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Opinion: How many concrete canyons does Greenwich Village need?

BY LYNN PACIFICO | Venerating nature as the basis of life, the ancients set aside areas around natural features, such as caves, waterfalls, springs and groves, as sacred. These areas were considered healing and, in their reverence for the earth, visitors were reminded that, as children of the great mother, they were a part of nature, and also sacred.

Modern society has forgotten our symbiotic relationship with the earth. But the old city planners, still intimately involved with their farms and gardens, realized nature’s importance and set aside percentages of land for parks in each neighborhood. We are relational beings supposed to interact with the natural world. Technology and the “metaverse” cannot substitute for the vital life force that nature gifts us.

We have the only living planet that we know of. Yet we think that we are smarter than nature and, through arrogance, believe that we can ignore and profit from her without paying a price. If children don’t receive care from their mother, they will wither away and die. And so, through our dissociation, we are facing personally the increase in dissociative illnesses, like attention deficit disorders and dementias, and globally with extreme weather…and extinction.

In the words of Hubert Reeves, the Canadian astrophysicist, “Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that this Nature he’s destroying is this God he’s worshiping.”

This neighborhood didn’t used to be as manicured as it is now. The West Village not long ago was largely vacant lots, print shops, storage, parking lots, old hotels and empty buildings. According to the Gaia Hypothesis, the earth will regulate itself if allowed. These neglected Village blocks allowed for naturally “free” areas.

We also had fields: Greenwich Village had a large open field at Houston and Mercer Streets until New York University built a gym on it. The West Village had J.J. Walker Field until it was blanketed with artificial turf in 1999. Both multiuse fields were used by the people who lived around them: kids and ball players during the day and dog owners in the evening.

The Hudson Street vacant lot should be developed as open space for the community, the writer argues. That formerly was the position of Community Board 2 before it more recently switched to supporting the construction of affordable housing on the site. (Google Street View)

The old fields had natural surfaces and weeds grew along the fences and in corners. This area is also a flightpath for migrating birds and there used to be a lot of birds here. The act of witnessing seasonal changes as nature was busy popping up weeds, bushes and trees and the birds that came for them, provided a grounding meditation and a relief from the demanding busy city life.

Our district has the least amount of open space and natural areas in all five boroughs. Our multiuse fields are now artificially turfed for the exclusive use of league sports, and with the gentrification of Greenwich Village and the development of the West Village’s “Gold Coast,” we have no natural areas left.

The water-shaft site is just south of J.J. Walker Field as can be seen in this overhead shot. (Photo by Lynn Pacifico)

The amount of people living and working in the neighborhood continues to grow. The crowds looking for lawns and shade during the COVID lockdown and after, clearly illustrate that there is not nearly enough park here.

“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself,” environmentalist Rachel Carson said.

If we act now, we can create more park, and maybe even create a children’s play garden/farm, and an additional field, by converting the western half of Clarkson Street and the Department of Environmental Protection water tunnel site on Hudson Street between Clarkson and Houston Streets, to parkland. The Tony Dapolito Recreation Center across the street, with its youth community center, is being renovated. Certainly, it can use more land, as can City-As-School next door.

A seating area is proposed for the southern portion of the water tunnel site due to access needed to the water shaft below. The northern part of that lot, thanks to deals made in community politics, is slated to be developed as “affordable” housing. (The affordability, however, will last just 30 years before reverting to market rate. Actual affordable housing can be created by modifying existing buildings.) With the tall buildings to the east, west and south of the water tunnel site, building on the lot’s northern half will create a concrete cavern around the planned seating area. This area will need to have plastic grass since it will get very little sun and light and no nature. A new building would also cast part of the J.J. Walker Little League ball field into shadow.

No matter how fabulous our technology, or how much money we do or do not have, or how much profit can be made, being in natural areas is a basic human need. Our Parks Department, along with its advisory organizations, must work to protect and increase natural areas as our changing residency requires.

“All of our exalted technological progress, civilization for that matter, is comparable to an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal,” Albert Einstein said.

Those of us who live here now, as well as future residents, do not need more concrete caverns. We do need more nature. Please preserve the last open space while there is still time. There should be no building on the Hudson Street water tunnel site until this is sorted out and a plan is made to use this precious area in the best way.

