The West Village Houses are threatened with demolition. This is the Greenwich Village complex developed by the community group led by Jane Jacobs in the 1960s as an alternative to the proposed Urban Renewal plan the group defeated. It is the seminal Jacobs physical mark on this or any city, a landmark of greater significance than many buildings designated as such. Demolition would be no less a loss than demolition of an important designated landmark.
In 1989, my first book, The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way, was published and included the full story of the West Village Houses development, as told to me by Jacobs, who had become a friend. This was one of several examples in the book that I cited of real community engagement, genuine debate and effective planning. The following is an excerpt from the book, with occasional bracketed current comments.
The West Village Houses grew out of a community-led battle in the 1960s against Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan. This was one of the first times—if not the first—a New York community triumphed over an imposed public-private project that would have destroyed the neighborhood. The high-rise development plan, between Christopher and Eleventh Streets on the West Side Highway, called for clearance of fourteen blocks of apartment houses, older brick and brownstone houses and loft buildings deemed deteriorated, marginal and “a no man’s land” by a City Planning study. A community-initiated study, however, showed that the area contained several hundred families and more than 80 businesses employing hundreds of people. After all the demolition and relocation there would have been a net increase of only about 300 dwelling units. A diverse group of neighbors formed the West Village Committee with Jane Jacobs as president. Death and Life of Great American Cities had just been published. The Committee hired its own planning and design team [Perkins & Will] to come up with an alternative. That alternative, the West Village Houses, consists of forty-two five-story walk-ups that required no demolition or relocation and provided a net increase of 420 apartments. “Not a single person—not a single sparrow—shall be displaced” was their slogan.
The Houses went through a tortuous history, including a mortgage foreclosure that gave its critics ammunition with which to minimize its accomplishments and gave its defenders ammunition with which to accuse public officials of subtle sabotage. Few publicly built projects ever came in on time and on budget. This was no exception. It had so much going against it because of its unconventional nature and official disapproval that it is nothing but a miracle that it was built at all. (Its community sponsorship alone was enough to disturb establishment circles afraid that the idea might spread.) Official thinking then: Demolition, replacement with new high rises surrounded by acres of “keep off the grass” open space and parking lots and no mixing with commercial uses (the antithesis of the threatened neighborhood).
The community design provided for low-rise row houses with private courtyards. The goal was to avoid disruptions and displacements and to enhance the area by filling in of weed-strewn, odd-sized empty lots left when the old freight-railroad spur [connected to what is now the High Line] demolished years before. Respect for existing scale and flexibility of design were basic goals. The plan, furthermore, was achievable without total site assemblage, so it could be contracted or expanded according to available land. No condemnation of private property would be necessary.
Pedestrian-oriented public spaces added to the area’s traditional lively street life. Car space was provided in a nearby garage. Three basic floor layouts were designed—adjustable in width and depth and thus usable on different lot sizes—for five-story walk-ups. Elevators were expensive and space-consuming. Brownstone and brick walk-ups had long been a rentable Village commodity. As in the older houses, the first floor was raised and a basement level was a few steps down. Wherever space permitted, top floors contained duplexes reachable by four stair flights. Each floor had either two 2-bedroom apartments or one 3-bedroom and one 1-bedroom, guaranteeing a variety in family sizes. The orientation of apartments alternated on each floor, with a living room facing the front and a kitchen facing the back on one floor and the reverse on the next, “the idea being,” Jacobs said, “that at all times there would be eyes and ears of the neighborhood” on the street and backyard. One of the schemes provided that the ground floor could be either a store or an apartment, providing flexibility for changing times and needs.
This was the first in New York City of what planners now advocate as “infill” housing, new construction filling in existing open spaces without causing demolition. On every point, however, the West Village Housing plan was at loggerheads with the “experts” of the day. Today, it seems so simple and basic but would still find official resistance. “The plan is deceptive,” Jacobs said in retrospect. “A great deal of innovative and creative planning went into this. It was done so it could fit into all kinds of empty holes in the Village or elsewhere. We could see the holes coming in the city. This plan could be used on a lot as small as fifty feet deep. It alarmed city officials that we had something for which you didn’t have to knock anything down. They were frightened enough about a neighborhood doing it themselves.”
