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Expanding a Hospital in Historic Territory

Julia Vitullo-Martin, May 2008

No hospital expansion in an historic neighborhood is likely to be greeted favorably—not even the expansion of an institution that is routinely described as "beloved," as is St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Center, in Greenwich Village. Thanks to medical technology, the welcoming, mid-rise buildings of the mid-20th century have developed into the massive, linked, (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) bulky towers that characterize major medical institutions today. Look at Columbia-Presbyterian in northern Manhattan or the Cornell and Bellevue-NYU concentrations of hospitals and medical facilities on the East Side. For them the word "hospitable" seems strangely inappropriate.

Yet New York's need for St. Vincent's proposed state-of-the-art, all-digital, green hospital is almost incontestable. At present, St. Vincent's runs its much acclaimed Level 1 trauma center—the only one on the West Side below St. Luke's, which is on 114th Street in Morningside Heights—in a grossly outdated, cramped physical plant. Designed in the late 1970s to handle 45,000 patients per year, St. Vincent's emergency department saw 60,000 patients in 2007.

Taking up a little over half a block extending eastward from 7th Avenue, and bordered by 11th Street on the south and 12th on the north, St. Vincent's hemmed-in campus cannot be easily expanded. For one thing, new construction would require shutting down most or all of it—an unacceptable prospect. Instead, St. Vincent's looked to the only other adjacent property it owned, the O'Toole Building, catty-corner to the main campus, on the west side of 7th Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets.

Opened in 1964 as the headquarters and hiring hall of the National Maritime Union—just as the union was heading into irreversible decline—the then-named Joseph Curran Building was given a nautical feel by architect Albert C. Ledner. The concrete façade has two scalloped overhangs that, depending (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) on where you stand, look like waves or like the portholes of a great ship. The interior has many quirky seafaring touches—a 70-foot-long tunnel with porthole windows reminiscent of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," submarine-like round conference rooms, ship-like swooping hallways, etc. Sitting on an express stop of the 7th Avenue line, the low-rise O'Toole is underdeveloped for the site, notwithstanding its location in the low-rise Greenwich Village Historic District.

And there's the rub: underdeveloped. Though seemingly hundreds of preservationists have suddenly emerged to argue O'Toole's aesthetic and historic merits, the real argument is about development, height, and mass. St. Vincent's hopes to pay for its immensely expensive modernization and expansion by selling some of its valuable property. (The other option, of course, would be for St. Vincent's, seeking millions in subsidies, to go hat in hand to taxpayers.)

Thus, St. Vincent's proposes to replace O'Toole with a 299-foot tower holding a new hospital, while selling its eight buildings east of 7th Avenue to Rudin Management for $301 million. Rudin would develop an 18-story condominium tower and five townhouses. (An earlier version of the plan called for a 329-foot hospital tower, a 21-story condominium tower, and 19 townhouses.)

After a contentious hearing in April, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has authority over the demolition of any building in any historic district, on May 6th called for "substantial modifications" to the proposal, though without an actual vote by the commissioners. They put forward various arguments and ideas—some sensible, others not—but the upshot is that St. Vincent’s will almost surely have to obtain an economic-hardship exemption before it can go forward with any version of its plan.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

All 10 commissioners did agree to prohibit the demolition of the O'Toole building, saying it was "inappropriate to eliminate an important example of modern architecture that was designed by a prominent architect and is historically and culturally significant."

St. Vincent's entire plan hinges on the demolition of O'Toole, which would allow the hospital to operate in the old buildings until the new hospital is complete. If O'Toole can't be demolished, the plan falls to pieces. How good is O'Toole? The write-up by Docomomo—the international architectural group dedicated to preserving Modernist masterpieces—is oddly non-committal, noting that the building "is of its time despite being in a neighborhood rather set on keeping the architecture timeline in check." Yes, exactly! Now the building that was so angrily received in 1964—"We should make the Village a working-class neighborhood so we can get some good taste in architecture," said one resident then—is being held up as worthy of protection. "O'Toole is an important building for sociological, social, historical and architectural reasons," said Margery Perlmutter, both an attorney and an architect and one of the commission's Manhattan representatives. "We should not allow it to be destroyed."

