On August 1, 2000, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation convened the first meeting of the Save Gansevoort Market Task Force. This project of GVSHP eventually led to landmark designation for most of the Meatpacking District, State and National Register of Historic Places designation for the entire neighborhood, and two successful campaigns to prevent construction of a 500 ft. tall tower in the middle of the neighborhood.
But getting there was no easy task….
Though it may be hard to believe now, in the summer of 2000 the Meatpacking District was still very much a backwater. The neighborhood was pretty empty during most daylight hours, but when the sun went down, the clubs opened (of both the sex- and dance- variety), transgendered prostitutes worked the streets in impressive numbers, and the meatpacking businesses opened their doors around 4 am and started loading and unloading their products until around noon, and then the cycle started all over again. The cobblestoned streets dripped with animal blood (and some other unsavory liquids), but the neighborhood had achieved a kind of equilibrium in which not much changed, and all parts seemed to co-exist in relative harmony.
But some prescient locals knew things were not likely to stay this way for long. The construction of the Hudson River Park was clearly going to increase the desirability of this and other adjacent neighborhoods. Bill Gottlieb, the eccentric “accidental preservationist” who bought up scores of buildings in the Meatpacking District, the Village, and Chelsea and just let them sit, had just died without a will, leaving the fate of his incredible portfolio of properties in limbo. And on “Sex and the City,” Samantha had just moved into a loft in the Meatpacking District, making clear that a cultural tipping point might have been reached. There were also these two crazy guys who lived in the neighborhood who were talking about turning the old abandoned overhead rail line into a park, but nobody really paid much attention to that…..
GVSHP had been researching and documenting the history of the Meatpacking District since the late 1980’s, when the organization’s first Executive Director, Regina Kellerman, published The Architecture of the Greenwich Village Waterfront, which surveyed the history of every building between 14th and Houston Streets west of the then-existing Greenwich Village Historic District, including all of the Meatpacking District. GVSHP had for years been calling attention to the plight of this historic area, and the rest of the Greenwich Village waterfront, and the need to preserve it before out-of-control development consumed the area.
Into this mix came Jo Hamilton, a local resident with a strong interest in preserving the Meatpacking District who recently joined the board of GVSHP, and restauranteur Florent Morellet, a member of the GVSHP Board of Advisors and eventually Board of Directors, whose eponymous diner on Gansevoort Street was just about the only business in the Meatpacking District that did not fit into one of the three above-mentioned categories of commerce that dominated the neighborhood. Jo and Florent became co-chairs of GVSHP’s Save Gansevoort Market Task Force, which was a coalition of local businesses, nearby residents, and preservationists who sought to do what seemed like an impossible task at the time — secure landmark designation to preserve the quirky architecture of Meatpacking District.
All things considered, the effort made incredible progress in what was, by New York City standards for a preservation effort, a relatively short period of time. In 2000 and 2001 GVSHP’s Save Gansevoort Market Task Force (SGM) published a walking tour and a case study showcasing the historic significance of the area, along with a formal proposal for landmark designation which was submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In 2002 SGM secured a determination from the NY State Historic Preservation Office that the neighborhood was eligible for the State and National Registers of Historic Places and a “Seven To Save” designation from the Preservation League of NY State, naming Gansevoort Market one of the seven most significant and endangered historic sites in New York State.
By the end of 2002, the City agreed to formally consider, or calendar, GVSHP’s proposal for landmark designation for the district, which was in and of itself considered an incredible victory. The Meatpacking District’s unconventional history and highly-altered architecture was not the kind of stuff that landmark designation had ever been applied to in New York City before. But between the time of the calendaring and designation of the district in September of 2003, there were successes and setbacks. GVSHP spearheaded a successful campaign to torpedo a zoning variance for a 500 ft tall condo proposed for the corner of 13th and Washington Streets. But a developer moved ahead with plans to build a new hotel on what had long been a publicly-owned parking lot bounded by Ninth Avenue, 13th , Hudson, and Gansevoort Streets, which became the ‘Hotel Gansevoort’.
When the City did vote to designate the Gansevoort Market Historic District in September, they also pulled back the district boundaries somewhat, after having already cut out some areas we had proposed when they calendared. Nevertheless this was an enormous victory, and no matter what one says about what the Meatpacking District has become in the ten intervening years, without landmark protections, it would likely be a sea of Hotel Gansevoorts.
GVSHP continued preservation work in the Meatpacking District after this. In 2004, we defeated a second attempt to build the 500 ft. tall tower on 13th and Washington Streets, just outside the historic district boundaries. In 2007, we got the entire Meatpacking District placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, not just the part the City was willing to landmark. And due to landmark designation, we have been able to review and effect changes to literally dozens of applications for alterations to buildings in the neighborhood.
For better or worse, there may not be many clubs, prostitutes, or meatpackers left in the Meatpacking District today. But there are a rich array of building that reflect over 150 years of the evolution of this neighborhood from one type of commerce to another — some of it more colorful than others.