Centre stage: CB1 pushes to landmark 139 Centre St. as city plans to redevelop its twin

Photo by Dennis Lynch This city-owned building at 137 Centre St. could soon be replaced with a towering condominium, so CB1 is pushing to have its architectural twin at 139 Centre St. preserved as a landmark.

Photo by Dennis Lynch
This city-owned building at 137 Centre St. could soon be replaced with a towering condominium, so CB1 is pushing to have its architectural twin at 139 Centre St. preserved as a landmark.

BY DENNIS LYNCH

Amid fears that yet another luxury condominium tower will replace a century-old, city-owned building just outside the Tribeca East Historic District, Community Board 1 is pushing to landmark its architectural twin.

CB1 voted at its December board meeting to ask the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to consider designating the building at 139 Centre Street for preservation, citing plans by the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to sell off its identical, city-owned neighbor at 137 Centre Street for redevelopment.

The board’s Landmarks Committee cited the EDC’s plan to redevelop 137 Centre St. as a reason to preserve its neighbor, and noted both “were built to standards in context with surrounding municipal and other privately owned buildings” in the neighborhood.

Simeon Bankoff, Director of the Historic Districts Council said that although he supports CB1, the reasoning for landmarking 139 Centre St. in response to potential development at 137 Centre St. was “very flawed” and “not good planning.”

“Why put more regulations on a private building if you’re letting the public building go?” he asked, though he conceded that landmarking 139 Centre St. would make designating 137 Centre St. as a landmark much easier.

“I think [the LPC] would be hard put to reject 137 [Centre St.] on its merits as an architecturally and historically significant building, especially if you regarded its twin at 139 to be architecturally and historically significant,” he said. “Those buildings are very much what people think of when they think of Tribeca — they are just very strong early commercial buildings, and the main reason why the Tribeca historic districts were designated was to protect those types of buildings.”

The LPC said it has received CB1’s letter, but precedent suggests it won’t decide in favor of the landmarking.

The commission denied a request made jointly by the Tribeca Trust, CB1, and Councilmember Margaret Chin to calendar the Tribeca East Historic District Extension — which included the two buildings — for a vote in 2014.

The founder and chairwoman of the Tribeca Trust, Lynn Ellsworth, doesn’t agree with the community board’s more tactic, calling the push to make 139 Centre St. an individual landmark “useless,” and arguing that it should be part of an extended historic district instead.

The Tribeca Trust is currently filing a lawsuit against the LPC aimed at forcing it to schedule the Tribeca East extension for a vote, which Ellsworth said was the only way forward unless Chin can “cut a deal” politically to move the process along.

Ellsworth claimed that the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation made just such a deal with the city to calendar the South Village Historic District — which the LPC established last month — in exchange for the GVSHP’s support of transferring air rights from Pier 40 to the St. John’s Terminal site.

“The city met all those conditions and calendared it at rapid speed. It’s never been that fast,” Ellsworth said. “People have been waiting 15 years to be calendared, and in all of two weeks it happens? Obviously it was transactional. They were not doing it based on its merits, but based on the politics of the situation — they wanted [GVSHP] to stand down. So can’t Margaret Chin make a deal for Tribeca?”

A Chin staffer said that the councilmember absolutely still supports the Tribeca East Historic District Extension, and that in a letter to EDC president Maria Torres-Springer last October, she said that its plans for the property as they stand were completely unacceptable.

The EDC’s current plans involve selling off the property to a private developer, along with 70,000 square feet in air rights — or unused buildable vertical space — from the neighboring, landmarked Engine Company 31 firehouse where Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV) is based.

In her letter, Chin pointed out that the Request for Proposals (RFP) that the EDC issued for the 137 Centre St. site in early 2015 called for a “contextual development that would enhance the surrounding communities” and “respond to the needs of the community,” but that “a luxury condo tower does not meet the needs, and is not within the context,” of the surrounding area.

“From the beginning of our conversation on 137 Centre St., I expressed clearly my preference for deeply affordable housing on this site,” Chin wrote to Torres-Springer. “At a time when affordable housing creation is a paramount goal of our City, I cannot support the use of this public asset for anything other than the creation of middle and low-income housing.”

