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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | By a vote of 19 to 1, the City Council’s Land Use Committee on Tuesday approved New York University’s 2031 plan for its two South Village superblocks.
The full Council is now poised to cast a final vote on the plan next Wed., July 25.
Unlike at the City Council hearing several weeks ago, when testimony by the massive project’s opponents, especially actor Matthew Broderick, had drawn flurries of agreeing “jazz hands” fluttering in the air, this time opponents had little to feel jazzed about.
The only “jazz hands” in evidence were when Councilmember Charles Barron spoke before casting his lone dissenting vote.
Nevertheless, Councilmember Margaret Chin — whose First District includes the N.Y.U. superblocks — was able to get some significant reductions and concessions compared with the version of the plan that was previously approved by the City Planning Commission.
“At last month’s public hearing, I made it clear I did not support N.Y.U.’s expansion proposal as modified by the City Planning Commission,” Chin said in her remarks before the vote. “Throughout this process, I have tried to keep an open mind. I have maintained that it is possible to strike a balance that upholds the integrity of Greenwich Village and meets N.Y.U.’s immediate academic needs.”
Chin said she was confident that the modified proposal “strikes this appropriate balance,” and that N.Y.U. has made “major modifications to their core campus expansion.
“To be perfectly honest, no one got everything they wanted,” she added. “This was a compromise; but it was arrived at rationally in good faith.”
Lynne Brown, N.Y.U. senior vice president, said, “The plan approved today by the City Council Committee on Land Use will enable N.Y.U. to add the academic space it needs for classes, labs and performance space while at the same time providing the local community with more publicly accessible open space and community facility space. This plan will also help New York City remain economically vibrant and the talent capital of the world.”
A few councilmembers prefaced their votes with comments saying they had concerns about the plan’s impact, before ultimately voting “yes.”
Rosie Mendez said many people would be happy if she voted “no,” and that it would be the “easy thing to do.” But deferring to her “sister” Margaret Chin, she said she would vote “yes.”
The Council’s practice is generally for members to follow the lead of the councilmember in whose district a project is located.
However, Barron cited the “noise, traffic and congestion” the project would cause.
“These are neighborhoods, these are not university towns,” Barron said, referring to expansion projects by N.Y.U., as well as by Columbia University.
“We should send this back to the drawing board,” he said.
Referring to Community Board 2’s resolution on the project, which was an “absolute no,” Barron said, “It does seem that everything in this report is diametrically opposed to what’s in the plan.“This is so-called representative democracy,” he declared. “We’re supposed to be representing the people — not N.Y.U.”
His comments were greeted appreciatively, silently but with “jazz hands” so as not to disrupt the proceedings, by the roughly 100 people in the audience, a mix of superblocks residents — including N.Y.U. faculty — neighbors living around the superblocks, Downtown activists and preservationists. Public testimony wasn’t allowed at the vote, though opponents held aloft small protest signs saying the project was wrong for the Village, N.Y.U. and the city.
In the latest negotiations, the Boomerang buildings that are planned to be added on the Washington Square Village block were cut down, very significantly in the case of the Mercer St. Boomerang, which had been the larger of the two. During the Council’s review, the Mercer building was cut by 64 percent, dropping from 11 stories to four. In addition, 21,000 square feet was slashed from the LaGuardia Boomerang. Both buildings now have smaller footprints, meaning they’ll take up less space and make the complex’s central courtyard more accessible to the public.
As for the Zipper building, on Mercer St. on the southern superblock, a 14-story tower at the project’s northeastern corner has been chopped down to five stories, and the building’s bulk generally shifted southward, so that it will have less impact on residents in two residential buildings — 200 Mercer St. and 88 Bleecker St.
Furthermore, while retaining the option for a public school at the southeast corner of Bleecker St. and LaGuardia Place, Chin was able to get N.Y.U. to commit to ensuring that — if the school plan doesn’t pan out — one-quarter of a building there will be for community use.
The School Construction Authority will now have until Dec. 31, 2014, to “say yes” to building a school on the Bleecker St. site. The S.C.A. will then have until July 1, 2018, to begin construction on the proposed school.
If the S.C.A. declines to build the school, then N.Y.U. would construct a building at the site of up to 100,000 square feet, with no less than 25,000 square feet devoted to uses by community groups, such as a preschool or senior day center. Space would be provided to the community groups at a rent that “ensures that N.Y.U. would not make a profit.”
Formerly, if the S.C.A. decided not to build the school by 2025, the university would have taken back control of the site for its own use.
Speaking before the Council vote, Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. vice president for government affairs and community engagement, assured of the Bleecker building that the university would build “the core and shell” of the community space and fully “fit it out” for use by the tenants.
As for what N.Y.U. would put on top of this community space, word is it would be something like its Wagner School of Public Service, since this could “mesh well” with the community uses below. N.Y.U.’s previous plan for the site included a freshman dorm on top, but community members and C.B. 2 had argued this would be akin to plopping “Animal House” on top of a public school, and didn’t feel it would be appropriate.
