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BY ALBERT AMATEAU | City Planning Commission members on Wednesday questioned supporters and opponents about New York University’s application to add about 2 million square feet of new development to the university’s two superblocks south of Washington Square Park.
The previous Friday, local residents had joined community leaders and local politicians in a mass protest against the university plan. Starting at the Mercer-Houston Dog Run, they marched through the N.Y.U. superblocks, then rallied in Washington Square Park.
On Wednesday, critics outnumbered supporters of the N.Y.U. 2031 plan at the packed hearing that filled the 300-seat auditorium of the Museum of the American Indian in the U.S. Custom House on Bowling Green.
N.Y.U. 2031, Greenwich Village’s largest project ever, would radically transform the superblocks between LaGuardia Place and Mercer St., the south block from Houston to Bleecker Sts. and the north block from Bleecker to W. Third Sts., over the coming 19 years.
The hearing was the next-to-last stop in the city’s uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, on the two-phase project, which was recently scaled back by an agreement with Borough President Scott Stringer.
The commission will vote on the project — with any additional modifications — by June 6, according to a commission spokesperson. The City Council, which has the final say, will hold one or more hearings before it votes in July or August.
N.Y.U. President John Sexton and Senior Vice President Lynne Brown, along with university architects and planners, testified at the start of the April 25 hearing. Martin Lipton, chairperson of the N.YU. board of trustees, spoke too. Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, which is beginning its own long-term expansion in Manhattanville north of 125th St., also spoke in favor of the N.Y.U. project.
On the other side of the issue was Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Six other G.V.S.H.P. staff members and friends presented studies to bolster the society’s call on City Planning to reject the plan in its entirety.
One G.V.S.H.P. study based on Department of Buildings records of the past four years indicates that N.Y.U. has reduced the number of Washington Square Village apartments on the north superblock by 170. The reduction is the result of enlarging the complex’s existing apartments, said Berman. He questioned how the university could justify developing more faculty housing while reducing it in existing buildings.
State Senator Tom Duane also testified on the project, saying it was too big and calling on the commission to deny the application.
The proposed 17 percent reduction in the size of the project and the agreement not to build a temporary gym on the north superblock were “nice but modest concessions,” Duane said. “Despite these concessions, I have grave concerns about the impact on the neighborhood,” he said.
“I urge the university to continue working with its neighbors, Community Board 2 and elected officials to develop an alternative that would more successfully integrate with the neighborhood,” Duane added.
Brad Hoylman, chairperson of Community Board 2, which submitted its opposition to the project in March, told the commission on Wednesday that the bulk and density of the project “would forever alter the character of this special neighborhood.” He estimated that the project would bring 10,000 more people into the neighborhood, along with subjecting residents to two decades of construction.
Remarks by some commissioners indicated that more changes in the project are possible.
“I believe that more review could result in revisions that would make the application more acceptable to neighbors,” said Angela Battaglia, a Brooklyn resident who has been a City Planning commissioner since 1996.
Commissioners asked Sexton for details about future need for student dorms, faculty housing and academic space.
Amanda Burden, chairperson of the commission, called on Sexton to justify the need for a hotel in the proposed “Zipper Building” on the Mercer St. side of the south superblock.
The proposed hotel development would be open to the public, but it would mostly be booked in advance to accommodate visitors to N.Y.U. at moderate rates.
“We do have hotels in proximity to our core, but we only have expensive hotels,” Sexton said, drawing derisive hoots from critics in the audience.
Sexton also said the university would maintain offices in the superblocks to make sure that as the buildings are completed over the years they comply with plans as approved in the review of the project.
He said that faculty housing is needed in the superblocks to attract staff and reduce the ratio off faculty to students to compete with other universities.
Burden, however, wanted to know why the faculty housing had to be in the superblocks.
“Why can’t they be anyplace else?” she asked.
Sexton noted the university’s recently announced plans to renovate a former M.T.A. building in Downtown Brooklyn for a new Urban Science Center across from the N.Y.U. Polytechnic Institute.
“We’ve already located more than a quarter of our future space needs outside of the core,” said Sexton.
The university’s student population, now about 45,000, is expected to be about 60,000, including all schools of the university, by 2031. The need for more dorms is only partly driven by increased student population. The university wants to reduce the amount of dorm space in leased buildings, Sexton explained.
Commissioners also wondered about the impact of the project on the Key Park on the Mercer St. side of the north superblock and on the Bleecker LaGuardia Corner Gardens on LaGuardia Place.
Brian Cook, director of the borough president’s land-use department, told the commission that Stringer conditionally approved the project if it reduced the total area by 370,000 square feet.
The reduction, agreed to on April 11 by N.Y.U., eliminates 185,000 square feet of underground space that would have been developed beneath the north superblock between the two Washington Square Village buildings. Another 85,000 square feet would come from reducing the bulk of the proposed Mercer and LaGuardia “Boomerang Buildings,” planned for between the two Washington Square Village buildings. Additionally, the larger Mercer “Boomerang” would be no taller than 162 feet, the height of Washington Square Village.
The agreement also covered the proposed commercial rezoning of 26 buildings north of the two superblocks from W. Fourth to near W. Eighth St. between Washington Square East/University Place and the east side of Mercer St.
Despite the protests of residents living in what have become known as “the loft blocks,” N.Y.U. intends to provide more opportunities for ground-floor commercial space.
The Stringer agreement, however, commits N.Y.U. to refusing to rent to new eating and drinking establishments that would derive 80 percent of the projected revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages.