By Roland Li
New York University’s revised Greenwich Village expansion plan provoked fierce community opposition on Monday night, as the school seeks approvals for four new buildings in the area.
The changes come after N.Y.U. withdrew its landmarks application last November to build a 40-story tower within the I.M. Pei-designed Silver Towers site, following opposition from Henry Cobb, a partner of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.
Now, the school proposes a 14-story building on the corner of LaGuardia Place and Bleecker Street that will contain both a new public school and student dormitory, replacing the existing Morton Williams supermarket. It will also shift a hotel, originally planned for the scrapped tower, onto the corner of Houston and Mercer Streets, as part of a mixed-use “zipper building.” That structure, made up of interlocking towers on a four-to-five-story podium that resemble the teeth of a zipper, is designed to have ground floor retail, an underground gym, classrooms and up to 1,000 student beds.
On the northern superblock, bounded by West 3rd and Bleecker Streets, N.Y.U. still plans to build two curving “boomerang buildings,” with classrooms and academic space. The footprint of each building has been slightly diminished, compared to plans from last spring.
“We have tried to put the buildings in the best possible places,” said Lynne Brown, a senior vice president of N.Y.U.
Along with the new buildings, which could total up to 2 million s/f, the university is proposing extensive changes to the open space in the two blocks, retaining architect firms Toshiko Mori Architect and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates to redesign the area, along with Grimshaw Architects, which is designing the buildings. The school seeks to add new park space, while also moving a dog run and playground from one of the superblocks. It seeks to obtain narrow strips of land from the city’s Department of Transportation, a move that has been opposed by residents and elected officials.
Although N.Y.U. owns the land and is not seeking an increase in zoning density, it requires city approvals to lift deed restrictions that prevent the two superblocks – a legacy of Robert Moses’ mid-20th century plan of urban renewal – from being developed, as well as some changes in usage.
Judging from a Community Board 2 meeting on Monday, the approval process will be an uphill battle. Hundreds of people were in attendance, and the majority spoke out against the plan.
Opponents say that the school is rearranging elements without addressing community concerns regarding the height and density of the building.
“That’s part of the problem with N.Y.U.,” said David Gruber, chair of Community Board 2’s Arts & Institutions Committee, speaking as a resident of the Village, but not for the board. “It’s essentially the same plan as day one.”
Although the school has increased its outreach in recent years, holding open houses showcasing earlier versions of the plans, residents have a legacy of tension with N.Y.U., having sparred over other sites in the last decade. A sore point remains the new dorm developed by the Hudson Companies on former site of St. Ann’s Church on 12th Street, as well as the partial demolition of the Provincetown Playhouse. And while the university owns many of the buildings bordering Washington Square Park, local residents often characterize the school as an interloper in the neighborhood.
“We are not part of N.Y.U.,” said Gruber. “N.Y.U. has to be part of the Village.”
Community Board 2 has yet to take an official position on the plan, but it has “many unanswered questions,” he added.
However, N.Y.U. also has its supporters.
“The 20 year expansion plan is a win-win for New York City,” said Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress.
In addition to adding jobs and meeting the school’s need for space, Anderson said that the expansion would be benefit the city through the “strengthening of a core institution” and highlighting the city as a premier destination for higher education. And while the plan remains controversial, Anderson said that the upcoming review would allow concerns over density and usage to be aired.
“In a crowded city like New York, you expect those issues to emerge and be addressed,” he said.
The changes to open space within the landmarked Silver Towers site will be submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the coming weeks, and a public hearing on the entire plan will be held at the Department of City Planning in May.
By the end of the year, the proposal is expected to begin the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), an exhaustive, seven-month process that will require non-binding recommendations from Community Board 2 and Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, before decisive votes and possible changes from City Planning and the City Council.
A spokeswoman for City Planning declined to comment. Officials from council member Margaret Chin’s office, who represents the local district, said it was too early to comment. Stringer’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. However, both Chin and Stringer have previously opposed N.Y.U.’s desire to acquire the strips of city land.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of optimism that N.Y.U. will make any significant changes,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “Our sense now is that we need to fully engage the public approval process.”
Although the outcome is far from certain, N.Y.U.’s 2031 expansion plan, which total 6 million s/f, is the result of years of ascension. The school’s enrollment has increased by around 25% from 1990 to 2005, said officials, and it has become a perennial “dream school” in the Princeton Review. The school considers the expansion within the Village as a way of accommodating past student growth, rather than anticipating future growth.
The 2031 plan was conceived in 2006, in an effort to present a comprehensive blueprint to the Village, and an attempt to bring a level of clarity and dialogue that had been missing.
“We wanted to provide our neighbors a level of predictability – not that they always agree,” said Brown, the senior vice president of N.Y.U.
The future changes continue N.Y.U.’s evolution from a regional institution that predominantly served commuter students to a massive university that has one of the largest student housing systems in the nation, with plans to open satellite campuses throughout the world. Additional plans near N.Y.U. Langone Medical Center, Downtown Brooklyn and Governors Island will also be developed as part of the expansion.
“The question has never been whether N.Y.U. will grow,” said John Beckman, the university spokesman. “It’s how N.Y.U. will grow.”
If the plans for Greenwich Village are not approved, the university will explore as-of-right developments and acquisitions, said Beckman.
Opponents acknowledge that N.Y.U. will inevitably expand, but they want the university to buy buildings or developable parcels in the Financial District, instead of expanding in the Village.
Alicia Hurley, vice president of university relations and public affairs, said the school had been in talks with Community Board 1 and the Port Authority. But although N.Y.U. previously leased 15 Cliff Street and Rockrose Development’s 200 Water Street as dormitories, the school has no current plans to expand downtown, citing the distance from its main campus in the Village.
The Financial District is just one of the many issues where N.Y.U. and Village residents have reached an impasse, but in the next year, the expansion plan will move forward, in one form or another.