Pacifico is a longtime activist for dog owners and open space in the West Village.

29 Comments

  1. LES3025 LES3025 March 28, 2022

    I’ve always said that the Elizabeth Street Garden defenders’ support for building housing at 388 Hudson St. was fake and would evaporate as soon as it actually became a viable option. I appreciate being proven right.

    • The Village Sun The Village Sun Post author | March 28, 2022

      Lynn Pacifico is not part of the Elizabeth Street Garden fight. She’s focused on open space in the West Village.

      • LES3025 LES3025 March 28, 2022

        Ah, I see. Then does she support the Haven Green development?

      • lynn Pacifico lynn Pacifico March 28, 2022

        Actually, I have supported saving the Elizabeth St. Garden, through donation, countless letters and signatures. I love the Elizebeth St. Garden and am stunned that a garden so well used, already developed and beloved, would be sacrificed to real estate. It is a crime and a betrayal of the community to which it was gifted and who have, over the years, developed a relationship with it. I have also lost respect for Habitat For Humanity. I support a moratorium for building on any open space in Downtown Manhattan. Simply, we need more parkland.

        • The Village Sun The Village Sun Post author | March 28, 2022

          Sorry, should not have answered for you, Lynn.

    • lynn Pacifico lynn Pacifico March 28, 2022

      I said the same thing. This is how community politics works: Former CB 2 Chairperson Tobi Bergman actually wanted this site to be built on, offering it as a sacrificial lamb to “save the Elizabeth Garden.” All the while, behind closed doors, the deals were made by politicians to sacrifice both lots for profit. Yes. We were right. Our elected officials do not work for the people who elect them. The system needs to be changed.

      • LES3025 LES3025 March 28, 2022

        Sorry, I’m a bit confused (and responded before I saw your post). But I’d rather ask you. Lynn, do you support the Haven Green development?

        • lynn pacifico lynn pacifico March 28, 2022

          I do not support Haven Green. (Even the name reeks of sham!) I support more parks. I do support affordable housing but real affordable housing — if affordability lasts only 30 years it is not real.

          • LES3025 LES3025 March 29, 2022

            Well it’s a good thing that the Haven Green regulatory agreement on affordability is for 60 years, and the financing is structured to incentivize affordability after the expiration of the regulatory term (https://www.havengreencommunity.nyc/faq/). But I have a feeling that isn’t going to make a difference.

          • lynn pacifico lynn pacifico March 29, 2022

            No. 60 years is not long enough. Will people not need affordable housing in 60 years? Yes they will and they need more park space right now, throughout those 60 years and after. Elizabeth St Garden is not an empty lot that is in disrepair. It is a well-used park now. People develop loving relationships with natural features, like trees and the land, as they should. We gain the earth’s vital life force, in the form of negative ions, by being in these spots. It makes us calmer, healthier, and gifts us more energy. Washington Sq Park was made to be the fabulous park it is by closing off lower 5th Ave. The Hudson St. water tunnel site is across the street from a park, JJ Walker. By converting the west half of Clarkson St. and the water tunnel site to parkland, we can have a much better park in the West Village, too. We need it. Are you in the real estate business?

    • lisa lisa March 29, 2022

      LES3025,
      Actually seeing so many of your comments on various articles, continue to be unclear about what you are prioritizing?

      For example, in your opinion, are restaurant street shacks more important than new development (luxury) with a few “affordable” housing units?

      Or the reverse?

      Or is “eliminate cars and parking” the priority and trumps all other issues?
      Not understanding and truly curious.

      BTW on the subject of “affordable housing” check out new unaffordable (rent of $2000+) “affordable” housing in Astoria:

      “Thirty-six units in a luxury building by the Astoria waterfront are up for grabs as part of an affordable housing lottery.

      The lottery opened last week and applicants who want to live at the 11-37 31st Ave. development— known as Astoria West—have until May 19 to apply.

      The units are not for low-income earners. To qualify, applicants must earn 130 percent of the Area Median Income—-or $77,000 for an individual through to $167,600 for a family of five—-to be eligible for a unit.

      The rents range from $2,250 per month for one-bedrooms to $2,950 a month for two-bedrooms.

