Volume 20 Issue 21 | October 5 - 11 2007

Villager photo by Elizabeth Proitsis

Phil Mouquinho, owner of P.J. Charlton restaurant, remembers the old printing houses and rats “as big as cats.”

Ink is not dry as Hudson Square defines itself

By Patrick Hedlund

Over the many decades it spent struggling to secure an identity, the neighborhood of Hudson Square has always meant different things to different people.

Some harken back to its industrial heyday as a center for the printing and importing industries, while others recall its reputation as one of the few Downtown communities to remain relatively exempt from high-rise development.

They speak of its vibrancy as an enclave for artists and innovators, the area’s fertile ground for destination dining, and its connectivity to the rest of Manhattan and the waterfront.

Longtime residents can be heard cheering Hudson Square’s increasingly bygone character as something to preserve, while ruing things like the neighborhood’s traffic congestion and a city plan to construct a massive sanitation facility in the heart of the community. They remember the rats, the grime and the crime, but cherish the perceived innocence of its old-world charm.

Today, however — following recent rezonings, controversial construction proposals, and an influx of new residents and business tenants to the area — all seem to agree that the current questions hanging over Hudson Square, when answered, will determine a lasting fate for the West Side community.

Much of the recent dialogue stems from an expansive undertaking by local developers and civic leaders to define the neighborhood both geographically and contextually as a means to better imagine a future for the sometimes-overlooked, but nonetheless valuable, slice of real estate.

Back in July, the community banded together with local developers to spearhead a project seeking to envision Hudson Square’s evolution as an up-and-coming area with more parks. The action initially came as a response to the Department of Sanitation’s proposal to build a 140-foot-tall garage housing three districts’ worth of equipment in the neighborhood, which prompted public outrage and galvanized both residents and developers to decry the plan.

The “charrette,” as it was termed, enlisted the help of top architecture firms around the city to offer free-rein visions for the neighborhood — provided these visions favored some strong feelings shared by the community concerning its future. The teams’ first renderings have just been released [See article, page 26].

The charrette, funded primarily by Hudson Square developer Peter Moore Associates with help from Eugene Grant, owner of the St. John’s Center, stipulated the firms cast an eye toward mixed-use development in the project’s geographic footprint — deemed to be bounded east to west by Hudson and West Sts., and north to south by Leroy and Canal Sts.

Those demarcations, which define Hudson Square as nestled — sometimes ambiguously — among the West Village to the north, Soho to the east and Tribeca to the south, allowed for one of the area’s first agreed-upon mappings by the project’s collaborators.

This will go a long way in creating a tangible sense of the neighborhood, according to the project’s proponents, as possessing a brand name will hopefully allow Hudson Square to garner some of the cachet of its well-heeled neighbors.

“To integrate our neighborhood into the fabric that’s around it is one of our goals,” says Michael Kramer, the charrette’s project director and a consultant to St. John’s. “One of the results of this exercise will be to see what’s possible.”

Those possibilities, Kramer explained, include a farther-reaching rezoning of the neighborhood’s northern makeup, following a successful effort in 2003 to rezone the area’s southern portion and encourage residential growth.

“If you just look at it from where it is — not its name — it’s a critical piece of real estate, and of developable real estate,” adds Richard Barrett, a founding member of the Canal West Coalition and a resident living near the Tribeca-Hudson Square border. “It is unique — it’s not like Soho.”

Many in the neighborhood agree that establishing name recognition by striking out as a neighborhood unto itself represents Hudson Square’s first necessary act to propel change. Local residents, business owners and historians differ slightly on its boundaries, with some seeing the area’s border stretching as far east as Sixth Ave., and others clipping its northern boundary at Houston St. or its western boundary at Greenwich St.

Addresses in the area certainly continue to stir debate, as a litany of titles including Lower Greenwich Village, West Soho and North Tribeca are repeatedly ascribed to areas that many would consider Hudson Square.

