The 411 from the Feline

Hideo Sasaki.

GARDEN STRUGGLE: Ralph Swain, a nephew of the late Hideo Sasaki, designer of the Sasaki Garden in the courtyard of Washington Square Village, is flying in to New York to testify at Friday’s City Council hearing on N.Y.U. 2031. Washington Square Village tenants desperately fighting the university’s plan to raze the garden and erect “Boomerang Buildings” in the courtyard gave us Swain’s phone number in Arizona and urged us to call him. A semi-retired history professor, he said of his uncle’s 1950s W.S.V. work, “I think it could be considered one of the first rooftop gardens above a garage in the United States.” He praised the “Zen-like quality of this space in the center of the hubbub of the city.” Ruth Rennert, chairperson of the Save W.S.V. Sasaki Garden Committee, told us, “We’ve been working on this for five years! We’re completely dedicated. We’re against the whole plan — but specifically are for the Sasaki Garden. Rennert, a non-university-affiliated resident, said N.Y.U. in 1999 intentionally plugged up an opening in the retail strip on LaGuardia Place by putting in a mailboxes store — which, along with metal fences added to the sides of the retail strip, has sealed the garden off from public access. Annette Evans, another committee member, said the so-called Philosophy Garden N.Y.U. proposes to replace Sasaki with just won’t do, and that, furthermore, the university’s renderings of how much open space there would be are blatantly deceptive. “If you look at the renderings, they have been stretched,” she stated. However, Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. vice president for government affairs and community engagement, said, “The garden, while wonderful, was built more than 40 years ago in a structure that was meant to serve as a private area for the residents of Washington Square Village. Our plans call for a much more user-friendly area that can be enjoyed by the residents of W.S.V. and the broader neighborhood.” Meanwhile, though we know intense negotiations between all parties are currently ongoing, we asked Councilmember Margaret Chin for an official statement on N.Y.U. 2031. Her position will be critical when the Council takes its vote in mid-July. From the sound of it, she’s hearing what the community is saying — and feels that residents’ concerns “come first.” “Right now, I am focused on bringing the best possible proposal in front of the Council,” Chin told us. “This is a give-and-take process, and N.Y.U. needs to modify their proposal. I have made it known that the amount of density that has been proposed is out of scale with the surrounding community. I want a plan that residents can live with first, and that N.Y.U. can live with second.”

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2 Responses to The 411 from the Feline

  1. Bravo to Mr. Swain, who flew from his home in Arizona to celebrate his uncle's legacy and gift to the Village — and to everyone, big and small, two-legged and four, who turned out for this great event. Among the crowd were many NYU faculty members, the present writer among them, all of us dismayed by the aggressiveness of our administration's expansion plan, as massive in scale as it will be in cost.

    It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen and experienced Washington Square Village and its astonishingly beautiful garden-courtyard that this complex recently became eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places by the NY State Historic Preservation Office. The award-winning Sasaki Garden is nothing less than a green oasis, enjoyed not only by the WSV residents but the surrounding community for everything ranging from quiet lunches and leisurely walks to kids' first bike lessons and weekend birthday parties for neighborhood children (many of them natural tree-climbers).

    Why “oasis”? As of July 2008, residents in NYU’s immediate neighborhood (Community Board 2) had no more than 0.4 acres of open space per 1,000 residents. This is the second lowest ratio in all of Manhattan, where the benchmark is approximately 2.5 acres per 1,000 people. NYU’s aggressive expansion – which, it is crucial to point out, seeks to build not only on the University’s own footprint but to also invade city-owned green strips in the form of playgrounds and a volunteer dog run along Mercer Street – would reduce the green space even more dramatically. To put it in more colloquial terms, NYU’s plan to shoehorn buildings totaling approximately 2.2 million sq. feet of floor space (roughly the square footage of the entire Empire State Building) into the two-block residential area in question is akin to trying to park four giant Cadillac Escalade SUVs into a parking space intended for a Mini Cooper!

    As much as I wish things were very different, the recent history of NYU’s own architectural projects presents a starkly different, darker picture. One need look no further than two very insightful articles by Michael Kimmelman in the NYT (“It Riles a Village”) and, in a scathing indictment, James S. Russell in Bloomberg News (“NYU Attacks the Village with Bloated Plan”). As disastrous as the designs for NYU’s Kimmel Center and the new (neighboring) Catholic/Spiritual Center have been, they are just the most visible examples in and around Washington Square. (Kimmel undoubtedly had to be the most expensive.) NYU's architectural teams have also given the city the now-gutted and defaced historic Provincetown Playhouse (turned Law School offices) on MacDougal Street; the "interpretive reconstruction" of Poe House, with its now-completely characterless facade; and, most contentious in their intrusiveness, a mushrooming of the most hideous dorm buildings anyone could ever imagine. The saddest examples – saddest because they punish not only the neighborhood but NYU’s own $55K+-paying undergraduates — might be the 26-story E. 12th St. Dorm and the smaller yet no less undistinguished Alumni Hall on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 9th Street. I'm sure I'm forgetting many more. Why anyone would ever think that the current incongruous plans-by-committee (i.e., NYU 2031) would be any more successful — or, I should say, any less horrific — based on the administration's track record over the last decade alone, I cannot fathom. There's a chronic history of the University producing one underachievement after another; in fact, anyone interested or invested in good architectural and landscape design no doubt would be very hard pressed to think of a single, large-scale example that he/she could point to, objectively, as a potential reason to trust NYU to produce something smart, functional and beautiful in the future. I realize that 1950-60s architecture is not to everyone's liking. Be that as it may, I'd take I.M. Pei and Paul Lester Wiener over the hair-raising NYU 2031 projected behemoths any day of the week. The cruel irony is that the administration now seeks to decimate its greatest housing assets – Washington Square Village and Silver Towers, to say nothing of their precious green space. A much smarter, more responsible policy was expressed in the following excerpt from NYU's own website, announcing the university's recent purchase of the Forbes Building: “… this purchase is also consistent with the community-oriented planning principles that the University developed with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer over two years ago, especially the emphasis on acquiring existing structures rather than resorting to new construction.”

    How does one then explain NYU's overwhelming assault on a residential neighborhood of which it's supposed to be a steward, not its destroyer?

  2. In the end, one has to ask: Why does the NYU administration demonstrate such a disregard for smart space-usage, inspired architecture and issues of sustainability? Sadly, what they appear to care about most is square footage. Building footprints. Real estate takes all precedence over architectural planning. The results are buildings that are small-minded and homogenized at best, Frankenstein monsters at worst. Architecture at its finest, however, acts as “part of a larger social and economic ecology” (to quote Mr. Kimmelman from another article in the Times) in embracing creative solutions. Not a single NYU building in recent memory – and the price tags have been considerable – shows the kind of formal innovation that both our University and the City of New York deserve.

    Bottom line: The University’s current administration is using the wrong unit of measurement for academic excellence. Hint: It’s not square footage.

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