      • LES3025 LES3025 March 29, 2022

        Thanks for asking. Going to assume you’re asking in good faith here and give you a good-faith answer. You’ve definitely picked up on the fact that housing, Open Restaurants and reducing reliance on cars are all things I care about. I also comment a lot on homeless issues (subset of housing), criminal justice reform and ESCR, which are other things I care about. In terms of priority, I don’t really see any of them as being in conflict with each other, so none really needs to be prioritized over the others. If I had to pick an issue I thought was most important, I might say housing. But I think they are all part of a fairly unified vision of what it would look like to live in an even better version of this city.

        On housing, specifically, I really abhor the term “luxury” housing. I think it’s meaningless at best and, at worst, suggests that less well-off people don’t deserve nice places to live. There are really only two forms of housing: market-rate and subsidized. And I do support building both because both are important for long-term affordability. Happy to elaborate, if you’re interested.

        On the Astoria development, that seems like a travesty. I’m not familiar with that specific project, but from what you describe and what I read on a quick Google search, it’s a 421a project. 421a is a bad program that gives developers tons of money and doesn’t even get real affordability in exchange. It’s about to go away, which is good, but I’m very concerned it will be replaced with something not much better. But it’s a terrible use of limited funds available to subsidize housing and I do not support it. I would much rather the project be built fully market rate with no subsidy (it’s obviously too late for that for this specific project).

        In general, I am pretty negative on inclusionary zoning programs that condition zoning variances or subsidies on a portion of the development being designated as affordable. They’re not a good way to generate a lot of volume of affordable housing and they probably drive up the cost of market-rate housing by means of the cross-subsidization. Inclusionary zoning really should be considered more of an integration policy than an affordable housing policy (which might be valuable, but it’s not how we talk about it). Again, happy to elaborate if you’re interested.

        Hope this answers your question.

  2. Patricia Melvin Patricia Melvin March 28, 2022

    Couldn’t agree w Pacifico more. One of my pet peeves is how the city has destroyed the natural beauty of Madison Park. It used to have more trees, and gorgeous trees, lovely, quiet, shaded pathways. You really felt like you were walking in nature there. It’s totally hideous now. Each new so-called “sculpture” screams of ego and utter insensitivity.

  3. Jan Jan March 29, 2022

    Arguing against affordable housing using the rationale of lack of open space in the West Village is outrageous. The WV is peppered with public green spaces between Washington Square Park and Hudson River Park. There are a number of well-established playgrounds, including Bleeker St, John A. Servalli. Minetta and Vesuvio. Here is a very short and selective list of other green spaces suitable for both children and adultshttps://www.timeout.com/newyork/books/best-west-village-parks-to-read-in

    • lynn pacifico lynn pacifico March 30, 2022

      Who is arguing against affordable housing? Of course it is very important. There are other ways of obtaining it though without sacrificing other needs. Open space is different from a park or natural area. A corner/lot of a block, covered in plastic with a couple of bushes, is not a healthy complement for the human condition/spirit. This article you shared a link to uses Abingdon Sq Park as an example, but Abingdon has huge black chains around the one small center lawn, preventing people from accessing the lawn. That is not a park. In a park you can get on the lawn and enjoy nature. This article also calls JJ Walker (and the other parks in our nabe) an “elegant free space.” If
      you consider plastic turf elegant you are completely cut off from what I am saying in my essay. We need nature. Dirty plastic grass is not nature, not healthy, not elegant and not inviting. Your essay also used Washington Sq Park but that park is not in the West Village, which was also my point. We need more real park in the West Village. Yes, St Lukes is beautiful for reading, but again the visitor is limited to the concrete paths and people cannot bring their dogs in, cannot let their children run around and play there, and it was closed during the entire pandemic shutdown.  

      • LES3025 LES3025 March 30, 2022

        You proposed “a moratorium for building on any open space in Downtown Manhattan.” Do you support tearing down existing buildings to create more housing? If not, where would the affordable housing you support be built?

        Also, a question on another comment of yours. Assuming you are correct that the apartments will no longer be affordable in 60 years when the regulatory agreement expires, why do you think it is that 60-year-old studio apartments in this city are unaffordable?

        • lynn pacifico lynn pacifico March 30, 2022

          Moratorium on city-owned land, like the water tunnel site, which is just below JJ Walker Field and the Tony Dapolito Rec center.

