By Maria Rocha-Buschel
A developer’s plan to demolish two buildings near Union Square and replace them with towers was recently shot down by Community Board 5. However, the board’s landmarks committee was split on whether or not the two buildings are historically significant enough to be protected under preservation laws. The committee discussed the plan at a meeting on May 31 to a packed room of community members and business owners who wanted to learn more about the proposal to demolish the two small buildings at 16 West 18th Street and 21 West 17th Street and replace them with apartment towers.
Real estate developer C.A. White has plans to tear down the two buildings and build 11- and 13-story buildings in their place. In comparison to the current buildings, the proposed apartment towers are much taller but the project’s architect Morris Adjmi said at the meeting that the firm didn’t max out the space allowed, keeping the proposed buildings level with those around them. The community board’s role in the process is only advisory and the Landmarks Preservation Commission will make the final decision on whether or not the buildings can be demolished.
Residents and committee members who opposed the demolition pointed to the overall character of the neighborhood as one of the main reasons to preserve the building, especially related to the “saw tooth” nature of the structures, because the current buildings are shorter than those around them and the developer’s proposal would mean leveling the buildings out.
Committee chair Layla Law-Gisiko pointed out that the argument for preservation has to be made for a specific reason other than how tall a building is because the Landmarks Preservation Commission actually prohibits regulating height, but committee vice chair Renee Cafaro noted that height is indirectly a factor in the discussion of these buildings because of their original intended purpose.
“We’re not here as a board of taste,” she said. “This is not about individual design, but (the buildings are) inside a historic district and they’re becoming extinct. Those structures were originally made as carriage houses.”
Some committee members and residents who attended the meeting argued that there have been so many modifications to the two structures since they were first erected that the original buildings are not the same anymore.
“The original buildings no longer exist,” said one meeting attendee. “The definition doesn’t roll on indefinitely.”
Committee member Ina Clark agreed, adding that the argument for preserving landmark status due to minor features is weak.
“I’m having a difficult time with this because we see applications time after time and we say no because we argue about the railing and so on, but I don’t see how I can say no in these circumstances as well,” she said.
Another committee member, Karen Miller, agreed that there needed to be a stronger argument for preservation than focusing on the height.
“I think it’s on an individual case-by-case basis,” she said. “Because they’re low and they add character to the neighborhood, we can’t protect them on that basis alone. It has to contribute to the district in other ways.”
Cafaro then argued renovations made to the building shouldn’t be held against its status as historic, saying the work was only what was necessary to keep the building standing.
“We’re now being asked to say that we agree that regardless of how many renovations, we might as well demolish it because on pretext it was renovated too much,” she said. “They did the best they could over time. We have a different directive. We have to be a voice for all those people. The Ladies’ Mile shouldn’t be homogeneous and uniform.”
Law-Gisiko agreed that the changes only included what was needed.
“It’s silly to expect a building from the 1800s to maintain complete historical integrity,” she said. “It was caught between two fires so of course it had to be renovated. We can’t let it fall apart but now we’re being told that if you do repairs, then it’s lost its integrity. Most of the alterations have been done with the LPC’s blessing and these changes are now being used to tell us that they’ve lost their integrity.”
Both Cafaro and Law-Gisiko said that they worried approval of the demolitions would set a precedent for other similar buildings in the area.
“If the LPC approves this application, the next application will point to the previous approvals and how do you say no after that?” Law-Gisiko said.
Members of the community also offered their input and while many argued that replacing the shorter buildings with taller apartment towers might alter the character of the neighborhood, some welcomed the change.
From a practical standpoint, Books of Wonder owner Peter Glassman said that he was open to the demolition because of how antiquated the infrastructure is in the West 18th Street structure, which is adjacent to his store.
“Redoing those two storefronts would be wonderful,” he said. “Having used the building on West 18th Street, it’s problematic. The plumbing is connected to the building next door and it’s not fixable.”
Another business owner on the street, however, felt differently about the demolition because of the loss of commercial space.
“I’m concerned that this is a noncommercial storefront,” said Joseph Ganun, owner of Academy Records on West 18th Street. “You’re taking away from the neighborhood and what brings people to the neighborhood. This isn’t being discussed. We’re destroying a commercial shopping district where people come from all over the world to shop.”