Few strategic victories have been memorialized in such an unprepossessing, undecorated fashion as Jane Jacobs's vanquishing of Robert Moses's effort to alter the makeup of Greenwich Village in the 1960s.
The West Village Houses, a grouping of 42 five-story walkups, are a living testimony to that victory by Jacobs and her fellow New Yorkers. Without great arches or heroic statuary, the houses are plain brick buildings punctured by small windows, topped by flat roofs, and unadorned by anything other than an occasional window box of flowers.
Bounded by Washington Street on the east, Morton Street on the south, West Street on the west, and Bank Street on the north, the stubby West Village Houses were built in place of the towers the Wagner administration had preferred.
Conceived in idealism, their construction fell prey to a decade of delays and escalating construction costs that ate away at the architectural standards Jacobs had first proposed. By the time they opened in 1974, the houses were reviled by Jacobs as well as by most architectural critics, despite having been designed by the distinguished architectural firm of Perkins and Will. Indeed, the New York Times once called the houses "an unloved failure."
Yet many residents say Jacobs's vision endures. "This is a very alive building," playwright Suzanne Stout said of her apartment house on Washington Street. "We know one another and, if a calamity occurs, we take care of one another. Jane Jacobs was right. She understood community. Her ideas work."
Gay Young, who moved in as a New York University law student in 1976, said, "Even in the days when this neighborhood was the Wild West, a little bit like Williamsburg, these small-scale buildings felt good. Jane Jacobs was the mother of this neighborhood."
Jacobs had just published her masterpiece inspired by the Village, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," when she faced down the Wagner administration and the City Planning Commission in the winter of 1961 over their plan to raze some 14 blocks of 19th-century warehouses and brownstones bounded by 11th Street on the north, Hudson, Washington, and Christopher streets on the east, Morton Street on the south, and West Street on the west.
The New York Herald Tribune quoted her angry words: "It's the same old story," she said. "First the builder picks the property, then he gets the Planning Commission to designate it, and then the people get bulldozed out of their homes."
The city housing authority commissioner, Ira Robbins, called Jacobs and her allies "ignorant, neurotic, dishonest, slanderous, disorderly, and disgusting." Or, as writer Roger Starr, then executive director of the Citizens' Housing and Planning Council, said with more decorum: "What a dear sweet character she isn't."
Jacobs, who lived with her husband and two children above a candy store at 555 Hudson St., a busy thoroughfare, believed in high-density, energetic neighborhoods. She had famously written, "The stretch of Hudson Street where I live is each day the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet." But she loathed the modernist towers that were then the government's preferred architecture for low-income housing.
First she stopped the destruction of her neighborhood, and then she stopped the construction of the towers that were still planned for the fringes of what had been an industrial, waterfront area. Instead, she urged the city to build low-rise vernacular architecture for moderate-income households.
But this was easier said than done. The government knew how to build public housing for poor people and knew how to facilitate market-rate housing for upperincome households, but vernacular housing for the working class wasn't on any government's policy agenda.
Worse, Jacobs didn't understand the level of subsidy that was going to be needed, noted planner Alexander Garvin, who as a city official in the early 1970s helped put together the development's financing. Far from public transportation and situated in what was then the grim outer fringes of the Village, the project just wasn't marketable as built.
In late 1971, Mr. Garvin was called in by his superior, Donald Elliott, the city planning chairman, and instructed to arrange a capital subsidy for the project. The city had to go it alone because the project's lack of elevators made it ineligible for a federal mortgage.
"We were always trying to move subsidies to the neighborhoods that needed them — East New York and Brownsville, for example. Instead, we were subsidizing Manhattan," Mr. Garvin said. In 1975, he received a further shock. His boss, Roger Starr, the recently appointed head of the Housing and Development Administration, told him he was diverting the federal Section 8 subsidies to shore up two financially failing Manhattan projects, Manhattan Plaza on 42nd Street and the West Village Houses.
"Ah, the irony of Roger Starr bailing out Jane Jacobs," Mr. Garvin said. Both projects had been financed under the state's Mitchell-Lama program, and both risked insolvency because without subsidies, the rents were higher than tenants were willing to pay.
"All accounts of West Village Houses end up with Jacobs being victorious," Mr. Garvin said, citing a 1999 Ken Burns documentary, "New York." "But every single mayoral administration since then has had to live with the errors of this development. This doesn't mean she wasn't right about neighborhood scale. But what she was recommending wasn't financially feasible from the beginning."
Indeed, subsidies have continued through the Bloomberg administration. When the owner of the West Village Houses, the Island Capital Group, signaled in 2002 that it might choose to buy out of the Mitchell-Lama program, a delegation of tenants headed to the city's housing agency. (Under the terms of the state statute, owners may buy out of Mitchell-Lama after 20 years by paying off any government mortgages. They may then take apartments to market rents.) Without further government help, tenant rents almost surely would have skyrocketed by going to market rate.
"We agreed it was a good project and that it would be nice to turn it into a co-op," the then-housing commissioner, Jerilyn Perine, said. "But at what price?"
Another housing official who worked on the deal said: "The only way the co-op could work financially was for the owners to take a discount off the purchase price, which is tricky. They were really responsive to the tenants. Anything else would have required evictions, and they weren't that kind of landlord."
Working with both landlord and tenants, the Bloomberg administration devised a tenant-sponsored, non-eviction co-op conversion plan that allowed tenants who didn't wish to buy to remain in their apartments at protected rents. The plan went into effect on March 9, 2006. The city forgave a portion of the debt it held — about $19 million in accrued interest — and deferred a principal mortgage of $12 million, interest-free for 30 years. Property taxes were frozen for 12 years. An internal subsidy plan was established, funded in part by a 25% flip tax. The individual co-op owners are subject to ongoing income certifications: The annual income of a family of four, for example, cannot exceed $116,800.
The apartments were priced by shares, managing agent Gail Davis said, with consideration given to size, location, view, and exposure, as well as how many floors had to be negotiated in the elevator-less buildings. A one-bedroom apartment on West Street, for example, was allocated 370 shares at $413 a share, yielding an initial sales price of $152, 810. A three-bedroom on a higher floor was allocated 648 shares for a price of $267,614. Residents had 90 days to buy at the insider prices.
Each year the plan calls for an 11% increase in the restricted sales price on March 9, the co-op's anniversary. Today apartments sell at $536 a share, Ms. Davis said. But all apartments must first be offered to the corporation at the insider price. Only if the corporation declines to sell can the co-op owner seek outside buyers — who must then in turn meet the income limitations.
An indication of the apartment's true market value can be found in the units retained by the original investors, who have listed a onebedroom for $695,000 and a three-bedroom duplex for $1.75 million.
What are the lessons for New York's future from this iconic development? The residents of the West Village Houses have often actively opposed new luxury development, such as Morton Square, a riverfront project in which two-bedroom apartments sell for $3 million.
"If ever there was an area that could handle greater density, it's this one," Mr. Garvin said. "I would argue that anything facing the Hudson River, with open space for almost a mile opposite, has carrying capacity for high density. That's what the market is reflecting with Mr. Meier's glass towers selling at those incredible prices."