Panel OKs razing quirky building for NYC hospital

October 28, 2008 12:26:07 PM PDT
St. Vincent's Hospital got permission Tuesday to tear down a distinctive 1964 building, a key step in a heavily debated plan to build Greenwich Village's biggest development in decades. The city Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 6-4 Tuesday to allow the demolition. It didn't directly address the redevelopment plan, which includes a towering new hospital and hundreds of high-end apartments in the heart of the historic neighborhood.

The new buildings still need approval from the commission and other city and state agencies. But both supporters and critics of the plan saw the demolition vote as vital.

"Today was very critical to the project moving forward," said developer William C. Rudin, whose family's firm would build the residential part of the project.

The busy, 159-year-old Catholic hospital - now sprawled across several aging buildings at Seventh Avenue and West 12th Street - says it badly needs new facilities. It wants to build a 300-foot-tall, high-tech hospital on the site of what's now known as the O'Toole building, a six-story former maritime union hall converted into medical offices.

The hospital proper would be transformed into roughly 350 apartments in buildings as tall as 18 stories, generating more than $300 million toward the $835 million new hospital; the rest would come from donations. Some old hospital buildings would be razed, others preserved and converted into residences.

The new hospital would soar over many buildings in the quaintly chic Village, where the plan has been rapped by preservationists and neighbors including actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

At the nucleus of the project, the eye-catching O'Toole building - with porthole-like windows and cantilevered levels conferring a ship-like look - is variously viewed as a dated oddity and a quirky rebuttal to the often boxy architecture of its day. It isn't an individual landmark, but it is in a historic district, giving the landmarks commission a say in its future.

The hospital argued that it needed to demolish the building to make way for up-to-the-minute medical treatment, and a majority of landmarks commissioners agreed.

"St. Vincent's has demonstrated that retention of the O'Toole building would seriously interfere with its charitable purpose and its ability to provide New Yorkers with the highest-quality health care," Chairman Robert B. Tierney said.

But some of his colleagues said they were troubled by the trade-off between health care and history, and some community groups aren't convinced it's necessary.

"We agree that St. Vincent's needs a new hospital, but there continues to be disagreement about whether or not this is the best or only place for them to do that," said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

The society and other organizations have pressed the hospital to consider renovating its current facilities, scaling back the redevelopment or looking for a new location. Hospital executives say those ideas have proven unworkable.

"We think we have looked at every alternative," chief executive Henry Amoroso said Tuesday.

If approved, the project is expected to take several years to build. St. Vincent's would keep operating in its current buildings until the new one was ready.

The last Greenwich Village developments of a comparable scope were apartment complexes built south of New York University in the 1950s and '60s, historians have said.