facing history -
edges of historic districts

New buildings are constantly being thought up, designed, and built on land now occupied by older structures. Cities result from these continuous series of changes, large and small, extending back through time. Change occurs because the buildings themselves must be useful. When they outlive their usefulness, or if we outgrow their shells, we replace them with new buildings that satisfy our needs. The built environment, then, is a complex, varied group of buildings that we actively use to live, work or play.

In contrast, historic districts are rare areas where the natural processes of change have been suspended, resulting in related groups of buildings that have survived intact over many years. Because of this uniqueness, these districts have been given greater purpose in the fabric of the city. They are historical records giving us a glimpse of how past generations lived and see how our own actions will influence the environment of the future.

We recognize the distinct historical character of these areas of the city by creating boundaries that delineate their extent and protect them from destructive forces. Though well considered, these lines affect old and new buildings alike. New buildings built just beyond the boundary will still alter the character of the historic district. Older buildings will cast influence on new designs as well. By exploring the history and recent changes along the edges of the Tribeca historic districts in lower Manhattan, we can discover ways new and old buildings can peacefully coexist, raising the quality of the entire urban environment.

Establishing Historic Districts

Enacted in 1965, the New York City Landmarks law responded to the rising furor over the destruction of Penn Station, raising awareness of the value of historic buildings and their contribution to civic life. The law requires approval of all exterior changes to or demolition of landmarked buildings and approval of new construction or alterations in historic districts. The law dictates that the significant features of landmarked buildings contributing to its historic character shall not to be altered, and encourages their restoration.

To date, 60 neighborhoods have been designated in New York City as historic districts, extending preservation safeguards to more than 21,000 buildings within their boundaries. Stretched along the lower Manhattan waterfront, Tribeca's historic districts contain an extremely cohesive group of late 19th century warehouses and lofts built primarily to service New York's burgeoning port. With few other examples of the city's industrial history remaining, these buildings are a crucial link to understanding New York's rise as the hub of American commerce.

Therefore, buildings in historic districts exhibiting similar qualities have more significance if considered part of an integral group. By setting apart these groups and establishing boundaries, regulations can be enforced to preserve and prevent the intrusion of 'inappropriate' development. Within the district, the power of this protection is great. In New York, the Landmarks Board has ability to designate properties as landmarks, even over an owner's objection. The historic and aesthetic importance of a site is given more consideration than to the economic effects of designation.

Recent court cases, however, have shown a rising concern over the domination public regulations such as landmarking have over individual rights. By restricting owners from developing their property in response to market conditions, the full economic potential of the property is often underutilized. Many owners claim these strict regulations are unconstitutional and require just compensation. 'Takings' cases, such as these, raise questions of how to achieve a delicate balance between aesthetic values and economic concerns.

Real estate interests have become more vocal about these added restrictions, claiming the fairness of clear, as-of- right zoning is preferable than subjective aesthetic regulations. For example, in the area just south of Tribeca, the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, a group of real estate owners and business leaders, favors the individual landmarking of buildings instead of historic district designation. By assessing and rewarding particular buildings for architectural merit rather than 'blanket designation' of an entire area, the potential for future growth can be accommodated. As the president of the Association said in a recent interview, "The intense concentration of financial services (in lower Manhattan) is a very attractive resource to the rest of the world. One direction in which it might expand is Tribeca." On the other side, the push for historic districts often comes from grass roots efforts to acknowledge a neighborhood's character. People who live and keep homes in the district are often the driving force behind its creation. In the 1980's, many residents of Tribeca realized their neighborhood was a significant 19th century remnant of New York City history threatened by the expanding lower Manhattan office core. By landmarking the area, they felt the essential low-rise character which drew them to make it their home would be preserved. In 1991 and 1992, their successful efforts established four adjacent districts, Tribeca West, North, East and South, significantly reversing the momentum away from large scale development.

As New York continues to discover more areas having historical significance, more areas of the city will undergo the same questions that faced Tribeca in early 1990's. Urban designers will have to face the problem of integrating these areas of history next to areas of change.

