Village residents, CB2 fighting for height limits south of Union Square

The former Bowlmor building at the corner of East 12th Street and University Place is the location of a proposed 23-story residential tower, opposed by community residents. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

The former Bowlmor building at the corner of East 12th Street and University Place is the location of a proposed 23-story residential tower, opposed by community residents. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Maria Rocha-Buschel

Community Board 2’s land use committee voted to support a contextual rezoning proposal from the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation that would impose height limits on new developments in the area directly south of Union Square at a meeting on January 14.

The attempt to rezone the area was spurred by a proposed development on the site of former bowling alley Bowlmor on University Place at East 12th Street and the rezoning would cover the area of the University Place and Broadway corridors between East 8th and 14th Streets.

The meeting in mid-January, held at Grace Church High School, was packed with about 50 area residents, primarily those living in the area for the proposed rezoning. Those in attendance were concerned about the impact a 23-story, 308-foot tall residential tower would have on the character of the neighborhood.

Developer William Macklowe filed plans for the tower last September and the GVSHP has been fighting the plans since, but considering the lengthy rezoning process, Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation executive director Andrew Berman noted at the meeting that it was unlikely that even if the rezoning is successful, it is unlikely to have an impact on this particular building.

“There are very rare cases that you get rezoning to happen, development stalls and then construction has to stop, but that’s unlikely,” Berman said.

“One thing we can do is make our rezoning move forward as quickly as possible. Maybe by some miracle it will capture this building. I don’t want people to count on that being the case but regardless, we should move ahead with this as quickly as humanly possible.”

Berman said that the boundaries for the proposed rezoning area were chosen for various reasons, primarily due to the surrounding areas already being protected by landmark status and other adjacent areas that already have contextual rezoning. He also noted that on adjacent blocks that weren’t included in the proposal area, there are a substantial number of buildings owned by NYU and while there are architecturally significant buildings that need protecting as well, the process would be different.

The existing zoning for the entire city was put in place in 1961, when tall towers were encouraged, Berman said. Contextual zoning was only adopted in 1989 to ensure that new developments in low-rise neighborhoods were compatible with the existing buildings in the area, and this type of zoning regulates a number of characteristics of new construction, including height, bulk, width and setback from the street line.

“Most of the surrounding neighborhood is contextually rezoned, landmarked or both,” Berman said, explaining why the new development at the Bowlmor site is allowed. “This is a rare area with neither.”

Berman showed a photo of a dormitory at Third Avenue and East 12th Street, citing it as a prime example of “NYU dormitory architecture” that, judging by the laughter and groans elicited by the comment, residents of the area are not very fond of.

Former Bowlmor on University Place (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Former Bowlmor on University Place (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

“That’s what the current zoning encourages,” Berman said. Berman emphasized during the presentation what contextual zoning would accomplish — primarily a height limit on new developments — but also made a note to explain that it was not a cure-all for preventing developments that residents don’t approve of.

“It wouldn’t require public hearings for new construction,” he said. “(Contextual zoning) says that if you abide by the rules, then you can do whatever you want.” He added that while contextual zoning also wouldn’t prohibit demolition, it would make it more unlikely.

“If the new building were going to be similar in size and scale, they would be less likely to knock down the current building,” he said.

In order for the community to have more of a say in what did get built, Berman said that they would have to also pursue landmarking for the area.

Residents and committee members at the meeting expressed a number of concerns about the effect such a tall building would have on the neighborhood.

“These areas are very unique. University Place is a street that I personally walk on every day,” land use committee chair Anita Brandt said. “It’s wide, it’s lovely, it’s airy and it’s something we want to preserve. Broadway has its own dynamic and should also be preserved, as one of the oldest streets in the entire city.”

Anita Isola, a resident who lives adjacent to the area for the proposed rezoning, had a similar fear relating to the height of new construction.

“My concern is that we’ll see less and less of the sky if we let these developers move in,” she said.

Other residents were concerned about the impact from those who would inhabit the building, especially relating to noise if the building became a hotel or dormitory. Another resident who lives on Fifth Avenue between 8th and 9th had a concern if the building did become apartments.

“What is to stop (investors) from turning it into a de facto hotel, renting it out Airbnb style, putting a strain on the resources and the infrastructure of the neighborhood but also not providing hotel tax or income tax to defray the cost of that infrastructure being used?” she asked.

The 45-member board voted unanimously to pass the resolution in support of the GVSHP’s proposal at their full board meeting on January 15.

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