On Vigilant Streets, a Closely Watched Plan
New York Times 12/16/2007
By JOHN FREEMAN GILL
ST. VINCENT’S HOSPITAL MANHATTAN hopes to replace its aging complex with a streamlined, more patient-friendly modern building. But receiving city approval is far from certain. Not only is the hospital in the Greenwich Village Historic District, where activism sometimes seems the residents’ favorite sport, but the proposal calls for the largest demolition and redevelopment in the Village in half a century.
St. Vincent’s intends to submit a plan this month to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for the construction of a 21-story, $800 million hospital on the west side of Seventh Avenue between West 12th and 13th Streets. The current occupant of the site, which the hospital owns, is an old union hall with a scalloped white facade; it would be demolished.
To help pay for the project, St. Vincent’s plans to sell the seven buildings it owns east of Seventh Avenue, between 11th and 12th Streets, to the Rudin Family developers. Once the new hospital is completed, the Rudins would raze the seven buildings and replace them with a 650,000-square-foot development, most of it luxury housing.
Many people in the neighborhood support the proposal in principle, albeit with some misgivings about scale. The plan, however, has aroused the opposition of preservationists not only in the Village but throughout the city, who say the demolition of eight buildings would set a dangerous precedent for the city’s 89 historic districts.
“If this is permitted, it would really shine an ill light on the notion that being within an historic district prevents or discourages this kind of clear-cut, scorched-earth development,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a citywide advocacy group. “Obviously there’s development in historic districts all the time, but the scale of this is quite unprecedented.”
Officials of St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers, the nonprofit entity that operates St. Vincent’s, said that the proposed hospital is crucial to its mission and that construction of it depends on the $310 million the nonprofit group hopes to earn from the real estate sale. The hospital operator emerged from bankruptcy in August.
“To meet the health care needs of all, including the disenfranchised and the poor, we have to be in a facility that meets the technological needs of today,” said Bernadette Kingham-Bez, a senior vice president for the hospital operator.
The decision to build a single new building, she added, came after outside experts concluded that renovating the hodgepodge of existing structures would take 15 years, cost $1.6 billion and still not produce the needed efficiencies.
The almond-shaped hospital, an acute-care facility of 480,000 square feet — barely half the area of St. Vincent’s current eight buildings — would consolidate under one roof the emergency room, operating rooms and intensive-care units and reduce the number of beds by nearly a third, to 360. Outpatient services, psychiatric beds and physicians’ offices would move to other local sites.
Even preservationists do not dispute that St. Vincent’s needs an updated facility.
“We have no objection whatsoever about how much hospital space they want to build, and not only do we not object, but we want to help make it a reality,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
But, he added, his group believes that there are ways to avoid both the large number of demolitions and the large scale of some of the new structures. The new hospital, at 321 feet, would be one of the highest buildings in the district, and the tallest Rudin building, at 265 feet, would reach 65 feet higher than the Coleman Pavilion, the Seventh Avenue building it would replace.
“Our hope would be that the hospital could build every square foot they say they need, but spread out on two sites instead of stacking it on one,” Mr. Berman said. “Even for those things that are required to be in a single building, we wonder if an underground or above-ground connector might not satisfy that requirement.”
Louis Meilink Jr., a principal at Ballinger, an architecture firm that helped shape the St. Vincent’s proposal, acknowledged that his company had not studied the feasibility of a two-building hospital joined by a bridge or tunnel.
But he said, “To go across a bridge and up another set of elevators is not terribly efficient and probably not the best care.” A tunnel would present similar or worse problems, he added.
According to Ms. Kingham-Bez, the new hospital’s architects, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, responded to community concerns about light and air by designing a building that matches the low-rise scale of the Village at its base, while giving its upper stories an elliptical shape that veers away from the street wall.
But it is the proposed demolition of all seven hospital buildings east of Seventh Avenue, an eclectic jumble of structures built from 1924 to 1987, that has most riled preservationists.
“The proposal demolishes wholesale even those buildings that are as much as 80 years old, are clearly historic, and are clearly intended to be protected by the historic district,” Mr. Berman said.
In response, Dan Kaplan, the architect for the Rudin development, argued that the hospital buildings were a historical anomaly and that his firm’s design is more faithful to the character of the Village than any plan to preserve them would be.
Mr. Kaplan, a senior principal at FXFowle Architects, which is also a co-architect of The New York Times’s new building, said that in the 1940s and ’50s, West 11th and 12th Streets east of Seventh Avenue had town houses on both sides. The Rudin development would include 19 town houses along the two streets.
As for the two hospital buildings completed before the 1950s, Mr. Kaplan said their height and their facades, which extend to the property line, were “jarringly out of scale” with town houses.
The hospital plan requires a host of city approvals, and conflicts along the way are a sure bet. As former Mayor Edward Koch, a co-chairman of the volunteer advocacy group Friends of the New St. Vincent’s Coalition, put it, “In Greenwich Village, there is no such thing as unanimity.”