N.Y.U. has also pledged to provide 6,000 square feet in Washington Square Village building No. 4 for community use.
In addition, the university will create a 7,500-square-foot indoor atrium/community space on the western side of the new Zipper building, which will be similar to a public plaza one might find in a Midtown office building or at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center, for example. Chin and her staff said this atrium might be a place where one could get a cup of coffee or light fare and hang out, and would give people more of a reason to walk down a widened walkway on the western side of the Zipper building. The current remnant of Greene St. behind the existing Coles gym is narrow and mainly known for being a gusty wind tunnel in the winter.
(N.Y.U. also has agreed to allow community members to apply for paid access to Coles gym and continue this arrangement for the new gym to be built in the lower level of the Zipper building.)
Chin was unsuccessful in preventing N.Y.U. from taking part of the public-space strip along Mercer St. in front of Coles. N.Y.U. said it couldn’t move back the street wall for the Zipper because this would limit the way the mechanical systems could be laid out in the building.
In total, N.Y.U. agreed to provide 38,500 square feet of community space, including the 25,000-square-foot community space in the Bleecker building, should the public school not be built. (With the city recently committing to buy 75 Morton St. for use as a new public school or middle school, it’s unclear if the S.C.A. would also want a public school on the N.Y.U. superblocks.)
Also, N.Y.U. has committed to immediate upgrades to existing open space. For one, signage will be added to the Sasaki Garden to increase public awareness of the space.
Due to the community’s concern about N.Y.U.’s ability to maintain its public spaces, the university has committed to enter a “Maintenance and Operation” agreement for care of the public land on the superblocks with the Parks Department.
In addition, the university will create an endowment that will generate an annual $150,000 maintenance fund paid for by N.Y.U. for the permanent upkeep and maintenance of private open spaces on the superblocks.
As part of the agreement, N.Y.U. is promising to maintain the city-owned public strips “at the same standard and quality” as N.Y.U.-owned private land.
N.Y.U. has also agreed to modify a so-called “Open Space Oversight Organization” — which was previously approved by City Planning — to include oversight of existing, as well as future open spaces. This O.S.O.O. is to be established by the end of this year.
In other issues, N.Y.U. has agreed not to lease space on the superblocks to tenants that will operate a nightclub, or allow tenants to accept a cabaret license, or apply for or accept a beer, wine or liquor license, apart from the use of space as a bona fide restaurant.
After Tuesday’s vote, David Gruber, C.B. 2 chairperson, said he was very disappointed that the Mercer Boomerang hadn’t been completely removed from the plan.
As for why it wasn’t, Hurley said, speaking after the vote, “We studied closely whether all of the air-handling/mechanicals and access/egress to the below-grade classroom space could be supported with one building and it could not. Both Boomerang buildings — in some form — were needed.”
As for why the Zipper building’s planned footprint couldn’t be removed from the Mercer St. open-space strip (where the Mercer-Houston Dog Run is currently located), Hurley said, “There are rules to how close you can be to residential windows — Silver Towers is residential. So if the building could not shift onto the strip, it would have to shrink in terms of the footprint, and a slimmer footprint would not allow our gym and other programs — like theaters — to be built.”
Similarly, a source close to Chin said, “We could not get rid of the Mercer Boomerang totally, because it was needed to support the underground space — in terms of emergency exits and ventilation. Also, there was concern that having all students enter through the LaGuardia Boomerang would overwhelm that area. This way, pedestrian traffic will be diffused.
“We researched many options, but the smallest possible form of the Mercer building would have been an ugly, noisy, 30-foot ventilation-and-mechanical structure right outside people’s windows.
“We instead chose the smallest and thinnest building possible. It’s better-looking and will be less disruptive over all.
“As far as the strip, we could not shrink the Zipper building off of the strip because of the waivers granted by the City Planning Commission that mandated the building be a certain distance from Silver Towers. If we shrunk it, then the building would have been too close to Silver Towers, and thus out of scope. It was out of our hands.”
In a rally before the vote, members of N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan (N.Y.U. FASP) presented their “no build” alternative, which calls for the university to move administrative uses out of the campus core, freeing up space for academic use.
N.Y.U. FASP members have previously said they would support teaching on Fridays, since this would better utilize N.Y.U.’s existing classroom space, so that new space wouldn’t be required. The no-classes-on-Fridays regimen is a holdover from the university’s days as a commuter school, plus the fact that New York has a large Jewish population.
Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said the Council committee’s vote was “deeply disappointing.”
“The plan is still absolutely wrong,” he said of N.Y.U. 2031, “and it violates a public trust. This was public land given to N.Y.U. a generation ago. This land was never supposed to be built on. While we appreciate that the plan was scaled back slightly, it’s not nearly enough to make it acceptable.”
Berman noted there is still the option of filing a lawsuit against the plan.