Photos by Tequila Minsky
In a Washington Square Village apartment, acoustic consultant Dan Abatemarco demonstrated a time-tested way to mask outside noise — switch on the air conditioner.
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | To help South Village superblock residents endure the years of construction, dust and general upheaval from its N.Y.U. 2031 mega-expansion plan, New York University is preparing to install sound-buffering windows in its Washington Square Village and Silver Towers complexes.
Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. vice president of government affairs and community engagement, recently set up a demonstration for The Villager by the acoustical consultants that the university is working with on the windows project.
As part of the city’s approval of the 2031 plan, N.Y.U. agreed to mitigate the construction’s impacts, such as noise and dust.
N.Y.U.’s plan is to start construction sometime in the near future on the south superblock, then to begin work on the north superblock a number of years after that. Even though the construction work would thus occur in stages, the university plans to do the windows project for all of its buildings on both blocks in one fell swoop, according to Hurley. Doing it all at once is more economical, she said, plus sound-attenuating windows would immediately benefit Washington Square Village residents, for example, who live along Bleecker St. and currently have to deal with the noise of loud bar patrons going to and from the Bleecker St. bars.
“The faculty are eager to have this,” Hurley said, “especially those facing out on Bleecker St. The faculty have been asking for a long time to do window improvements.”
About 17 percent to 20 percent of residents in Washington Square Village are non-N.Y.U. affiliated.
Installing the windows would entail a two-to-three day process per apartment.
A faculty group was expected to give its recommendations on the windows project this month.
The Villager was given demonstrations of noise levels — with and without sound-attenuation — in a pair of model apartments mocked up with the new window treatments.
For Washington Square Village, the idea is to replace all the buildings’ existing windows with new double-paned ones. Also, the air conditioners that are built into the wall would be fitted with covers on their inward-facing sides that would help block out the noise. Taking the cover off and running the A/C would block out even more outside noise by creating white noise.
In Silver Towers the approach is to leave the existing windows in place and install a second pane of glass behind them. Hurley said this is because Silver Towers are landmarked, and also because the original windows — some of which are in very bad shape — are set into the facade in such a way that they would be difficult to modify.
Starting out in a Washington Square Village apartment on a low floor facing the complex’s courtyard garden, Dan Abatemarco, an acoustical consultant with AKRF, used a handheld control and speakers to play audio recordings simulating the noise levels one could expect to hear under different conditions.
“We’ve calculated these noise levels for every apartment in Washington Square Village and Silver Towers,” he noted.
First, he played a recording of how it sounds with the current single-pane window shut and no construction going on — a car could be heard driving away into the distance, the sound fading away. The sound level reaching the room was 38 decibels.
Next, Abatemarco clicked a recording simulating “peak period of construction noise.” There was suddenly the jarring racket of bulldozers snorting, the screeching of metal against metal, something massive being crushed. The simulated reading inside the apartment: 51 decibels.
The next audio clip was of the “improved condition” — with the double-paned windows. The simulated outside construction noise was barely audible, registering at 38 decibels. Taking the A/C cover off, this jumped a bit up to 46 decibels. He then turned the air conditioner on, which effectively masked the outside noise.
Abatemarco noted the decibel-deflecting windows would also dampen the din from “emergency sirens and aircraft flyovers.”
However, one resident of the complex recently told The Villager that residents, after receiving a notice on the noise-mitigation plan, took it to mean that their windows were going to be “sealed over,” and that they themselves would thus be “sealed in.”
“We’re wondering if that’s legal!” she said.
But Hurley pointed out, “Remember, construction ends around 4 p.m. or 4:30 p.m.,” so residents could open their windows after then.
The new, double-pane windows would have the same panel configurations as the current windows, so as not to alter the views tenants are accustomed to.
The demonstration next shifted to a 15th-floor apartment in the easternmost Silver Tower, with its windows overlooking the rooftop of Coles gym below. Without any mitigation, the simulated noise in the apartment was very loud, even with windows closed — partly because there were no nearby buildings of the same height to block out the surrounding street noise.
Abatemarco then played an audio sound clip he called, “unimproved — peak construction,” meaning with the current, single-pane windows. It sounded like a cross between a forest being felled and a concrete bunker being demolished.
With the attenuation — a new, second, slider window added behind the first — with 9 inches of “dead air” between the two panes — and a new cover added over the built-in A/C unit, the decibel level dropped to a very quiet 40. However, the low pitch of a diesel engine could still be heard on the sound clip. Abatemarco said that while noises like jackhammers and metal clanking on metal can be attenuated, it’s harder to block out the low rumble sound.
“There’s no such thing as soundproof,” he noted. However, he added, with the sound-mitigation improvements, outside noise levels inside the apartments will actually be lower than they are currently.
As for 505 LaGuardia Place, Hurley said — as noted in the environmental impact statement for the 2031 plan — this building already has double-paned storm windows installed, plus its own “means of alternate ventilation,” i.e. air-conditioning units.
“Consequently,” she said, “the [university’s] mitigation offering is not warranted for this building.”
The building 505 LaGuardia Place is a Mitchell-Lama affordable co-op, and its tenants are non-N.Y.U. affiliated. Constructed as part of the original three-building University Village (Silver Towers), N.Y.U. ceded it for residential housing as a “giveback” to appease the community in return for the university’s gaining control of the superblock.
Meanwhile, Professor Mark Crispin Miller, a leader of N.Y.U. FASP (Faculty Against the Sexton Plan), said faculty residents aren’t exactly ecstatic about the windows plan.
“They said you also have to run the air conditioner,” he noted. “There are two problems with this. One, you don’t run an air conditioner in cold weather. And when someone said, ‘What about fresh air?’ they said, ‘You get fresh air through the air conditioner.’ … None of the top N.Y.U. administration people live on these superblocks.”
Plus, Miller added, “It’s not just noise. We’re also talking about toxic emissions and copious dust and huge holes in the ground and traffic jams lasting years.”