Early Development

Historically, the area now known as Tribeca was the "Lower West Side," a combination of two 19th century New York industrial and commercial areas -- the Washington Market and the dry goods and textile district. Most of the extant buildings were built and used by these two industries. Linked by their proximity and use of the Hudson piers, the majority of buildings can be separated into two architectural types -- the warehouse and the store and loft. Though both types can be seen throughout the district, each building type reflects the functional needs of each industry, giving us a comprehensive view of how 19th century commerce was conducted.

Washington Market

Most of the buildings to the north and west edges of Tribeca are remnants of the Washington Market, a collection of warehouses and loft buildings comprising the primary produce and food distribution center of 19th century New York. Built primarily in the 1880's for storage, they were typically to six to ten stories in height, with fifty or more feet of frontage on the street. More massive and less decorative than the buildings in Tribeca East, their heavy masonry walls are reinforced by large piers extending up from ground level, culminating in round masonry arched windows just below the top story. The color of brick in the area is quite varied and expressive. Earth tones and deep reds predominate, adding a warm glow to the streetscape.

The most characteristic features of the buildings are the loading platforms and awnings that project out from their facades. Loading platforms mediated the height between truck beds and railroad cars to the warehouse floor, forming a continuous base across the building's front facade. Ranging in height from 24 to 36 inches, the platforms are typically made of iron with a raised diamond plate surface.

Awnings mounted fifteen feet above the sidewalk shade many platforms below. Made of corrugated tin on steel bracing, most awnings extend the full length of the building and are braced back to the facade by cables or guy wires. By extending the work area beyond the face of the building, awnings and loading platforms make the space of the street an active element in the industrial character of the neighborhood. At Duane Park, in the center of Tribeca West, the remaining warehouses still use these areas for loading, bringing the street alive with the constant movement of trucks, pallets and dollies.

Dry Goods and Textile District

The southern and eastern sides of the district were the center for the dry goods and textiles trade, which gained prominence in this area due to the waterfront and the growth of commercial development up to Broadway and Worth Street by the 1850's and 60's. The American clothing and fabric industry expanded rapidly during this time supplying the growing trend towards ready to wear clothing. The improvement in manufacturing techniques for clothing expansion of factories in New England required showrooms, distribution networks and warehouse locations to sell their products. New York's deep water piers on the Hudson River allowed fast steam powered boats to dock and unload goods with greater ease, bringing about intensive industrial development of the surrounding area.

In a span of twenty years, the early residential character of the district changed completely as merchants constructed buildings called 'store and lofts' to house their distribution operations. The result is incredible uniformity of architectural expression and scale on these streets. The original lot size and the fire code set the locations of heavy masonry walls every 25 feet, creating a consistent rhythm along the typical block. Coupled with the need for natural light and flexible floor space for movement of goods, cast iron columns were used to support the front facade above ground floor show windows, allowing for ample light and air.

As in the Washington Market district, large openings on the first floor allowed goods to be moved freely in and out of the building onto horse- drawn drays. Store and loft buildings often had stepped loading platforms made of iron with inset glass lenses, rising 12-18 inches above the street. They allowed daylight to enter the basement and subbasement storage areas eliminating the need to use dangerous kerosene or gas lamps in the enclosed space. On the main floor, goods were placed on tables stretching back to the skylit one story shed at the rear of the store. The upper stories were used for more storage or light manufacturing.

The dry goods and Washington Market merchants had created a neighborhood expressing their functional, aesthetic and technological ideas of the time. For the fifty years, the area remained a vital architectural and economic component of the growing city.

Urban Renewal

After World War II, the congested streets of the Lower West Side prompted many businesses to seek out the wide open spaces of the expanding suburbs. Better highway access, the growth of suburban markets and the increased use of trucks to move goods all combined to make the Lower Manhattan location of the Washington Market and dry goods district obsolete. By the early 1960's, the fashion industry had relocated to Seventh Avenue and the city was considering relocating the remaining Washington Market firms to Hunts Point in the Bronx, freeing up the land for large scale urban renewal.

Early plans focused on the market blocks west of Greenwich Street. The Lower Manhattan Plan of 1966, a study sponsored in part by David Rockefeller and the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association, described the area's character as "small declining businesses in older buildings, declining employment and increasingly unattractive environments." The study did not see continued growth for the older industrial firms employing manual labor. Their location in the district was only because they were "inefficient marginal activities" unable to afford higher rents. Facing long term vacancies and underutilized spaces, the plan argued that new uses for the land were not only aesthetically desirable, but necessary for the continued economic health of the city. The entire waterfront from the Battery to 14th Street was to be transformed into six new residential and commercial communities within twenty years, housing eighty to one hundred thousand people. After this study was completed, the city acquired the land and demolished most of the buildings along both sides of Washington Street.

