In November, a plan for a commercial revitalization of the south side of a block of Gansevoort Street, in the Meatpacking District, went before the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In a rare, but hardly unheard of occurrence, the hearing was paused before the commissioners could discuss the proposal. With the continuation of that session likely to come soon, YIMBY sat down with the architects behind it to talk about its place in the history of the area.
William Gottlieb Real Estate and Aurora Capital are the developers behind the proposal, which involves the south side of Gansevoort Street between Greenwich Street and Washington Street. It sits within the Gansevoort Market Historic District, just on the north side of the Greenwich Village Historic District. That’s why this plan needs approval from the LPC, and that’s why the developers picked BKSK Architects to design it.
BKSK, and its architects Harry Kendall and Todd Poisson, are no strangers to work on landmarks or in historic districts. The LPC recently approved their proposal for Tammany Hall along Union Square and, before that, 9-19 Ninth Avenue, just north of Gansevoort Street.
At the LPC hearing in November, there was significant public backlash against the proposal. Save Gansevoort calls it the “wrong plan in the wrong place.” Some protested the effect the new construction will have on their light and air. But some criticized the plan for being out of character with the district and its history. That’s the narrative that BKSK is seeking to correct.
At least one big celebrity in the neighborhood now supports the plan and a study commissioned by the developers shows a majority of local residents do as well.
While this stretch of Gansevoort Street holds a building that says “Gansevoort Market” on it, Kendall told YIMBY that those words are a relatively recent addition and the main Gansevoort Market was actually an open-air market located to the northwest, where the new Whitney Museum of American Art sits.
“This was one of various blocks that serviced it in a larger market area, with a bunch of mixed-use buildings that included carpentry shops, some residential tenements, some multi-story market buildings themselves,” Kendall said. “But a whole panoply of interesting mixed-use functions in a city that was more mixed-use than it became.”
“Multi-stories with multi-uses,” Poisson put it.
The block is currently extremely low-rise in nature and while it has never been high-rise, even by current suburban standards, it was, even into the second quarter of the twentieth century, noticeably taller than it is today.
“Let’s tell history as it really happened,” Kendall said.
According to Kendall, the area was known as Gansevoort Market from 1880 to 1928, at which point it became the Meatpacking District, really chugging along until 1970. In 2003, the area was designated as the Gansevoort Market Historic District.
“The Gansevoort District, probably more than any other historic district, represents an ongoing evolution from the mid-1800s until now, Kendall said. “In this block can be represented all of significant eras, including now.
Kendall and Poisson went through the project, building-by-building from east to west. It consists of five sites. You’ll see the each new or modified building rendered in sequence.
The first building is two-story-tall 46-48 Gansevoort Street. Once the site of a five-story building, the current building was purpose-built for the meat market in the 1940s. This would be a restoration project, though the structure would get an additional masonry opening on Gansevoort Street.
“Otherwise, it’s a straightforward restoration program for the building – cleaning it, removing all the piping and signage on it,” Poisson said. “We’re going to recreate the marquees that were there historically – two on this building and a third on the next building.”
At two-story 50 Gansevoort Street (once also site of a five-story building), the plan is demolition and replacement with a three-story building that would rise to 42.5 feet, not counting the bulkhead. With four rows of windows, it would read as four stories from the street. The second floor would be double-height, allowing it to align and possibly connect with 46-48 Gansevoort.
Poisson said the proposed building has “a lot of subtle design nuance on the façade and side walls that relate to things in its history… Its language is designed to kind of yolk it to the corner building in terms of its colored masonry.”
“The building that’s there now that was re-clad was of a similar material. They were both of this yellow, white-ish brick and so we’re using a new brick to show that this is a new building, but we’re maintaining that sort of relationship between the two that was established in 1940,” Kendall said.
“We’re inspired by four-story utilitarian buildings in the district for our new façade,” Poisson said. “As Harry said, they were multi-story carpentry shops and markets and tenements in the district that all kind of shared a utilitarian language. So, that was our inspiration for number 50.”
Next is two-story 52-58 Gansevoort Street (once home to three different buildings, including a five-story building even taller than its easterly neighbors). Its current state dates back to 1938. It is the building that now bears the words “Gansevoort Market” and is on the cover of the district’s designation report.
