me when St Vincent’s Hospital was demolished to be replaced with luxury housing: There’s literally nowhere else to build!

This is, consequently, why we have districts like Williamsburg and the Lower East Side going through a veritable building boom while others see practically nothing: Wholesale historical preservation of neighborhoods puts a strangle-hold on the options available, which means that the few places that are a) near the subway, b) close to midtown/downtown and c) not historically preserved are seeing the pressure of the entire city’s housing crisis focused squarely upon them.

As I said, that’s a planning failure.

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