The EDC will need Chin’s support when the Council votes and proposed sale, since the Council tends to follow the vote of the member who’s district the sale is in.

An EDC representative said the proposal was not final or approved and that it would continue to work with the community and elected officials to craft a proposal “that responds to neighborhood needs and meets the original goals of the RFP, including generating revenue to support Downtown Community Television Center’s programming and endowment, providing necessary neighborhood amenities, and ensuring a financially feasible development.”

The EDC made no mention of two other “original goals” of the 2015 RFP — namely the provision of Pre-K seats and ensuring that any residential proposal be mixed-use and mixed-income.

Though Chin’s letter pointed out that Downtown doesn’t need any more Pre-K seat, She stressed that “deeply affordable housing” was more vital than ever in an area that has seen almost exclusively high-end residential development in recent years.

The Tribeca Trust wants the city to convert 137 Centre St. as-is entirely to affordable housing. A consultant hired by the historic preservation group said the building could accommodate up to 66 units. For his part, Bankoff said there was “no reason why [137 Centre St.] could not be preserved and converted” for affordable housing.

The building at 137 Centre St., which currently houses offices for several city agencies, was designed and built by the firm Schwartz and Gross along with 139 Centre St. in exactly the same style in 1911. The LPC has landmarked around a dozen of the firm’s buildings around the city, mostly in on the Upper West Side and in Harlem.

Ellsworth said that the Tribeca Trust has had to revise its historic district extension maps multiple times to account for buildings that they wanted to protect being knocked down and replaced. Without action, there may not be much left to protect, she said.

“On every corner we’ve moved the border because of demolitions, its going to be gone if they don’t do something,” Ellsworth said.

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5 Responses to Centre stage: CB1 pushes to landmark 139 Centre St. as city plans to redevelop its twin

  1. The statements by Lynne Ellsworth regarding the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) are untrue, and require a response.

    Ms. Ellsworth (whom I consider a friend and a colleague) claims that GVSHP “made…a deal with the city to calendar the South Village Historic District … in exchange for the GVSHP’s support of transferring air rights from Pier 40 to the St. John’s Terminal site…[T]hey wanted [GVSHP] to stand down.”

    This is simply false. GVSHP never has and never will support transferring air rights from the Hudson River Park, which we think is a bad and troubling idea that ignores better alternatives we and others have consistently put forward for generating revenue for the park. We have made that position crystal clear through every step of the process.

    We did, however, also fight to ensure that if city legislation was passed that enabled any air rights transfers from Pier 40 to the St. John’s Terminal site, that it must include protections against any future air rights transfers from the park anywhere within Community Board #2 (Canal Street to 14th Street), thus protecting this area from the possibility (some might say inevitability) of as much as a million and half square feet of air rights being transferred from the park into our neighborhood, as allowed by 2013 state legislation. Thus while 200,000 square feet of air rights were transferred to this one site, which we strongly disapproved of, we won protections from more than seven times that amount of air rights from ever being transferred to anywhere in our neighborhood in the future.

    It should be noted that this same air rights limitation mechanism, which was crafted by City Councilmember Corey Johnson, also protects Tribeca and all of Community Board #1 from any air rights transfers from the Hudson River Park whatsoever. It restricts all air rights transfers from the park to within the same Community Board; since Community Board #1’s section of the Hudson River Park contains no commercial piers (the sole source of air rights within the park), no air rights can be transferred there.

    Ms. Ellsworth is correct in pointing out that after the city refused to move on designating this final phase of our proposed South Village Historic District for years, then suddenly moved quite swiftly to do so. This was because of a concerted campaign we had waged for years to point out that any rezoning of the St. John’s Terminal site would increase development pressure upon this historic, low-rise, residential area, and that for the City to consider approving such a rezoning without final moving on this long overdue landmark designation would be a betrayal. We had a committed and determined partner in Councilmember Johnson, who made clear to the City that he would not consider the St. John’s rezoning unless the South Village landmarking moved ahead. Clearly the City’s hand was forced, or at least pushed considerably.

