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Lower West Side Story

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The infrastructure of cool will fully be in place if the hip hotels follow, as expected. André Balazs (the Mercer, Chateau Marmont) is said to be looking in West Chelsea. Christina Ong (who owns London's ultrachic Metropolitan and Halkin hotels) is rumored to be planning an outpost in the meatpacking district on Washington Street. Bill Kimpton, San Francisco's answer to Ian Schrager, is also said to be interested.

Any of these hotels would make for a decent East Coast pied-à-terre for L.A.'s Skybar crowd if Miramax and its glossy niece, Talk magazine, do end up on West 20th Street, an idea that's been knocked around by both parties a lot recently.

Across the street from the West Chelsea Arts Building is the peak-roofed automotive garage, now divided into two equal spaces, that is suddenly the neighborhood's great visual study in contrast. The eastern half is still occupied by the King Bear mechanic shop, with its stacks of tires banked on the sidewalk in front. As of July, however, the western half has been commandeered by photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has already turned her side into an airy shooting space as minimalist as any of the galleries nearby.

"It's just a very simple building, just a big open space, really," says Leibovitz, who moved from a fourteenth-floor studio on Vandam Street so she could walk to work from her London Terrace home of eight years. "Buildings like this one were built in the teens as auto mechanics' garages to repair Model Ts. But this one just has great bones, great character."

Leibovitz was already a zealot when it came to the area's proletarian chic ("Architecturally," she says, "the Starrett-Lehigh Building always has been one of my favorite buildings in New York City, period"). So she took great pains to be historically accurate when she installed her 7,000-square-foot studio and offices. For inspiration, she pored over books of artsy industryscapes by German conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher and even tracked down the same Glendale, Queens, ironworks -- A&S Windows -- that made the windows for a lot of the warehouses in the area.

"It feels exciting to be in Chelsea right now; it's throbbing," she says. "With the art galleries here, the better restaurants have followed. You've got the crowd at Bottino, which is young, smart, lively. Lot 61 is terrific. It just feels alive over here."

"Of course," she adds a bit mournfully, "I've been dying for a better coffee place."

Indeed, so many photo studios are thriving in West Chelsea that another London Terrace resident insists that when dusk falls, with all the camera flashes exploding behind warehouse windows, it's "like looking out over some gigantic disco."

It seems a familiar script: First come the artists, then the art galleries, the restaurants, the Porticos, and the yuppies in their $2 million lofts -- the SoHo paradigm all over again. But there are many currently at work shaping the neighborhood's future who think the Lower West Side has a different, and utterly distinct, fate in store.

For a century, the coastal stretch of land along the Hudson River, from the northern border of Greenwich Village at Horatio Street all the way up to 42nd Street, was a paunchy white elephant, at least in the eyes of most city real-estate agents. It was here that small printing companies and manufacturers beavered away in obscurity behind grit-stained windows. Operating out of the city's hindquarters at a several-block remove from the nearest subway lines was well worth the inconvenience; rents were cheap -- $6 per square foot, if all you required was a huge, unfinished industrial space.

But huge, unfinished, and industrial are today's real-estate-world buzzwords. They make perfect sense for ad agencies, Internet start-ups, and new-media companies -- peopled by just the sort of creative souls who bear-hug the art-gallery-cum-aircraft-hangar aesthetic such buildings afford and have enough manifest destiny on the brain to realize their new hires will need somewhere to sit once the business takes flight.

And they'll have a front lawn when the hotly anticipated Hudson River Park appears on the horizon. Approved by the State Legislature last year, this vast stretch of green rolling four and a half miles up the Hudson -- from Battery Park City to 59th Street -- is supposed to be finished by 2005. It will sprawl over 550 acres and thirteen public piers. The New York Times has already decreed that Hudson River Park "could do for New York in the 21st Century what Central Park did in the 19th."

Most immediately, the park -- with a projected price tag of $390 million -- will replace miles of rotting piers and parking lots with an esplanade, a bike trail, baseball diamonds, and basketball courts. But the park is also likely to serve as an elaborate invitation for the city as a whole -- and likely its developers -- to pay a visit to this former industrial moonscape.

Up until now, the elevated High Line freight rail west of Tenth Avenue and snaking up to 34th Street had been the area's defining feature. Railroads built in the mid-nineteenth century on Ninth and Eleventh Avenues were the conduits from the slaughterhouses, breweries, and apparel factories to the nation's consumers. But in 1982, the freight lines finally fell silent, leaving behind a rusting penumbral skeleton.

The city has wanted to tear the High Line down for decades, but its new owner, the rail company CSX, has been stalling. CSX, which still pays $200,000 to $300,000 a year on real-estate taxes for the tracks, reportedly would love to fob them off on a nonprofit group or a group of entrepreneurs willing to develop the structure as an elevated promenade, with shops or with landscaping. This is either a brilliantly counterintuitive land-use proposal or a brilliantly absurdist ploy to get the city to throw up its hands and pick up the cost of dismantling the tracks.

Mooring the center of the district is the Chelsea Piers recreation complex, whose management insists it is now on healthier financial footing after some lean years (some 3.8 million people reportedly visited the complex last year, up from 2.1 million in its first year, 1996). One developer maintains that a few city officials have told him the city would like to make Chelsea Piers the focus of a concerted effort to bring the Summer Olympics here.

Meanwhile, the Prada set has been doing its best to establish a Mercer Street beachhead, only the SoHo paradigm has taken a sharp detour down Silicon Alley. The city's Internet firms are expected to employ more than 180,000 people within the coming year. Telecommunications companies like Level 3 and AboveNet -- already thriving because of increased deregulation of the industry -- have wandered westward, lured by a key fiber-optic-cable artery running up Ninth Avenue. Geraldine Laybourne's Oxygen Media, Barnesandnoble.com, and DoubleClick are only a few of the dozens of firms that have dug in along the Hudson. And iVillage, Razorfish, and TheStreet-.com are shopping around, too, real-estate sources say.

"This area is never going to be intimate," says Annie Leibovitz, who sees a very distinct New York district forming. "It's not quaint. Tenth and Eleventh Avenues are like highways, and that sort of protects things from getting 'cute' -- like SoHo."


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