Indeed, Donald Trump’s audacious neighborhood debut, the Trump Soho hotel-condo on Spring and Varick Sts., has sought to capitalize on the South-of-Houston name, even though some say that the project is going up in Hudson Square.

But some local civic leaders active in Hudson Square-related issues are also quick to avoid being grouped in with the newly anointed nabe. Katy Bordonaro, co-chairperson of the Greenwich Village Community Task Force and a Morton St. resident, says only Greenwich Village and Soho existed when she came to the area 30 years ago.
“I want to live in Greenwich Village,” states Bordonaro, who sees a clear division between its northern and southern parts, and acknowledges that her definition of the West Village stretches south to Houston St. “Who’s going to dispute that?”

Joanne Hendricks, who has lived in the neighborhood for 34 years and owns a cookbook store on Greenwich St. close to Canal St., maintains she lives and works in the Village. She believes developers in the community created the Hudson Square moniker to take advantage of a brand name rather than let it remain an amorphous swath of land.

“It was [once] lower Greenwich Village… Hudson Square is a name that [developers] appropriated for the neighborhood,” Hendricks says. “I don’t call it Hudson Square… It’s the South Village.”

The name Hudson Square itself can be traced back to Trinity Church, the single largest property owner in the neighborhood, which actually coined the term two centuries earlier when renaming St. John’s Park in present-day Tribeca, according to a New York University historian. Today, Trinity Real Estate operates the Web site and does promote the name, as do some residents and groups.

“I’m not sure there is any name recognition” outside the real estate world, notes Rachel Bernstein, an adjunct professor in N.Y.U.’s Public History program, who taught a graduate-level course on the history of Hudson Square. Research by her students found that many New Yorkers had trouble with the question of whether or not Hudson Square was, in fact, its own neighborhood. “It’s just not as familiar to many people.”

Clarity over Hudson Square’s place in the borough puzzle has had both positive and negative effects on its progression through the years, according to those with interests in the neighborhood.

While acknowledging New York’s “incredibly robust real estate market,” Moore, the local developer, contends that the city’s neglect of Hudson Square has let millions of square feet of undeveloped property languish on the West Side.

“You have a very convoluted process between B.S.A. [the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals] and City Planning, and too much of it is about ‘them against us,’” says the developer, who’s been active in the area for 15 years. “You’re looking at several million square feet of undeveloped real estate, so it’s probably the largest undeveloped piece of West Side Manhattan besides the Hudson Yards and World Trade Center site.”

The goal, say charrette supporters, is to rezone the rest of Hudson Square to encourage mixed-use development, a process they currently see as incomplete in the northern part of the neighborhood.

Mammoth structures in that portion of Hudson Square — the UPS facilities along Washington St., the St. John’s Center along West St. and the FedEx building farther north at Leroy St. — all offer options for future development, depending on how the city decides to use them.

Eugene M. Grant and Co., which has owned and operated the four-story, 1.2-million-square-foot St. John’s Center since 1962, has indicated its support for the charrette project and community-based planning efforts. A statement from the company, owned by the 89-year-old Grant, expressed a positive initial reaction to the architectural visions but stopped short of commenting on the four-block-long building’s developmental future.

Critics of the Department of Sanitation proposal, which tend to account for seemingly everyone in the neighborhood, including Grant, want to see a mix of residential and retail space rather that the monolithic structures that currently bookend the neighborhood’s western edge.

Abe Shnay, developer of the late Philip Johnson-designed Urban Glass House at 330 Spring St., claims further rezoning is inevitable and will only bolster the area as a destination for residential tenants.

“It’s a real mixed bag of people,” says Shnay, whose building’s 40 units are almost completely filled, adding that residents like Hudson Square for its quietness and proximity to transportation channels.

“If you go there on a summer night, there are people in the streets, the cafes are crowded, but it’s not like going into Soho,” he says. “It has its own little flavor.”