          There are other options for housing but this is the only option for more park in this area. Annexing the western part of Clarkson St & the water tunnel site for park.

          Why do you think 60-yr-old apartments are unaffordable?

          • LES3025 LES3025 March 30, 2022

            I think 60-year-old apartments are unaffordable today because we’ve added many more jobs than apartments over the past 40 years, so there is more competition for existing apartments, which drives the price up. In a healthy housing market, we would have built more apartments and new higher-income people moving to the city would move into in newer apartments, making older apartments more affordable, just as used cars are more affordable than new cars. But, because we haven’t, old apartments keep going up in price when the higher-income people filling those new jobs outbid the people who used to live there.

            If you don’t agree with this, why do you think it is?

          • Jan Jan March 31, 2022

            City-owned land is exactly where affordable housing should be built. What are your other options for affordable housing?

        • Jan Jan March 31, 2022

          60-year affordability is written into Haven Green because that is the standard agreement for HPD public sites. The regulatory agreement is structured so as to incentivize continued affordability. It is deliberately misleading to suggesting that affordability will expire after 60 years.

          • LES3025 LES3025 March 31, 2022

            Completely agree. And the people who suggest that the affordability will go away after the regulatory agreement expires need to explain why they think 60-year-old studio apartments will be unaffordable and what policies they propose to fix that (if they’re acting in good faith, which of course they’re not).

  4. The Village Sun The Village Sun Post author | March 30, 2022

    Well, there is also rent regulation, which you surely support, right? That keeps rents in line and now it’s a permanent program.

    • LES3025 LES3025 March 30, 2022

      Yes, I very much support rent regulation. Even if we start building tomorrow it’s going to take a long time to catch up to where we should be and people need to be protected in the meantime. But rent regulation isn’t enough on its own and if you do more of it without also building more its negative effects probably outweigh the positive ones.

      • The Village Sun The Village Sun Post author | March 31, 2022

        Negative effects???

        • LES3025 LES3025 March 31, 2022

          Sure. Pretty much any policy, even a good one, has some negative effects. Off the top of my head (and I’m not any kind of expert so I’m sure there is writing out there that explains this better than I can), some negative effects of rent regulation include:

          Rent regulation disincentivizes landlords from making repairs because they can’t recoup the value through rent increases. This is a problem particularly in a city like New York with aging housing stock.

          If new construction is subject to rent regulation, it disincentivizes new construction, which is a major problem given the housing shortage.

          If only a portion of units are regulated and the housing shortage remains, it drives up the price of the unregulated units, making them less affordable.

          It reduces mobility and traps people in their apartments because their rent is so far below market value. You see this a lot now with aging people stuck in walk-up apartments or in neighborhoods that have changed and no longer meet their needs. You also have people holding onto regulated units that are too large for their current household size (e.g. families where the adult children have moved out), which exacerbates the housing shortage.

          • The Village Sun The Village Sun Post author | March 31, 2022

            Seems like you have quite a lot of arguments against rent regulation. Sounds like maybe you are not actually in favor of it as a program. What’s good about rent regulation, in your view?

          • LES3025 LES3025 March 31, 2022

            Not sure why you say it sounds like I am actually against it when I said I am for it. I’m just trying to weigh the positives and negatives and figure out what I think is better. You asked about the negatives so I gave them to you.

            The positive is that it gives people stability. Renters should be able to stay in their home and not be rent burdened if they want to and it’s bad when they’re forced out because of price increases driven by the housing shortage.

  5. lynn pacifico lynn pacifico March 31, 2022

    This issue can be confused and turned around, but the bottom line is that this is the last option for gaining more park in the neighborhood – by adding it to the park that it is right next to – JJ Waker. It is a no-brainer. We need more park and this is the only and obvious choice. There is a school next door, and more down the street and up the street. It could include a children’s farm or garden. And generally we need more nature. 

    • James Tarangelo James Tarangelo April 20, 2022

      Great article. We need more open spaces. I grew up here on Leroy St. Walker Park used to be blacktop. They changed it to real grass in 1975. But lack of maintenance led to artificial turf in 2000. Elizabeth Street Garden should also be preserved.

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