Panel blasts plan for high-rise hospital

May 6, 2008 3:15:56 PM PDT
Preservation officials have blocked a hospital's design for the biggest development in decades in New York City's historic Greenwich Village. The city Landmarks Preservation Commission did not vote, but members said sternly that they couldn't support razing all of St. Vincent's Hospital's patchwork of buildings - some more than 80 years old - and replacing them with a soaring new hospital tower and hundreds of high-end apartments and townhouses.

Members said the proposed 321-foot-high hospital was too tall for the Village's cozy streets, and several of St. Vincent's current buildings were architecturally valuable. Some commissioners blasted the notion of bulldozing buildings in a historic district to make way for glitzy housing. Others bristled at the suggestion that the financially struggling hospital's health-care mission should trump historic preservation.

"To suggest that this is a choice between saving lives and saving buildings reflects poorly on the judgment of the experts making this claim," said Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz, a Manhattan preservationist.

The project needs the commission's approval because it involves major changes to building exteriors in a historic district.

The hospital said it would ask the landmarks panel to reconsider the plan under provisions that let nonprofit organizations demolish historic district buildings that make charitable work physically or financially impossible. The commission has granted only 12 such requests since 1965.

"St. Vincent's remains focused on building a 21st-century medical center for the West Side of Manhattan, and will move forward," hospital President Henry Amoroso said in a statement.

Residential developer William C. Rudin, whose family's firm would pay the hospital more than $300 million and build the apartments and townhouses, said he hoped to devise a new plan that would satisfy landmarks commissioners and community critics.

The proposal drew vigorous opposition in the Village, a neighborhood known for defending its quaint look and quirky atmosphere. Critics applauded the landmarks commissioners' comments.

"This was a great (outcome) for anyone who cares about preserving the character of our city's neighborhoods," said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

The 159-year-old St. Vincent's, a Catholic hospital that provides tens of millions of dollars in charity care, emerged from bankruptcy last year. The hospital has said it needs to replace its awkward warren of aging buildings, and the combined hospital-and-apartment plan was the best way to raise the money to do so.

The proposal included an eye-catching, almond-shaped hospital tower with environmentally friendly features and cutting-edge medical technology. It also called for a 21-story apartment building and 19 townhouse-style buildings.

The hospital and the apartment building would be among the Village's tallest buildings, and the project would represent the area's most sweeping development since two large apartment complexes south of New York University were built in the 1950s and '60s.

With 450 beds and an emergency room that counted more than 58,000 visits last year, St. Vincent's is a mainstay of health care in downtown Manhattan. It has treated survivors of disasters spanning the sinking of the Titanic and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and it runs one of the nation's oldest and biggest HIV treatment centers.