Shnay notes, however, that a dearth of basic amenities like supermarkets and cleaners might give pause to prospective residents looking at Hudson Square. Carl Weisbrod, who heads Trinity Real Estate, says the firm is trying to attract more and better retail, but he did not venture a guess as to how long it might be before there were enough residents to draw a supermarket.

Many in the neighborhood agree that the addition of retail services will prove crucial to courting new tenants. While some debate the chicken-or-the-egg question over adding retail versus residential or office properties, the consensus is that a more active street life will prove necessary to the vitality of the neighborhood.

“We’ve always had a kind of different character over here – other neighborhoods have schools and churches for institutions, and we’ve got the Ear Inn,” David Reck, the self-proclaimed “unofficial mayor of the neighborhood” and president of Friends of Hudson Square, says of the venerable Spring St. watering hole.

The 30-year resident says that the groceries, dry cleaners and drugstores will “eventually” come when the rezoning inevitably takes effect, joining the vibrant pubs and eateries that dot Hudson Square.

Reck also pointed to the recent opening of a doggie day-care center in the neighborhood as a good indicator of a residential surge, as more people have been out walking their pets than ever before. Even though the canine center is on Greenwich St. in the heart of Hudson Square, it is nevertheless called Paws in Soho.

Rip Hayman, owner of the building that houses the Ear Inn, describes Hudson Square’s recent growth as a microcosm of gentrification across the city.

“The neighborhood has sort of gone from being one of the quietest and least-busiest parts of New York and the West Side to bumper-to-bumper baby carriages and brokers and bankers looking harried,” says Hayman, who moved to the historic building in 1973 as a college student. “It’s O.K., we’re needing new people [to] see how this area will have a sense of itself.”

Barrett noted that the rezoning of Hudson Square four years ago has opened up at least half a million new square feet of residential property over the past few years.

Real estate agents see that opportunity for growth, but note it still might take years to bear fruit. Brad Shipp, a broker for Prudential Douglas Elliman who’s sold units on Spring and Washington Sts., and focuses primarily on properties in Soho and Tribeca, believes the neighborhood still appears too industrial for residents to rush in.

“It really has to cater to the community in terms of the restaurants, retail stores, shops, boutiques, spas,” says Shipp, who notes the neighborhood’s proximity to high-quality schools. “I think people kind of see it as an up-and-coming neighborhood, as a long-term investment.”

Business owners have also witnessed Hudson Square’s rising profile, maintaining that a mixed-use environment with increased residential traffic would act only as a boon to business.

Nancy Miller, executive director of the nonprofit VISIONS / Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired — which bought nearly 9,000 square feet of office space at 500 Greenwich St. a decade ago for just over $1 million — called Hudson Square a “destination neighborhood,” in reference to the local pubs and mix of restaurants.

She also cited the community’s cohesion and unity after 9/11 as reasons for this mix, which includes residents and business owners, artists and loft owners, and an elderly population.

“It does not feel like a neighborhood that’s overrun by tourists or very wealthy people — it’s a true mix,” says Miller, who adds that her staff contributes to the local economy but that she would like to see more basic amenities in the area. “Things that you would assume would exist in a neighborhood, we’re still waiting for.”

As the denizens of Hudson Square continue to paint different pictures of the neighborhood, many express a confidence in its future as a viable oasis in Manhattan.

Phil Mouquinho, owner of P.J. Charlton Italian Restaurant at 549 Greenwich St., champions the community’s efforts at encouraging development in the neighborhood he was born and raised in.

Mouquinho, the vice chairperson of Community Board 2’s Zoning Committee, can still smell the scent of ink in the air and recalls when rats “as big as cats” ran the streets. “It had an innocence of its own,” he says. “It has its own charisma.”

The impending development facing Hudson Square excites Mouquinho as a business owner, who adds the restaurant is primed for new business almost three decades after opening its doors.

“I’ve been waiting 28 years for this,” he says from the back of his bistro, noting a feeling of “ecstasy” when looking toward the future. “It’s calling attention to the fact that, hey, we matter.”

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