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In Meatpacking District, a New Mix

In Meatpacking District, a New Mix

The Wall Street Journal 11/08/2010


Since the High Line opened to throngs of visitors a year and a half ago, a fledgling business district has begun to develop by the elevated park’s base in the Meatpacking District. A 15-story tower at 450 W. 14th St. is being developed and another one of similar size was approved by the city at 860 Washington St.

Now a team of Taconic Investment Partners and Square Mile Capital wants to add a third office building into the mix, and on Tuesday plans to seek city approvals for a 50,000-square- foot glass building clad with a steel grid to rise over a retail base.

Together the projects mark the emergence of an unexpected, if compact, new office district in an area that was still true to its name—a meat products marketplace—just a decade and a half earlier. This comes in sharp contrast with the blocks of West Chelsea to the north, where one high-end residential tower after the next has sprouted along the High Line in the past five years.

The big reason for the difference: zoning. When developers sought to build condo towers in the area nearly a decade ago, the local community, wary of overdevelopment, put up a fight to block any new apartment buildings. So while the city rezoned West Chelsea in 2003 to allow for residential, the Meatpacking District was left untouched, retaining its manufacturing zoning.

But with the High Line as an anchor, development found a way, turning to office space, which is permitted in manufacturing areas, as are hotels and nightclubs.

“The zoning remained a light manufacturing designation, which allows for all sorts of commercial development,” says Vishaan Chakrabarti, a former top official at the Department of City Planning who now leads the real estate development program at Columbia University. “It’s very much a consequence of the decision to protect the neighborhood from one type of uses only to allow a whole other set of uses.”

The site owned by Taconic and Square Mile—837 Washington St., a two-story former meat market—has been eyed for office development for years, previously by event planner Robert Isabell, who died in 2009. Taconic and Square Mile, who were lenders to Mr. Isabell and took control after he died, don’t have tenants secured for the Morris Adjmi-designed building, nor do they have financing, potentially a high hurdle in a market in which banks are reticent to lend for new development.

It falls within the Gansevoort Market Historic District—an area dominated by low-scale brick former meat markets— thus requiring the developers to receive approval from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. And as is customary with projects in the area, there are calls from the local community to downsize the project, which is criticized as being too tall for the low-rise area.

“To add something of that scale seems inappropriate to us,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “Within the historic district, things are actually pretty modestly scaled.”