From Chambers to Hubert, Greenwich Street was widened to twice its original width. Three forty story apartment towers were completed on the west side of the street in 1975. Known as Independence Plaza, the apartments had difficulty attracting the upscale market it was originally built for, due to Tribeca's yet to be gentrified character. After conversion to Mitchell-Lama housing in 1976, the complex was filled with middle income families.

The other influx of housing occurring in Tribeca during the 1960's was the conversion of many buildings into loft residences. Rising rents in Soho pushed many artists into Tribeca searching for inexpensive live/work space. Soon after, many of these 'underutilized and unattractive' buildings were the focus of individual renovation and rehab. Walking south from Canal Street on Greenwich, one can see that many of the surrounding buildings have been converted to residential use above the ground floor.

In 1970, the residential population of Tribeca was only 400 people. In twenty years, it was to grow to be a community of 9,000 residents. As gentrification continued at an increasing rate, developers coined the name 'Tribeca' to capitalize on the growth in Soho. Urban pioneers living in the district were willing to forgo conveniences like neighborhood grocery stores and shops, but soon began to develop their own. The protective zoning allowing only manufacturing uses resisted office and commercial development at first, but allowed art based industries to flower. Graphic arts, design and film companies joined the remaining food related merchants to create a chic and trendy, yet somewhat hidden community. It was not until the 1982 Loft Law was passed, allowing rent increases to finance legal conversion to residential units, did the neighborhood take off as new tenants with money moved in, increasing the neighborhood's cache and appeal.

New Development

When the city planning department was mapping out planned development in the 1980's, many parcels along the southern edges of Tribeca were considered 'soft sites' -- places where the advanced age of the buildings, their obsolete or declining uses and low assessed value made them prime spots 'appropriate for new construction.' The completion of the World Financial Center and the success of many Wall Street banking and securities firms created developments geared to their relocation in these areas. Along the blocks southern blocks of Greenwich Street, the character of the edge changes dramatically as buildings on both sides were constructed within the past 10 years.

The most notable example is the 580 foot high Shearson Smith Barney tower completed in 1989 at Greenwich and Hubert Streets looms over the adjacent warehouse district, breaking the street wall with a dark but well- used landscaped entrance court. Designed by the well-known architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, its architects describe it as a 'contextual juxtaposition' marking the 'infiltration of tall office buildings into the established medium scale loft residential neighborhood.'

Since historic designation in 1991, many projects around the edge of the district have not proceeded due to the recession. Proposals for a 50 story skyscraper for the Mercantile Exchanges, a 34 story hotel attached to a landmarked warehouse on West Street and a 23 story condominium project behind a cast-iron loft on White Street have all been delayed or have been extensively revised. Tribeca Tower, a 52 story high-priced luxury condominium building completed in 1990 sat empty for five years until it was converted into rental apartments last year. Its glass skin, curved corners and sliver shape make it a puzzling addition in its 5-story store and loft neighborhood. As one local resident put it, "Tribeca's appeal is based mainly on those large open loft buildings. I don't think people are inclined to move to get a little apartment they could get anywhere else."

Despite these proposals, the most promising sign for new development is the Battery Park City - North Residential Neighborhood Design Guidelines published last year. After studying the Tribeca district's architectural qualities, architects Ralph Lerner, Alexander Gorlin and Machado/Silvetti and are proposing guidelines to shape the new development stretching between Stuyvesant High School and the World Financial Center. The north-south streets of the new development will be zoned for higher buildings much like the avenues in Manhattan. The east- west streets, which are extensions of the grid across West Street, will be zoned for lower buildings. Street level uses are also zoned according to which streets they front on, with commercial and retail uses on the more heavily trafficked streets. Colors, materials and base and top design guidelines are structured to provide expressive details similar to Tribeca historic fabric. The potential size and effect of this brand new neighborhood could be threatening to the character of the historic district. The guidelines, however, seek to bridge differences and show great sensitivity and respect, not only to Tribeca but to the entire city as well.