Commissioner Perlmutter even argued that all buildings in a historic district should be preserved, even though many—perhaps even most—buildings in historic districts could never win individual designation. "We should not have to fight for the life of a building in a historic district," she said. "Such fights should be reserved for protecting buildings not yet designated."

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Another commissioner, Roberta Washington, an architect and also a Manhattan representative, argued, "Of all the buildings owned by the hospital, the O'Toole building is the most recognizable, and the one most often associated with the Village. While the building's architectural references and features can be debated, the building's façade has made it one of the more prominent Village buildings and I believe that it does contribute to the district's special sense of place." Amazingly faint praise for stopping the construction of a new trauma center.

Many advocates have suggested that St. Vincent's build its new hospital on top of O'Toole, much as British architect Norman Foster designed a tower to sit on top of the original low-rise Hearst building, at 57th Street and 8th Avenue. But the difference is that the Hearst building was designed in the 1920s by architect Joseph Urban to bear the weight of a later tall addition—which didn't get built because of the Great Depression.

O'Toole was never meant to bear any other structure. Indeed, its exterior walls, which cant inward, would have to be reconstructed at immense cost to support a new structure.

Commission Chairman Robert B. Tierney struck a judicious tone, noting that the removal of some buildings would not diminish "the recollection" of the St. Vincent's campus. He added, however, "I do feel that the other brick and stone buildings share a common history, as well as materials and details, and their wholesale demolition would eliminate all references to the hospital's history on this site."

If physical traces of every well-liked—or even important—institution in every historic district must be preserved, New York will die. Commenting on the St. Vincent's debate, Columbia University historian Kenneth Jackson recently derided preservationist-oriented cities, such as Charleston, South Carolina, as "loser cities." That's harsh, of course, but he has a point.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Isn't it utterly clear that for New York to stay competitive, it has to change and grow, as it always has in strong times—and has not in bad times? And isn't it clear that its key institutions can serve their constituents only by adapting to new conditions, while staying at the forefront of their fields and maintaining technological preeminence? Yes, neighborhoods need to be protected from inappropriate institutional aggression. But that is not this situation. This is one in which an institution, based in the neighborhood since the mid-19th century, is serving a crucial public purpose for which it needs a new building.

Commissioner Perlmutter attacked Rudin Management for proposing to demolish the hospital buildings "for the sole purpose of developing a huge housing project on the site." In fact, the Rudin plan actually diminishes the overall gross square footage of the buildings' sites from 763,000 GSF above grade today to 649,000 GSF. A Rudin official noted wryly that, under the original plan, his company would have gone down in history as the first developer to tear down bigger buildings to do smaller. The problem is that many Villagers do not want change or development of any kind, even if it leads to less building than what is there now.

As Ken Jackson often says, "Change is constant in New York." It's at the core of New York's very being. The Landmarks Commission has to permit even historic districts to evolve or the city will stagnate.

Several commissioners urged St. Vincent's to apply for a hardship exemption on economic grounds. The hospital could argue that unless it were allowed to replace its existing buildings, it could not carry out its charitable purpose. St. Vincent's president, Henry J. Amoroso, immediately announced the hospital would do this.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Indeed, the clock started as soon as St. Vincent's submitted its revised plan on May 19th. From that date, the Landmarks Commission has 90 days within which to issue a "preliminary determination" on whether or not a hardship exists. The law also provides 180 days within which the Landmarks Commission can administer an effort to 'mitigate' the hardship.

On the morning of June 3rd, the hospital and Rudin Management will present a new set of designs to the commission. In the evening of June 10th, Community Board 2's Omnibus Committee will hold a public hearing.

A spokesperson said that to the knowledge of St. Vincent's, the Landmarks Commission has never mitigated a hardship determination for a non-profit, with the result that no historical references exist for comparison.

Reflecting on historical references in general, Ken Jackson recently asked, "Why do we think of Boston or Philadelphia or New Orleans or Savannah or Charleston as more historic than New York? This is the most historic city in the United States easily. But those cities have more of their historic fabrics because they lost. They wanted to be big cities, and they failed."


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