Why Westbeth Failed—And What We Must Learn From It

The story of Westbeth, one of the first industrial buildings rehabilitated as artist housing (and one of Richard Meier’s first projects), offers us a valuable cautionary tale

On December 2nd, 2016 a fire killed 36 people in a warehouse where artists (illegally) lived and worked. Since that fire, and before, as fast-developing cities around the world continue to crowd out low-income people, the conversation around safety and affordably housing artists has been a subject of intense debate. Westbeth, one of the first industrial buildings rehabilitated for artistic and residential use (and one of architect Richard Meier’s first major projects), is more relevant than ever.

Since its opening, the cultural impact of Westbeth has been profound. Westbeth has acted as an incubator for many artists—Diane Arbus, Muriel Rukeyser, and even Vin Diesel grew up there. Merce Cunningham had a studio in the complex.

When Westbeth officially opened on May 19th, 1970, it was a star-studded event; so many powerbrokers attended that the Village Voice dubbed the crowd “multifarious Medicis.” Jane Jacobs, Mayor John Lindsay, and Percy Sutton, the Manhattan borough president, all came out in support of  the project. Carl Meinhardt, one of the architects who worked on Westbeth, remembers thinking how extraordinary it was that “the city and the federal government did this for artists. Nothing on that scale has been done to affect the lives of artists anywhere.”

The 1968 Annual Report of the National Endowment for the Arts echoed the sentiment, concluding that “there isn’t a city in the country where the physical and spiritual life of the rest of its citizens cannot help but be improved through the salvaging of sturdy, unused buildings for artist housing.”

Yet just six years after Westbeth’s opening, the New York Times reported that the center’s future remained uncertain. “Some look back with anger, others with regret on the billowing hopes and gala atmosphere that prevailed early on,” wrote the journalist Beverly Solochek. “On the way, its tenants, sponsors and various managers learned that at its core, this artists’ Eden was just like any other housing enterprise—vulnerable to inflation and the insecurities of a plunging real estate market.”

The dream of developing multiple Westbeths across the U.S. never came to pass. The story of Westbeth, its triumphs and failures, offers us a valuable cautionary tale—and maybe just a model for the future.

A Brief History

The idea of building affordable housing for low- and medium-income artists came from a seemingly improbably source: a real-estate tycoon. Roger L. Stevens had made his fortune in real estate before he was 30. But even as a young man, Stevens had been interested in theater, and while he continued to work in property development he also produced 200 plays and musicals, including West Side Story. In 1964 President Johnson asked Stevens to chair the National Council on the Arts. And when the National Endowment for the Arts was established, Stevens became its first chairperson. One of his biggest concerns was solving “the problem of affordable housing for artists.”

The council authorized Stevens to look for an industrial building that could be remodeled for a live/work space for artists. Stevens approached Jacob Kaplan, founder and president of the J. M. Kaplan Fund. The issue of affordable housing was personally important for this self-made financier who grew up in the tenements. 

Stevens and Kaplan looked for the ideal building and saw the residential potential in Bell Labs, despite the neighborhood, which at the time was gritty, industrial, and very sparsely populated. The architect Tod Williams, who worked and lived in Westbeth, has calculated that “the population west of Washington Street was [at the time] approximately six people per acre.”

Built between 1861 and 1929, Bell Laboratories was a complex of buildings occupying a full city block. The laboratory was the site of multiple technological breakthroughs, including the invention of the transistor and large superconducting magnets. Meinhardt describes the buildings as having been a warren of little laboratories and offices.

In 1921, construction began on the elevated West Side Highway, next to the labs. Then, from 1931 to 1934, the New York Central Railroad built the High Line (a freight train), which ran through the 51-55 Bethune Street/746-754 Washington Street building on the complex. The building was re-structured to accommodate any noise and vibrations the train made, but by the mid 1960s, Bell Labs had outgrown Greenwich Village.

Bell Laboratories Building in 1936. Courtesy Wikipedia

To undertake the ambitious process of converting the industrial laboratory, Stevens and Kaplan sought additional funds and hired an ambitious yet “relatively unknown architect”: Richard Meier. Meier had studied at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and was a classmate of Jacob Kaplan’s son, Richard, who recommended him. Meier had just opened his own office and designed two houses, but Westbeth would be his first large-scale project.

In one of its first grants, the National Endowment for the Arts agreed to provide $100,000 to develop the site. The Kaplan Foundation also agreed to donate $100,000. The NEA then launched an additional $750,000 matching grant, which allowed the J. M. Kaplan Fund to set up the non-profit Westbeth Corporation, which purchased the old Bell Telephone Laboratory. However, it was the involvement of the FHA (Federal Housing Authority), which was key to making Westbeth possible; the FHA was able to guarantee a low-cost mortgage of 12 million dollars. This was the first time the FHA had used its moderate income-housing program for a specific professional group. Westbeth represented a rare moment in New York City history, when the powers that be were open to the idea of funding a unique building for an unconventional purpose.

Yet with this public funding came a whole set of rules and regulations. “The FHA standards were geared towards ‘wood-framed houses and garden apartments in non-urban areas,’” wrote Per-Johan Dahl in an article for The Journal of ArchitectureWestbeth was the diametric opposite. It would eventually become the first legal loft residence in the US, but as Ada Louise Huxtable noted in 1970, it “bent (but did not break) almost every FHA regulation in the book.” 

