CHELSEA — What is culture?
Community Board 4 wants to know, and it may have a problem with the city's definition.
Board members slammed a plan to build an expanded version of a huge Hudson Yards arts venue on Monday night, fearing it would take away public space and that its broad definition of "culture" could transform it into a smaller version of the Javits Center.
A plan for the so-called Hudson Yards Culture Shed, which the city hopes to build at West 30th Street and 11th Avenue, expands the shed's footprint under newly proposed zoning for the massive development project. The building would have a retractable "shed" that would cover part of the Hudson Yards plaza, creating about 30,000 square feet of covered space for events such as Fashion Week.
While the Culture Shed could host art and dance exhibits, concerts, and even a local greenmarket, board members feared it could end up hosting more low-brow events.
"A lot of us are interested in culture, it's a nice sounding word," said board member Jean-Daniel Noland.
"I don't want to nitpick, but what's not cultural? A boat show? A culinary exhibit? I define culture more narrow than perhaps you do."
Kate Levin, commissioner of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, said that the building's mandate would have an evolving view of what culture is, including events like fashion design, industrial design and the culinary arts.
"Part of what this is trying to do is anticipate future uses," Levin said.
She added that other media could qualify as culture, pointing to a recent MoMA exhibition of video games.
But board member Joe Restuccia said allowing that flexibility could prove dangerous in the future.
"Saying [culture] is wide open, this could easily, if it's not successful, turn into a big exhibiton space with a lot of Chryslers in it," he said.
Building the expanded shed requires a change to the Hudson Yards zoning plan, which was approved in 2004 after Community Board 4 fought hard for public open space.
During the meeting, Department of Cultural Affairs staffers admitted that when the retractable shed is deployed, it would cover some 20,000 square feet of that public space, often for private or ticketed events. For Fashion Week, which officials hope to move to the shed, the area would be closed to the public for at least 28 days a year.
"This is doing one thing we're clear about, it is taking 20,000 square feet of open-to-the-air open space, and it's gone," said Restuccia, who was heavily involved with the original Hudson Yards rezoning. "How dare you come and ask us to give up 20,000 square feet when we went through a whole process to get this mess."
The board suggested that there be a hard limit on how many days the deployed shed could be closed off to the public, and even demanded that bathrooms be open to everyone no matter what event is going on.
"A park should be available to the public on a non-scheduled basis," said board member Walter Mankoff. "People who want to go to the park have to know in advance if it is available or not available — and that, I think, is a major problem."
Elise Wagner, an attorney for the project, countered by saying that the Culture Shed would bring enough good to the city that it's worth the occasional lose of open space.
"The case we're making to you is that we're providing this cultural facility, which has a lot of public benefits," she said. "That is the trade-off."
But for the board, that deal wasn't good enough. It wanted the city to find open space elsewhere if the Culture Shed would take away what it won in the original zoning agreement.
"Unless we are compensated for the loss of public space," Noland noted, "we say no."
The board will vote on its final recommendation on the proposed changes to the project at its April 3 meeting.