Adventures in Land Use Law with Professor Hills

As part of his Land Use Regulation course, Professor Roderick M. Hills, Jr. requires all students to attend a land use hearing and write a memo on the experience. Attending a hearing, as it turned out, was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had so far in law school. If you’re into local politics and passionate Greenwich Village residents, I highly encourage checking out one of these hearings!

The hearing I attended took place before the Community Board #2 Landmarks Preservation Committee on October 15. In 2003, a part of New York City’s Meatpacking District was designated as the Gansevoort Market Historic District by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Because of this designation, developers and owners seeking to demolish or alter buildings must go through a public hearing and review process, and the plans must ultimately be approved by the LPC.  Here, the developer is seeking a “certificate of appropriateness” for additions, alterations, and demolition of (some of) the buildings at 46-74 Gansevoort Street. There were more than 115 people in attendance.

Flyer distributed by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation opposing the development
Flyer distributed by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation opposing the development

The developer began the hearing with a lengthy PowerPoint presentation detailing the existing structures; the proposed renovations and additions to each lot; and the details of materials, historical accuracy of designs, and proposed heights for each building. The presentation included extensive, detailed renderings showing every detail, from the wood laced in the glass and steel facades (echoing the design of the nearby High Line Park) to the intricate marquees that would be replicated and/or retained to preserve specific historical design details. The largest proposed building, sited on the corner of Gansevoort and Washington Streets, is currently part of a block that includes several contiguous one- and two-story buildings—the quintessential “market buildings.” The developer is proposing to demolish the one-story corner building and replace it with a six-story, approximately 122-feet-tall building. The developer noted that the entire building would not reach 122 feet; rather, the main structure would be about 98 feet, then there would be a 20-foot setback and an additional two-story structure.  When asked by an audience member, “What is that [structure], a penthouse?,” the developer responded enigmatically, “Two stories of useful space.”

The developer’s primary argument was based on an interesting timing perspective: he pointed out that from the late 1800s through 1938, the Gansevoort Street buildings were up to five stories tall, and it wasn’t until 1939 that they were rebuilt as one- and two-story buildings. The timing argument was not lost on the speakers: nearly all of them mentioned that from 1939 until the present day the buildings have remained one and two stories. This 75-year period, one speaker pointed out, was longer than the other three time periods (included in the developer’s presentation) combined.

Several self-identified “residents of the District” spoke following the developer’s presentation. Perhaps the most compelling two-minute speech was that given by Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP). Berman made clear his views that the proposed developments are beyond the scope and scale found in the rest of the district. He noted that the GVSHP was not categorically opposed to change, but added that the proposal is “not change, this is obliteration.”

Residents of the Village and Meatpacking District watch as the Develop presents plans for the Gansevoort Street development
Residents of the Village and Meatpacking District watch as the developer presents plans for the Gansevoort Street development

Other speakers echoed many of the same sentiments, and advanced four primary points: (1) this block is both the gateway to the Meatpacking District and the only remaining block in the district that is a row of market-style buildings; (2) the proposed development does not preserve the “visual impact” and “historical character” of the block; (3) the proposed enlargements and additions would be both visually and physically overpowering compared to other blocks in the district; and (4) the proposed development is unnecessary to accommodate normal, healthy commercial and residential growth in the district.

Another notable speaker was Regina Kellerman, former executive director of the GVSHP, who authored a book on the district’s architecture and played an important role in having the district designated in 2003. She, too, was strongly opposed to the developer’s plans. Like many others, she referenced the LPC’s 2003 Designation Report, which includes details about the unique design styles and architecture found in the Gansevoort District. Yet another speaker told of showing her out-of-town friend a picture of the proposed development, to which the friend replied, “That could be Cleveland.” The point: the developer’s plans called for “generic” buildings that didn’t match the “low scale, visual impact” that characterizes the district.

A mother and lifetime district resident spoke about the ills of large-scale construction. One of her children, she said, attends school on Horatio Street and would be negatively impacted. She pointed out that “street trees” located near the construction site, though not on the developer’s property, would likely be destroyed due to the construction. She also questioned the effects of the construction on the district’s “air quality.”

Finally, there was a rugged, self-proclaimed “High Line docent” who began by waving a stack of letters from “17 other docents of the High Line” opposing the proposed development. If you want to talk about history, he addressed the developer’s table, let’s talk about how Gansevoort Street used to be an “Indian trail” across Manhattan.

Because this initial hearing was before the Community Board #2 Committee, the issue was not resolved at this hearing. Rather, the committee passed on the information to the LPC, and another public hearing was held on this issue before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on October 27.

All in all, this was certainly a notable experience. It was also a nice alternative to the usual classroom lecture method of learning. Of course, I wouldn’t expect anything less from Professor Hills.