The present context | The New York University public review process to add more than 2 million square feet to its two superblocks in the Village is drawing to its grand finale. The seven-month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) application has received a resounding “no” vote from Community Board 2, “approval with conditions” from Borough President Stringer, and approval with minor modifications from the City Planning Commission. Now it is in the hands of the City Council, which will vote on the application in the next few weeks.
Councilmember Margaret Chin is taking the lead on the application, since the superblocks are in her district. The City Council is very hesitant to overrule the opinion of a sitting councilmember in ULURP projects, for good reason, so how Chin negotiates and votes on this application will define, in large measure, the fate of this project and the future of our neighborhood.
The stakes are extraordinarily high for N.Y.U. and the neighborhood. N.Y.U. makes a compelling case that it needs to grow to maintain its competitiveness in a changing academic marketplace, and that some of its projected growth needs to take place in its core area. It has argued that it can best grow in a planned and predictable fashion on its own land, rather than opportunistically all over Downtown. Reasonable people do disagree, however, on how much of N.Y.U.’s growth in its core area can fit into the two superblocks without overwhelming the “fragile ecosystem” of our urban environment, a term used by N.Y.U. President John Sexton.
The long and the short of it is that N.Y.U. has substantially overreached and is attempting to shoehorn too much square footage into too small an area. We understand that it is cheaper to build on your own land than to buy land and build on it, or to buy a building, but that cannot serve as an excuse to overwhelm your neighborhood. The proposal as it stands lacks a necessary balance that it is now incumbent on Councilmember Chin to restore. N.Y.U. should be permitted to grow on the superblocks, but its project must be substantially reduced in size.
In February, we called for a reduction in the project of roughly 50 percent. We believe that this is a reasonable balance of N.Y.U.’s need to grow in its core, and the community’s ability to accommodate this growth without the character of the area being crushed.
A six-point road map to help put this project into balance
1) Strips: The four publicly owned strips on Mercer and Laguardia Sts. must not be built on, and the strips should be transferred to the Parks Department. Limited easements may need to be granted to service existing or future N.Y.U. buildings. N.Y.U. should enter maintenance agreements with Parks for maintaining at least the Mercer St. strips. The transfer of the co-gen strip to N.Y.U. must include a restrictive declaration for perpetual open space and maintenance agreement.
2) Zipper Building: The huge Zipper Building that N.Y.U. proposes to build at Houston and Mercer Sts. extending to Bleecker St. must be set back to the west to retain the Mercer St. strip. N.Y.U.’s proposal to push the Zipper Building to the lot line would violate Mercer St.’s special open character. If N.Y.U. cannot fit its various uses into a reduced footprint, then it should come at the cost of a substantial overall reduction in the size of the above-grade size of the building.
3) Mercer Boomerang Building: This building must be eliminated from the project, not just reduced in size. Removing this building helps to reduce the size and density of N.Y.U.’s project, and opens up the interior of Washington Square Village to become real open space. In eliminating this building, there may be a need for entry and egress to N.Y.U.’s belowground facilities that requires a minimal at-grade structure.
4) Washington Square Village: N.Y.U.’s contention that it would create public open space inside of Washington Square Village by building two Boomerang Buildings and creating a university quad strains credibility. The Planning Commission has called for a management and programming oversight committee for the proposed open space. Councilmember Chin needs to give this oversight committee legislative teeth so that it can effectively fulfill its oversight function.
5) Bleecker Building: N.Y.U. has proposed making 78,000 square feet available to the New York City School Construction Authority for a new public school in the planned Bleecker building on the south superblock. N.Y.U. should transfer the deed to the city with a strong restriction that it can only be used for a school or a community facility.
6) 505 Laguardia Place lease: This building’s existing land lease is set to expire in 2014. N.Y.U. should renew this lease for 99 years with a formula to assure affordability for this building’s residents.
Conclusion | We recognize N.Y.U.’s enormous contribution to our neighborhood and the importance of facilitating its growth. But its contention that it can cram more than 2 million square feet into its two superblocks without overwhelming its urban context is totally unconvincing.
It is now up to Councilmember Chin to put this proposal in balance. And to President Sexton to do the same.