It is the same thing Trinity has been doing for downtown for more than three centuries. The church was established in 1697 by the grace of King William III. The third church still stands at the top of Wall Street, its 281-foot steeple, completed in 1846, was the highest point in the land until the New York World building surpassed it 54 years later. Real estate has always been at the heart of the church.
Queen Anne made Trinity what it is to this day through the generous land grant of 215 acres, much of it farmland (the annual rent was one peppercorn). Over time, much of that land was given away, granted to churches, schools and other charities, most notably Kings College, today Columbia University. What remains of the church’s holdings is concentrated in Hudson Square.
The area has largely risen and fallen with the tides of the city. After the cows and crops moved on, it became dockland when Manhattan was ringed with piers. When wheels began to replace rudders, Hudson Square became a hub of printing, starting in the 1920s, primarily for Wall Street—contracts, prospectuses, research—though everything from books to greeting cards was common. They were perhaps the very first victims of the digital age.
By the mid-1980s, half of Trinity’s 6 million square feet of industrial space in the neighborhood was bankrupt. The church rectors decided something had to be done. In 1987, Tishman Speyer, building on Trinity’s land, completed 375 Hudson Street. Saatchi & Saatchi, which took nearly half of the 900,000-square-foot building, was the anchor tenant. One by one, the old printing lofts were remade, and many stalwarts of the creative class—MTV, New York magazine, Edelman, Rafael Viñoly architects—followed. Vacancies stand at 5 percent, the lowest rate in the entire city.
It would seem Trinity should be building more office space, but the church is going in a different direction. To attract the kind of vibrant retail that will truly make their tenants’ lives (and their rents) top-notch, some lovely loft apartments would surely help the street life. Many storefronts are perennial losers, especially the restaurants.
Trinity wants to transform some five undeveloped sites it owns, along with up to a dozen it does not, into grand new apartment buildings in the style of the neighborhood’s existing industrial buildings. A number of complex zoning regulations have been proposed. These are meant to maintain the bulky historical look of the area while limiting the slender hotel towers, most notably one bearing the name Trump, that have sprouted in the neighborhood over the past decade. Still, along the avenues, buildings up to 30 stories will be allowed.
In total, the rezoning is expected to create more than 3,000 new apartments in the area, spread across those dozen sites, with the possibility of additional smaller projects. Roughly one in five apartments will be affordable, through development bonuses offered in the zoning. Special measures have been put in place to discourage the demolition of the existing loft buildings or their conversation into apartments. Basically, any office space that is eliminated must be replaced in a one-to-one basis somewhere within the district. Special approvals are also required for new hotel construction.
It is largely the same playbook the Department of City Planning has been honing throughout the Bloomberg years to encourage development, preserve neighborhood character and foster affordable housing. And yet the plan does not sit well with many in the neighborhood, precisely because it is being undertaken by Trinity and not the department itself.