After the recession quickly dissipated the pressure on Tribeca as expansion space for Wall Street, the city planning commission looked at the changes occurring in Tribeca and decided its convoluted zoning should be amended. Proposals to remove the restrictive controls that protected manufacturing in the district are being considered. Commercial use of ground floor spaces will be permitted for the first time as of right and new residential construction could rise to a height of 5 FAR. On Church Street, new construction will be limited to 6 FAR, half of what is allowed now. These changes are being debated and will be voted on by the City Council in June.

Issues at the Edges of Historic Districts

Historic districts often determine what goes opposite them because they exclude so many things. Historic districts also only control aesthetics, not use, meaning common ground must be found if the context is to work together as a neighborhood. When the issues of scale, use and the public realm are considered to support the historic and the new, links are developed, creating a single living and vital entity.

Differing uses between the historic district and its surroundings are common. In Tribeca, the social network of residents was supported by neighborhood services that were located in newer buildings. Grocery stores, schools, parking garages and dry cleaners may not be appropriate uses for older, more historic buildings. They must, however, find locations in adjacent developments if the neighborhood is to be whole. Multiple uses for new developments should be explored, if only to provide the restricted uses denied in historic buildings.

The scale of new buildings next to the old is an age old problem that historic districts continuously face. With technological changes such as the automobile, curtain wall construction, and electronic communication, newer buildings will always be bigger, more massive and more technologically based than the human-scaled fabric of the 19th century city. In Tribeca, zoning in the area at present allows fifty story skyscrapers, and the economics of land use in New York almost demand this kind of build-out to maximize investment. Not only is it next to impossible to mediate between this kind of scale change visually, but problems of increased power, sewer and traffic requirements, affected microclimates and increased density also are impacted by this sudden difference in scale.

Separation of development scale from avenue to street typical throughout Manhattan should be encouraged and strengthened. Concentration of higher buildings on wider streets has been suggested at Battery Park City North and should also be instituted at Tribeca's other edges. The expanded width of Church and can help development on these streets maintain viable commercial uses. Perhaps within ten or twenty years, the Shearson Information Services Building and the buildings at Greenwich and Chambers could be replaced with more articulated designs -- gateways that help transition the larger scale of new development to the historic character and fabric of the adjacent interior blocks.

The connection between that which is within a historic district and that which is just outside is of vital interest not only the quality of the district, but to the city as a whole. Creating new enclaves without regard to context, be they historic or modern in character, ultimately chips away at the fabric that makes up the street, neighborhood and city. Shadows, traffic patterns, contrasts in shape and material all contribute to an area's character. Where the contrast is great, the historical district often seems separated and lessened. Where contrast is respectful and subtle, the character of both buildings is improved.


The last issue is an issue of philosophy. All historic districts must contend with the inevitability of change at its borders as well as within. Fitting new buildings within a landmarked district is a matter of being a good neighbor, where the historic context is the common language all must speak. If the character of the district is visible beyond its borders, then new development at the edges must speak the same language as well.

Tribeca is a place of renovated industrial lofts with large open spaces, expansive windows and high ceilings. Awnings and raised platforms above street create pedestrian amenities that are pleasing as well as historical. Window bay rhythm and building heights can be coordinated along the block front to relate new buildings to the design of the entire street. To understand these basic typologies of buildings in Tribeca is to go a long way to determining new built form that is inspired by the historic fabric and allows for variety and individual expression.

In the end, historic districts are only memorable or valuable as long as there are people remaining who care for them. To some, historic district designation is to prevent more buildings from being torn down and to prevent unwanted ones from being built. However, social and cultural changes to new uses and needs move much faster than ordinances or regulations. As Kevin Lynch wrote in The Image of the City,

"The city is a construction in space, but one of vast scale, a thing perceived only in the course of long spans of time. . . Only partial control can be exercised over its growth and form. There is no final result, only a continuous succession of phases."
The warehouses and store and lofts of Tribeca are remnants of a time past, built for different purposes. They can also inspire new variations on their themes without destroying their character and message. Historic districts teach us about the values and concerns of past generations. The buildings that surround them have the responsibility to see that they remain useful, not by obliterating their context, but by respecting and continuing their traditions.

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december 1999