M.T.A. Plant for Greenwich Village Finds It Hard to Blend In

It seems simple enough: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, steward of the New York subway system, wants to build an emergency ventilation plant on an empty plot of land in Greenwich Village. The land is owned by the agency and, legally, no one in the city has the power to stop it.

But this is no simple plot.

The land, which is officially called Mulry Square and sits at the diagonal intersection of Greenwich Avenue and Seventh Avenue South, is within a historic district. It is in the heart of one of Manhattan’s most famous neighborhoods, Greenwich Village. And while it has sat empty for years, it is also home to Tiles for America, the makeshift chain-link-fence memorial that sprouted up after Sept. 11, poignant evidence of the city’s grief after the World Trade Center attacks.

For the transportation authority, these facts have posed a problem.

All of its proposed designs for the ventilation plant have been soundly rejected by outraged community boards, local politicians and, on Tuesday, the city’s highest arbiters of aesthetic judgment. In a unanimous vote, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted down the agency’s latest proposal, with one local preservationist dismissing the design as “an overly complicated and awkward hybrid.”

It should be noted here that the agency’s designs, in City Room’s humble opinion, have not been particularly appealing. The initial composition, proposed last year, resembled a squat concrete box with a windowless faux-townhouse facade glued onto its walls. One local critic called it “brutal.”

The revised proposal, which was presented to the landmarks commission earlier this year, showed some improvement. It featured actual brick and glass on the facades; a pleasing roof setback resembling the 19th-century row houses that populate Greenwich Avenue; and room on its base for the tiles from Tiles for America, which would be set in the concrete.

But instead of being rewarded for its clever artifice — disguising an equipment plant as a residential building — the authority found itself criticized for being disingenuous.

“It’s better to try an approach that reflects what you’re doing,” tut-tutted Roberta Washington, a landmarks commissioner and architect. “Be honest about what it is,” urged Joan Gerner, a commissioner and preservationist.

The concrete box, of course, was certainly honest enough. But in a statement impressively devoid of exasperation, a transportation authority spokesman, Kevin Ortiz, said his agency would heed the recommendations of the experts.

“This is a critical safety project that needs to move forward,” Mr. Ortiz wrote. “While the current redesign of the vent plant was formulated with significant community input, we will await the commission’s report to examine its design recommendations to determine if we can address any of their issues.”

Unfortunately for the landmarks commission, a vigorously written objection is the most it can do: Because the lot is owned by a state-level agency, the commission has no legal authority to force a redesign.

That said, representatives for a whole host of powerful politicians — the kind that the transportation authority would prefer not to antagonize — showed up at the meeting to reiterate their aesthetic concerns.

“Any new construction must be respectful of the neighborhood’s existing architectural character,” Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, wrote in a statement delivered at the commission’s meeting. “The M.T.A.’s proposed design is lower in height than the surrounding row houses and lacks a continuous cornice line. Small changes would help make the proposed project more contextual and appropriate for its location.”

Privately, transit officials say that given the number of interested parties, not everyone will be pleased with the ultimate design.

City Room was taken with the remarks of one landmarks commissioner, who suggested the plant’s design would be better off with the addition of a screen-like curtain wall, similar to the one on the New York Times Building in Midtown.

If the transportation authority is interested, we can try to rustle up Renzo Piano’s number.

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