The proposal is to keep it a two-story building, which would play host to the new version of Keith McNally’s Pastis restaurant. That will occupy the eastern three-quarters of the structure. Most of the work will be restorative, though a new storefront will be added and a blue canvas awning will be removed.
The restoration will actually include only minimal cleaning. “None of these buildings are meant to look like a sanitized version,” Kendall said. “In the buildings where either the façade, in large part, is being kept or fragments are being kept, none of them are being rendered pristine in a restoration. Rather, in keeping with what we believe to be an essential quality of the Meatpacking District is a kind of a bit of a mechanist reflecting a not always savory history.”
Two-story-tall 60-68 Gansevoort Street was once five-stories-tall. The proposal is to restore those three missing stories, with a setback sixth story. So, the primary height would be 68 feet (about four feet taller than the original building) and the setback would rise to 83 feet.
Kendall referred to the process of the building having been cut from five stories to two as “butchery.”
“They took the bricks down, almost to the windows, and then added new brick of a different color to make a parapet height,” Kendall said. “But basically, they just hacked away at it and reconstructed it in the least expensive way possible.”
“We think it’s yearning to grow back… to something closer to its original size,” he said. The proposed new building would look remarkably similar to its historic occupant.
“The [proposed] five-story street wall evokes what was there in the 1880s, but also around the district still, for example the five-story market building that was built in the 1800s on Washington Street,” Poisson said.
“There’s modern detailing of our new proposed street wall to [cater] to today’s use,” Poisson said. “The windows are taller and wider than they used to be, but with a line that records the historic the historic window pattern.”
The design incorporates a vertical stripe on the east side of the building, meant to evoke a scar left on the previous building by the chimney of its former neighbor.
The last building is 70-74 Gansevoort Street. It was once home to a five-story building, but is now home to a truly ugly single-story structure, a former truck depot. The plan there is a new six-story building creating an 83-foot street wall with a two-story-tall setback rising to 112 feet.
“We’re inspired by warehouse typology in the district, Poisson said.
“The whole block is building up to the refrigeration company building across the street,” Kendall said. “As we redefine this block, the corner seemed an ideal site to step up to that larger scale, not as tall as it, but continuing a sort-of stepping up process.” Indeed, when you round the corner, you can see that the proposed structure is very much in keeping with other structures on Washington Street.
Kendall also sees the proposed height of 70-74 Gansevoort as having the benefit of blocking the “not very beautiful” windows that were inserted into the aforementioned former refrigeration building.
“The building had a certain grandeur, a certain robustness, as a warehouse – grandeur as a building without any windows. When it became residential… it wasn’t done all that carefully,” Kendall said. “[By going to the proposed height,] we actually restore the perception of the refrigeration building… by masking the bad windows.”
Kendall said it would make the streetscape “more graceful.”
As for the proposed two-story setback, Poisson said it would be much like many “exuberant” rooftop additions in the district, including the skylight at Diane von Furstenberg’s store. She’s the celebrity who, once she took a good look at the proposal, decided to support it.
But back to the setback section itself, Poisson said it is inspired by water tanks and other utilitarian roof structures. “It’s usable square feet. That’s its primary purpose,” Kendall said, but without a tenant, no other detail could be given.
Kendall said the presence of the new Whitney has had an impact on this project.
“The Whitney effect on this block is real. Whereas there might have been less of a market, before it got built, for upper-story non-office spaces, there is now a much larger market,” he said.
Aurora’s Jared Epstein is excited about the prospects here.
“This project is an opportunity to recreate the historical themes, details and aesthetics that Gansevoort Street featured its prime, rather than preserve partially demolished and deteriorated structures,” he told YIMBY in a statement. “Our respect for the history of this site inspired a building-by-building design that recreates the historical themes, details and aesthetics of Gansevoort Street as it existed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the neighborhood was the most important market district in New York City.”
Where does the project stand right now? At November’s hearing, the design team presented its proposal and public testimony was delivered. It was, however, the last item of the day and the hour was quite late. So, the commissioners essentially pressed pause on the proceedings. When they resume, possibly next Tuesday, the commissioners will present their questions and then discuss the proposal. Will they vote to approve it or will they require revisions? Stay tuned.