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Persevering with Preserving

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Armed with a grant from the Preservation League of New York State, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation is moving ahead with an ambitious proposal to create a South Village Historic District that would act as a bulwark against unchecked demolition, ineffective zoning, and rampant construction.

As reported last January in Back Stage, the dimensions of the proposed district have already been determined. Beginning on the west side of LaGuardia Place and West 3rd Street, the district would extend south to the corner of Grand Street in SoHo, then turn west and then northwest in a modified zigzag pattern until reaching the narrow ravines that sprout out from Seventh Avenue South, including Carmine, Downing, Jones, and Cornelia streets.

While the Landmarks Preservation Commission created a Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969—protecting more than 2,000 structures and encompassing one-third of the Village—the parameters of the South Village Historic District include structures not originally part of that designation.

Among those structures is a quintet of five theatres, each of which possesses a rich theatrical and/or architectural history. They are the former Circle in the Square Downtown, the Sullivan Street Playhouse (vacant since the departure of "The Fantasticks"), the Provincetown Playhouse, the Players Theatre, and the Minetta Lane Theatre. Also, the cinema currently undergoing renovation at West 3rd Street and Sixth Avenue would be part of the district as well.

The $8,000 grant, says Andrew Berman, the society's executive director, will allow the group to hire an architectural historian who will "survey the historic, cultural, and architectural resources" of the South Village area and issue a report within a year. Such reports are regarded, both politically and at the grass-roots level, as vital tools in any campaign to persuade the city to create an historic district, given all the legal protections it implies.

"Among other things," Berman adds, "designating an historic district mitigates one of the biggest threats to the loss of all the buildings in the South Village: the opportunity for wholesale tear-downs of the structures to replace them with high-rises." A South Village Historic District, therefore, "would greatly diminish, if not completely eliminate," the possibility that, for example, the five theatres could be torn down. That said, he added that unfortunately "there is nothing that can guarantee that a theatre or a museum will continue to function as a museum or a theatre. Certainly the historic district designation can be helpful, however, in fighting off the major threats to such spaces." Indeed, he said, it's "highly unusual for demolitions to be allowed, and certainly there would be restrictions on any new construction."

In addition to the grant from the Preservation League, the society has attracted an across-the-spectrum list of supporters, from the Historic Districts Council and Community Board #2 to the South Village Landmarking Alliance and Our Lady of Pompeii Church. A host of elected officials, including City Council members Christine Quinn and Alan Gerson, State Senator Tom Duane, and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, are behind the effort as well.

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