Making History? Landmarking the South Village

Posted on Wed, 04-10-2013

For over forty years, the South Village has been one of the many battlegrounds between two utterly conflicting desires: the will to preserve the old New York character, and the drive to remain open to the constant state of change and progress that keeps the city fresh and prosperous. When the city approved the Hudson Square Rezoning last month, the LandmarksPreservation Commission (LPC) promised to consider the landmarking of the South Village. The proposed extension of the historic district will add 240 properties on top of the current 2,315, with the new additions falling inside the boundaries of West Fourth, West Houston, Sixth Avenue and LaGuardia Place.

The South Village is often considered the heart of Greenwich Village. This immigrant neighborhood was a mecca for Bohemians, and oversaw the birth of numerous social, cultural and artistic movements throughout the twentieth century. Despite its status as an icon of New York City culture (and counterculture), the South Village was left out of the original Greenwich Village Historic District designation in 1969. Although The Greenwich Village Historic District was expanded just three years ago with the addition of 235 new buildings, two-thirds of the South Village covered in the original proposal put forward by the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation remain unprotected.

The long wait has been costly in the eyes of preservationists. In an ironic twist, once an area is proposed for preservation, it becomes an immediate target for developers who seek to make changes before any new laws are passed. Landmarks like the San Remo Cafe, a favorite hangout of Jack Kerouac, have been replaced and renovated, and now bear little resemblance to their former state. Others, like the Judson House and Edgar Allan Poe House, have been completely demolished.

The expansion of historical districts has been a defining feature of the Bloomberg administration. When he assumed office in 2002, there were 86 historical districts across the five boroughs. Eleven years later, the number has ballooned to 127, with ten percent of Manhattan now falling within a historic district. While preservationists are rejoicing, developers are growing increasingly frustrated.  

The LPC is not exactly transparent in its operations, a fact that irks preservationists and developers alike. It has failed to live up its promise to launch a $5 million website detailing the process by which the agency selects landmarks. In a 2012 testimony on the reforming of landmark laws, Michael Slatterly, former senior vice president of Real Estate Brokers of New York, lamented that the Landmarks Law, specifically historic district designation, “has been misused to address neighborhood quality of life and development concerns that should and would be better addressed by zoning laws.” When applied to the South Village, this criticism holds some weight. While buildings in the South Village may be beautiful and integral to the neighborhood’s character, many of them have little or no direct historical significance other than their location.

To address this concern over transparency, the commission is holding an owner information session on April 15 to explain the designation process to property owners and answer questions. The commission is set to vote on one section of the South Village, north of Houston Street. The rest will be surveyed by 2014.  

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