Two years ago I moved away from Greenwich Village. Now I'm trying to move back.

October 1, 2019

My tenement apartment in Soho, and how air rights have changed the neighborhood

The view from across the street, 
my former tenement building (Google Maps screenshot)
I wasn't getting my hopes up. I'd seen an apartment in this building three years ago. It was on a high floor and overlooked the small park and tenements with antique stores where I lived 17 years ago. But the home of an old woman who used to emerge from the front door of the house to go sit on the benches with the Italians in the park has been torn down, and a glass tower twice as high as the tenement buildings has taken its place.



The house that was replaced by the tower
There was a time when rent-stabilized apartments with character could be found in Soho. I was living on the Upper West Side and had no idea of the problems that lay ahead as a tenant in an old building, but I felt inspired whenever I walked through Soho and just had to live there. It was a rainy day in August in 1992 when I first saw the apartment that would become my home for ten years, and made a mad dash downtown after seeing the ad in the Times. It was a tenement building with no elevator, but I was happy to see it was a second-floor studio with a manageable number of stairs. Across the street was a newer utilitarian apartment building that was taller and spanned the entire block, an overpowering presence, but the studio I was looking at was at the back of the building.

The view from my Soho tenement apartment.
Photo courtesy of the former townhouse owner
Tomas Rossant of Ennead Architects
The apartment door was open and a breeze blowing from the back bedroom drew me in. The sound and smell of rain landing on the leafy trees was coming through tall windows that had been left open to let out the smell of paint. And through the trees I could see the sparkling glass of a gazebo belonging to a townhouse across the way. I was mesmerized. I walked through the kitchen, with the beat-up refrigerator in the corner, into the bedroom and sat on the sagging floorboards that gave a little. Taking a deep breath of the loamy air I thought how lucky I was to find an apartment with a view like this. It was everything and more that I was looking for in a funky downtown apartment, with odd-shaped rooms, exposed brick walls and pipes, and mismatched tile and wood floors in every room. My parents wouldn't like it but I was going to live in Soho. 

Now years later I was across the street, this time for an open house at the sprawling co-op where I swore I'd never live even if I could afford it, but my mother told me I shouldn't care what a building looks like from the outside, and many years later a need for space has forced me to reconsider. I looked over at Father Fagan Park and remembered a small gathering of neighbors for dinner where we celebrated the garden club's success in securing city funds for new plants and green paint for the wooden benches. We all enjoyed taking care of the park. As we shared each other's potluck dishes and the beautiful weather that evening, we never anticipated the city digging it up to repair water and sewer lines, a project that would last two years, and a loss of the brick pavers in favor of concrete (the city wanted concrete because it was easier to replace if they had to dig it up again for repairs). The park isn't as pretty as it was, but I could never enjoy a view of the park in the same way or overlook that glacial tower.

After seeing the apartment, which surprisingly was on the back of the building and had a grand open view of gardens and townhouses, I decided not to make an offer. The realtor said that air rights had been sold to a hotel across the street to preserve the view. Air rights? I hadn't even thought about air rights. But that's how the tower next to my old tenement building got done, and despite the area's new landmark status, I wasn't willing to believe that a tower or a gleaming new building of any height could never go up in an open garden between buildings. As a co-op owner, I would be inconsolable.

My parents' visit to Soho in 1996
I feel fortunate to still walk among 19th century buildings in my favorite neighborhoods in Soho and the Village. I thought these buildings would always be there. When I lived downtown in the 90s people said that the foundation of the Village and Soho didn't have the bedrock to bear high rises; the historic buildings we loved would remain and new builds would be low-rise and fit with the character of the neighborhood. As with anything good and worth having, it has to be looked after and protected or someone will take it away.


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