This plan was too radical for its time. Opposition came from hostile city officials threatened by the unheard-of community demand for meaningful participation, as well as from private real-estate interests who objected to developable land being turned over to nonprofit community-design housing.
This plan was too radical for its time. Opposition came from hostile city officials threatened by the unheard-of community demand for meaningful participation, as well as from private real-estate interests who objected to developable land being turned over to nonprofit community-designed housing.
Rachelle Wall, like many inexperienced-neighbors-turned-activist, said: “We could have established a community pattern that others would learn from, but the opposition made sure that didn’t happen. They created delays, inflated estimates, kept construction people away from bidding, nibbled at the design. One roadblock after another created unnecessary but costly delays. We never knew who was working against us.”
Two mayors came and went before the city’s Board of Estimate finally approved construction in 1969 under the city’s middle-income housing program. Another three-year bureaucratic bog-down ensued, doubling costs by the time construction began in 1972, almost 10 years after the community proposal was made. Complications didn’t end there. The city plunged into fiscal chaos in 1975. The builder walked off the job, leaving the project incomplete and near bankruptcy. Federal subsidies were used to bail out two big privately sponsored faltering high-rise projects built elsewhere in the city under the same program. City officials said, however, that the same federal subsidies were unavailable to similarly rescue the West Village House, because nearby truck traffic and pollution violated federal environmental standards. The city foreclosed on the mortgage, canceled the original plans as a co-operative and sold the complex to the builder who had first abandoned it. The buildings were finished as rental units.
After years of cost-cutting sacrifices of architectural niceties, the completed structures had a decidedly bleak exterior. One could make a long list of the design flaws. Yet, when finally on the market, rental was immediate, with an unending waiting list and a low turnover—clearly signs of success. If anything, the West Village Houses, spread over six sites and slipped in and around other buildings, make an acceptable background for the infinite variety of noteworthy and luxuriously renovated old buildings, many of which would have been demolished under the urban renewal scheme [and now in the heart of the Historic District—Jane had hoped that ivy would grow on them.]
In its planning and design flexibility and its potential cost-saving efficiency, West Village Houses was a trailblazer. Actually, it fulfilled the “two basic aims” set forth in the West Village Community’s 1963 published plan:”(a) to fulfill its promise both to Robert Wagner and to its own neighbor-members to improve and further develop the community once the threat of dictatorial redevelopment was lifted; and (b) to devise, as a public example, a practical means of adding harmonious planned housing into an existing community without any sacrifice of the people already there.”
It was a Pyrrhic victory at best. Under the best of circumstances, citizen-led change is nearly impossible. The almost seventeen years of controversy and delay guaranteed that few lessons would be learned or transmitted. Nowadays, it is referred to as a failed experiment. The “experts” made sure they were proved right, says Wall with a wistful smile. “How do you say to people that there is no truth in what the city said? We weren’t trying to be entrepreneurs. We were simply spearheading concepts and ideas we thought could work and should be tried.” An October 14, 1974, New York Times editorial applauded the aim of the West Village Houses “to prove that new development could reinforce the Village’s specific attractions and lifestyle rather than destroy them.” It further noted that “although design was reduced to the lowest common denominator to keep the project alive, there is still much to commend in terms of appropriate scale, neighborhood conservation and well-planned apartments.” But, the editorial concluded, the city bureaucracy’s handling of the project was obstructionist and the West Village Houses are “unplanned monuments to a system geared to sabotage and a city determined to red-tape itself to death.”
By the standards of many, the West Village Houses are not architecturally attractive and, in fact, may be viewed as plain at best. This only demonstrates that what constitutes neighborhood is often enhanced by aesthetics, but not necessarily. Aesthetics are too often used as a standard that in the context of neighborhood rebirth or stabilization is not the highest priority. Most of all, the West Village project fits the fabric of the city and its neighborhood. It did not disrupt the institutions and social networks of the community. The larger area remains diverse and exciting. Stability and reinforcement were the result, not accelerated change and alterations. Those are the characteristics that give this project value, aesthetics notwithstanding.
Featured image via Peter Olive.