Hitting Walls

Westbeth was not only a complex of 384 apartments in a major city, it was also an open-plan loft, meaning it had few or no interior walls.

The lack of clearly delineated walls caused multiple issues. In the duplex apartments it created a fire hazard: tenants needed a safe egress. Meier responded by creating balconies-cum-fire escapes that were aesthetically pleasing and met FHA regulations.  

Westbeth interior courtyard. Courtesy Wikipedia

However, there was a bigger hurdle. The lack of internal walls made it impossible for the FHA to count how many bedrooms the building had—and therefore to determine the amount of subsidy it would provide. But Meier was dead set on doing everything in his power to maximize space. In a 1968 interview with the New Yorker, he described his aim to “give people incredibly large units for the rent—much larger than you could give nowadays by starting from scratch.” Rather than permanent walls, he gave tenants the option of using movable partitions.

To address the FHA’s concerns, Meier’s team drew dotted lines on the floor plan to indicate where internal walls could be erected. The FHA was resistant, but eventually (amazingly) the agency acquiesced. As Meier recalls, “[I convinced] them that that’s what artists wanted! They wanted open space; they didn’t want two bedrooms in a normal apartment, otherwise they’d go somewhere else.” Barbaralee Diamondson, the author or Buildings Reborn: New Uses, Old Places wrote, “such open plans had never before been sanctioned by the FHA. It was “a revolutionary turnabout.”

Even more significant, the city created the first special zoning district (C6-4), which legalized live-work spaces in what was previously an industrial zone. Ada Louise Huxtable, wrote  “no trumpets sounded when Westbeth triumphed over the system, but they should have.” Westbeth’s open apartment plans “represent a first step out of the steel trap of FHA rules, one of the most powerful and deadly implements of domestic design.”

Paradise Lost

But the triumph was short-lived.

The building’s designated commercial space was supposed to supply fifty percent of its income, but management struggled to find a tenant willing to rent the space. With the elevated West Side Highway and the meat market, the neighborhood was not desirable, and Westbeth was sandwiched between the two eyesores. The tenants grew frustrated and accused the building of mismanaging the property.  On July 1st 1972 tensions came to a head when tenants were asked to sign a new lease that raised the rent 17%.

A few months later, Joan Kaplan Davidson resigned as president of the Westbeth Corporation. When she left, the Kaplan Fund, which had been providing “managerial assistance” also left.  The Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took over the mortgage in 1975.

In the 1980s, HUD began to work with Westbeth to avoid foreclosure, even offering Westbeth residents a certain amount of help to offset rents.  

Steve Neil, the current managing director of Westbeth, describes the  unique situation Westbeth found itself in: “[They] didn’t want to foreclose on a building full of low and moderate income artists. I don’t think that would have been very good publicity for HUD.  And of course, being the federal government, they had the wherewithal that they could take a long time to resolve these issues. They themselves were not going to go broke because of one borrower’s troubles.”

Westbeth Today

Today, Westbeth is nestled between boutiques and designer cupcake stores. The average price per square foot for an apartment in the West Village is $2,436, but the cost to rent an entire apartment in Westbeth costs between $700 to $4,000. And many of the residents today are the same as those who arrived in 1967—although Westbeth was originally meant to limit artist residency to (approximately) five years, rent stabilization laws enacted in 1969 prevented time limits for residents in New York City. In 2007 the waiting list for new tenants, which boasted hundreds of applicants, closed, enraging many artists. What was supposed to be an incubator for young artists has become a naturally occurring retirement community.

Neil says that Westbeth’s biggest challenges are maintaining an aging complex of buildings and caring for an older population: “mobility, safety, and general care, these are all challenges that don’t come with a regular real estate program. The staff in our office, there are the people who check the rent and do the payroll and deal with the vendors but they’re also self-taught social workers.”

So what can we learn from Westbeth?

Westbeth bloomed because the government established the first special zoning district, which in turn acted as a real-world demonstration of the power of zoning. New York City used Westbeth as a prototype for a special zoning district that saved many of the cast iron buildings in Soho. Boston, Chicago and San Francisco have since used zoning amendments as a catalyst to convert older buildings into live and work lofts.  

Another important takeaway is funding: sustainable housing requires an airtight model and plan for a future beyond the life of the mortgage.  For Westbeth, relying on the commercial space to bring in 50% of the revenue almost led to financial ruin. Westbeth has paid off its mortgage, but it still buckles under the costs of maintaining a complex of buildings from a different era. Managers and developers need to consider long-term maintenance from the start, particularly in terms of preparing to rehabilitate buildings to be more energy-efficient and resilient to environmental disaster.  

Beyond creating more sustainable buildings, Steve Neil also notes the importance of promoting diversity in creating sustainable communities: “The first thing I would advise anyone starting a project like this, is to have a greater generational diversity…Young people benefit by having older people around, and the opposite is true as well.”

Despite its many flaws, Westbeth remains a vital example of what can happen when political and private will coalesces to serve a greater cause. As our cities continue to push out their most vulnerable to their peripheries, including the artists who are the lifeblood of any creative, rich urban context, Westbeth reminds us that—with strategic long-term thinking, policy change, and inventive architecture—their needs can indeed be served. As George Cominskie, the President of the Westbeth Artist Residents Council, explained to CityRealty, “The problem is not Westbeth, which has a finite number of apartments. The problem is that there are not more Westbeths.”

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Courtesy Flickr User Ludovic Betron
Courtesy Wikipedia

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