Feb. 2016 – History Shows That Gansevoort Street Should be Kept Low-Rise

In their presentation to the February 9th Landmarks Preservation Commission public meeting, the Gansevoort developers claimed that their plan to demolish two buildings and build massively tall new structures is historically appropriate because it would restore Gansevoort Street to its pre-1930’s residential architecture.  This argument is clearly driven by their desire to permit the largest and most profitable buildings on this site. In 2003, the Landmarks Preservation Commission chose to landmark Gansevoort Street in its current low-scale market configuration, the form in which it has existed for the past 75 years.  The Commission did so for good reason.

The LPC’s designation report is clear: the Gansevoort Market Historic District was designated to preserve the area’s unique market character and history; the report describes the area’s “strong and integral sense of place as a market district.” [designation report, page 5]  As the designation report points out, low-rise market buildings (generally 1-2 stories tall) are an essential part of that history. [designation report, pages 9-10]
The designation report twice states that Gansevoort Street has a “distinctive character of low-rise market buildings,” and specifically refers to the significance of “newly adapted buildings” such as 60-68 Gansevoort street which had been reduced to its current two-story height.  [designation report, pages 4 and 17, emphasis added]  It cannot be stressed too strongly that the Gansevoort block is the only remaining intact block consisting entirely of one- and two-story market buildings in the Historic District.  The entire block forms a truly unique exemplar of the low-rise market architecture  that is absolutely central to the character of this Historic District.
Furthermore, the 1930’s alteration of the Gansevoort buildings from residential to low-scale market structures, as the designation report explicitly states, represents an essential phase in the district’s history: a time when the market expanded due to innovative new transportation projects (such as the Holland Tunnel, the Miller Elevated Highway, and the High Line) and new land use patterns resulting from the great economic changes that were sweeping the country. [designation report, page 4]
In their February 9th presentation, the developers make highly selective use of quotes from the Gansevoort Market Historic District designation report.  What they leave out is in several cases more significant than what they include. 
Thus, on page 9 of their PDF, the developers use a quote from page 9 of the designation report regarding the presence of markets on Washington and Gansevoort Streets between the 1880’s and World War II.  The remainder of the paragraph and the following paragraph, not included in the developers’ PDF, emphasizes the importance of two-story market buildings to the district’s history:

The first of the two-story, purpose-built market buildings in the district (823-833 Washington Street and 32-36 Little West 12′ Street) were erected in 1880.  These vernacular and neo-Grec style structures typified the low-rise market buildings constructed in the district over the next 90 years: produce (or, later, meat) handling on the ground story, shielded by a metal canopy over the sidewalk, and offices on the second story. The bulk of the buildings in the district date from the 1880s through the 1920s and were designed in then-popular historical revival styles.

 As scholar Helen Tangires has observed, 19th-century market houses fell into two building types:  the shed and the mixed-use market hall. Purpose-built market buildings in the district are variants on the shed type, typically a structure (that could be open or enclosed on the street level) consisting of regularly-spaced supports, and a low roof, and that could have wide, projecting eaves. Shed-type market buildings had been a standard type throughout Europe and in colonial America. The market buildings in the Gansevoort Market Historic District are among the last remaining examples of this once-popular building type in Manhattan. [designation report, pages 9-10, emphasis added]

The one- and two-story market buildings that currently comprise the Gansevoort block are exactly the kind of low-rise market buildings whose importance is emphasized in this passage from the designation report.
A very similar passage is omitted from the developers’ quote on page 10 of their PDF about commercial construction being the greatest percentage of new building stock during this period, a quote taken from page 3 of designation report.  The ellipsis in their quote omits the following:

The first of the two-story, purpose-built market buildings in the district were erected in 1880. These vernacular and neo-Grec style structures typified the low-rise market buildings constructed in the district over the next 90 years: produce (or, later, meat) handling on the ground story, shielded by a metal canopy over the sidewalk, and offices on the second story. [designation report, page 3]

Again, the importance of low-rise market buildings such as those currently existing on the Gansevoort block is here emphasized by the designation report.

The quote used by the developers page 11 of their PDF (regarding the underground refrigeration system associated with the Manhattan Refrigeration building) is immediately followed by this passage, not included in the developers’ presentation:

Typically, commercial redevelopments of neighborhoods in New York City involved the demolition of earlier buildings for structures housing new uses.  However, one of the district’s unique qualities is that earlier buildings were retained and altered to market uses. Earlier examples include the Centennial Brewery (409-41 1 West 14″ Street), converted to meat, produce, and dairy use in 1901, and 21-27 Ninth Avenue, rowhouses adapted in 1923-24 as meat market buildings.  [designation report, page 4, emphasis added]

This exactly describes the existing low-rise market buildings on the Gansevoort block, altered from taller residential tenements.  The designation report describes this kind of alteration as “one of the district’s unique qualities”!
Additionally, the developers’ proposed structures would be nearly twice as tall as the 5-story tenements they claim they wish to replicate.  The pre-1930’s buildings were almost certainly no higher than 60′, and probably somewhat lower.  The new structures would be 98′ and 120′ tall (including mechanicals).  This is in part because the new structures would be 6 and 8-stories tall, not 5-stories, and in part because of the new structures’ extremely large 14-15′ floor-to-ceiling heights.  Even if one accepts the developers’ rationale (which we most certainly do not), the proposed buildings are grossly out of scale.
It’s no accident that one of the Gansevoort block buildings that was altered for market use by having its height reduced is featured as the cover illustration of the Gansevoort Market Designation Report.  The market buildings of the Gansevoort block in their current form exemplify precisely the history and character that the Landmark designation is intended to protect.  They should be preserved for posterity, not demolished or transformed beyond recognition.