    At the end of the day, we never wavered in our position that air rights transfers are bad policy and should not be sanctioned. What we achieved was a severe restriction on their future use, a long overdue historic district designation, and significant improvements to the planned development at the St. John’s Terminal site that protect the surrounding area from its potential impacts.

  2. Berman,

    What are the ‘better alternatives’ you have put forward to save Pier 40? More government funding? You know as well as anyone that the governor would just as soon see the pier fall into the river.

    You purport to be concerned about the quality of life in the West Village, but what about the thousands of families and individuals who use the pier? Do you care more about the fate of an unloved three block long building with zero adjacent residents than a pier that functions as the de facto Central Park for Downtown? For you to even now rail against this deal that Corey Johnson and others worked incredibly hard on, in order to (as always) raise your profile and that of GVSHP just shows how little you do care.

    From a park user and Downtown resident

  3. The above anonymous commenter seems to be offering a critique of GVSHP’s position that directly contradicts GVSHP’s actual position, as clearly stated above. We have not “railed” against the deal, and in fact have praised and lauded it (see http://www.gvshp.org/_gvshp/preservation/hudson/h…. We have never argued over the fate of the existing lumbering hulk of a building, as the writer implies. And in fact, we along with two dozen other community groups representing neighborhoods bordering the park offered several very reasonable alternatives for raising money for the park that did not depend upon additional government funding — see http://www.gvshp.org/_gvshp/preservation/hudson/d…. Just to offer a highlight, one was to apply a dedicated fee on all new development in areas bordering the park that would go towards funding the park, as was done in Battery Park City, Hudson Yards, and other places throughout New York City. Unlike air rights transfers, this would not encourage overdevelopment because it would not make funding the park dependent upon increasing the size of allowable development in adjacent areas. It would also make the entire new development pay for the park, as opposed to just the fraction of it that comes from the sale of air rights, and would apply to all new development, rather than just those that received air rights transfers, thus increasing the funding possibilities for the park. The Hudson River Park Trust and city and state officials refused to pursue this option.

    I am happy to engage in a meaningful dialogue with those who have different opinions about the best future for our neigbborhoods and what our priorities should be in planning for them. That’s very difficult to do when someone claims that our positions are nothing like what they actually are, even when the correct information is staring them in the face.

  4. So when you say “GVSHP never has and never will support transferring air rights from the Hudson River Park, which we think is a bad and troubling idea”, is that your idea of praising and lauding? Because if so, your thesaurus works differently than mine.
    How is levying a fee on new development going to raise the roughly $100m needed to fix the pier’s crumbling infrastructure? When the Trust attempted to institute a neighborhood improvement district (NID) that would tax residents and companies in the vicinity of the park, it was roundly shouted down, notwithstanding the fact that the burden on residents was de minimus. Developers, with the enormous political power they wield in nyc, would never let the type of tax you advocate pass. Plus, as you know Berman, it would have to be approved by the City and the State, and that just isn’t happening.
    So you can sit around wishing for rainbows and unicorns to come save the pier, or you can stop trashing the one deal that will actually get it done.

  5. You seem to be more interested in launching anonymous, ad hominem attacks on myself and GVSHP than facing the facts. First, the type of dedicated tax we suggested has been used and implemented with great success in various locations throughout New York specifically for this type of purpose — to build a park and other public infrastructure. As said previously, it was done in Battery Park City and Hudson Yards, among other locations. And it is nothing like a Neighborhood Improvement District — existing owners and businesses would not be taxed, only new development. As it would include the entire area adjacent to the park from Chambers Street to 59th Street, it would have the potential to generate a significant amount of revenue from many more locations than the one air rights transfer which has been thus far approved.

    You again baselessly claim that GVSHP has “trashed” the deal when just the opposite is true. Because the agreement put severe limits on any future air rights transfers, we think it was a great thing, and fought for it — had such a deal not been put in place, we might have had exponentially more air rights transfers throughout our neighborhood and other neighborhoods up and down the waterfront.

    Your inability to debate this on the facts and the merits is quite unfortunate.

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