April 3, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Zoë Schlanger:
“New York University’s 44,000 students and 16,000-plus employees need more space.”
So opens the New York Times’ recent endorsement of NYU’s 2031 plan to add 2.5 million square feet within the two “superblocks” just south of Washington Square over the next 19 years (plus another 3.5 million square feet elsewhere).
This statement is hard to refute: NYU’s student population is ballooning, and its faculty population is growing with it. Yes, expansion is inevitable. And yes, the health of the university is probably “good for the entire city.” But the question of how much, in what form, and where that space ought to be concentrated is glazed-over by the editorial to reductionist effect.
The editorial is almost startlingly in favor of the university, especially after reading architecture critic Michael Kimmelman’s feature-length critique of the plan in the paper the week before. We broke down a few key lines that miss the point.
“The project was rejected vehemently — too vehemently — by the local Community Board, which had input before its vote and knows perfectly well that the current design is a negotiating position and not a final product.”
After three months of public hearings and endless testimony, Village’s Community Board 2 voted against the plan in February. That was just an ‘advisory’ vote, which was nonbinding and meant to inform borough president Scott Stringer of the community’s sentiments. In two weeks, Stringer will have the next vote in the months-long approval process. He has already said he’ll recommend that NYU substantially curb the scale of its project.
According to the NYT editorial, the community board’s vote and written resolution against the plan was an overreaction conducted “too vehemently.” Yes, the resolution was a blustery, impassioned piece of work complete with statements calling it an “ill-conceived and unacceptable” plan that would “forever destroy a thriving residential community.” But disregarding this as overreaction misses key nuances.
CB2 rejected the plan wholesale, which seems a tad unrealistic given the fact that NYU owns the property (or most of it, at least). If it were to significantly scale down the plan so the proposed buildings fit within existing zoning regulations, the university could technically build on the superblocks without any approval process at all. With or without 2031, the superblocks won’t remain untouched for long.
So why didn’t CB2 just recommend NYU scale back? Historical precedent has a lot to do with it.
Twenty years ago, when many of the dorms were opened, NYU typically “looked for a space on the market, bought it, and developed it as-of-right,” building to the maximum allowable dimensions, explained John Beckman, the university’s vice president for public affairs. Residents felt blindsided, and resentment festered.
NYU has had a long history of being entirely unwaivering in its ambitions, and the community engagement conducted these past months (albeit a legal requirement given the regulation-breaking circumstances) is a new, tangibly untested approach to its expansion. Aside from NYU’s retraction of a ‘pinwheel’ tower plan last year, these months of hearings and public comment have resulted in little to no plan adjustment by NYU.
So when the NYT writes that the community board “knows perfectly well that the current design is a negotiating position and not a final product,” the historical context that separates actual, productive negotiation from what might turn out to be present charade is ignored.
“The entire 12-acre site already has five high-rise buildings, including a 1960s I. M. Pei housing complex called Silver Towers.”
This is true. But it misses some specifics.
The northern of the two superblocks is Washington Square Village, which houses two towers at 170 feet each. These are indeed high-rises–they’re among the tallest buildings in the Village. The proposed kidney-shaped Mercer and LaGuardia buildings that would be nestled between them would be 218 and 128 feet tall, respectively. So one will be 48 feet taller.
The three Silver Towers currently on the southern superblock are 275 feet each, and would be joined by the proposed “zipper building” where Coles Gym is now. Its several different roofs range from 68 to 275 feet. The Bleeker building proposed for the Morton Williams supermarket site would be 178 feet.
But the thing is, it’s not just about height. The shadows cast by the buildings would mean less light in both complexes, and most controversially, it would spell doom for the community-maintained LaGuardia Corner Gardens on a strip of land that currently belongs to the DOT. The Local East Village has wrote a solid explainer about the shadow situation.
These DOT-owned strips, proposed to be transferred to NYU, struck a particular chord with CB2 boardmember David Breck. They were forgotten legacies of a plan by the infamous urban planner Robert Moses, and essentially “hung fallow” for years, he said, as “rotten places of disheveled nothingness.” He explained that various community groups spent time and raised money to get those places fixed up, and the prospect of NYU incorporating them into their plan–even if they will technically become ‘remodeled’ greenspace–has shook them to protest.
“They kind of feel that they own the strips,” Breck said. “And to some extent, I think they do.”
NYU has yet to find a viable place to replace the gardens, but they’re still looking, according to the Local EV.
NYU is also seeking height and setback waivers for three of the proposed buildings, which are too tall and too close to the street in places, penetrating the “sky exposure plane,” a virtual sloping plane that begins fairly high above the street and rises inward over the zoning lot, designed to provide light and air at street level.
While the editorial mentions that “N.Y.U. should pay attention to worries that the structures will create walls to the streets on either side of the construction area,” the implications of the walling-in, should it happen anyway, are missed entirely.
“The proposal to add a dorm over a public school is fine — if the city actually wants to build another school in that area. Some have objected to the inclusion of a small hotel on Houston Street. We think it’s a good idea.”
This is just plain hard to grasp. Yes, NYU has offered space in its proposed Bleeker building to let the city build a K-8 public school, but the NYT misses a key complication. Even if the city does somehow find the budget to build the school, the fact that the Bleeker building would also house a 190-bed student dorm will probably damper any interest in placing schoolchildren there. Somehow, college freshman and first graders just doesn’t sound like a good combination.
The “small hotel on Houston Street” also feels like a misnomer. The university-affiliated hotel is proposed to consist of 190 beds within the zipper building, the 790,000-square-foot structure that, yes, would run along Houston Street. But small it is not.
“Change never comes easy to New York…But this important New York institution should be able to expand in its core area,” concludes the NYT editorial. Yes, intensification of NYU’s core is inevitable, and probably necessary. But this isn’t an issue of such cut-and-dry NIMBYism as the piece suggests. The scale of the 2031 project is unprecedented, as are the implications for the Village, and those details are discounted by the NYT’s take on the issue.
Zoë Schlanger is editor in chief of NYU Local. She’s written for Gothamist and Talking Points Memo and this Spanish newspaper called El País. She tweets and tumbles and puts sriracha on everything. Her google reader feed will eat your google reader feed.