Volume 75, Number 28 | Nov. 30 - Dec. 06, 2005

Villager photos by Gary He

Some neighbors think that N.Y.U.’s dormitories on Third Ave., above at left, have led to an influx of fast-food stores. Below, an N.Y.U. student, presumably, passes a McDonald’s on Third Ave. near St. Mark’s Pl., a block south of the N.Y.U. dorms.

Can a 26-story dormitory fit in a ‘fragile ecosystem’?

By Lincoln Anderson

When John Sexton took over as president of New York University four years ago, many community members were hoping it would bring a change. Tensions between residents and the university were at an all-time high following the construction of two exceedingly large N.Y.U. buildings on the south of Washington Square: the Kimmel Student Center and new School of Law Building — the latter for which a historic building in which legendary writer Edgar Allan Poe had lived was demolished.

In a new attempt at improving neighborhood relations, Sexton held a couple of town hall meetings with the community. At these meetings, in 2003 and 2004, he emphasized the need to protect what he termed the Village’s “fragile ecosystem.” “The Village is our great asset,” he declared at the ’04 town hall. He said essentially the same to the local business community three years ago when he spoke at a luncheon of the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce.

Now, local residents and preservationists are trying to figure out how a 26-story dormitory N.Y.U. is planning on E. 12th St. between Third and Fourth Aves. can possibly fit into this concept of a “fragile ecosystem.” Indeed, according to most accounts, the planned dorm, if built to that height, would be the largest building ever in the East Village.

“We haven’t seen the plans,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “But President Sexton promised when he came in that he would respect the Village’s fragile ecosystem and that he would work with the community and respond to its concerns. I think this is a test of that. Given that this is the first N.Y.U. project to be built under Sexton — and probably the biggest for some time — this will really define whether President Sexton’s commitment was a true one and will be kept.

“On its face, a 26-story building sounds extremely inappropriate for this location,” Berman continued. “Hopefully, this is the beginning of a process of designing this project — and not the end.”

Earlier this month, N.Y.U. announced it had signed an agreement with developer Hudson Companies, Inc. — the site’s owner — to develop an undergraduate student residence on the 12th St. property.

Construction by Hudson Companies is expected to start next year and the dorm is scheduled to open in the spring of 2009, housing about 700 students in approximately 190,000 square feet of space. The building will accommodate students relocating from some residence halls south of N.Y.U.’s Washington Square campus, most notably its large Water St. residence in the Financial District, the lease for which is up next year. N.Y.U. has the option to buy the 12th St. building after one year or lease it long term.

Hudson Companies acquired the site — where historic St. Ann’s Church formerly stood — from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York more than a year ago, and promptly demolished the church. Additional air rights for the project were acquired from the Peter Cooper Station Post Office on Fourth Ave. and 11th St. Responding to the request of community and preservation groups, Hudson Companies is preserving the north facade of the 1847 church, which will be incorporated as the new dorm’s entranceway.

While N.Y.U. and the developer are pledging to work with the community on issues such as insuring the church tower is preserved and on the project’s design and exterior materials, at the moment there’s no indication that it will be anything less than 26 stories or home to fewer than 700 students. To many, that seems like a violation of Sexton’s vow to preserve the Village’s “fragile ecosystem.”

“We’re pretty stunned that something of this size and magnitude could be planned for this area,” said Elizabeth Langwith, chairperson of the ad-hoc St. Ann’s Committee, a group of about 80 neighbors, including renters and co-op and condo owners. “We don’t want 26 stories there. Whether or not it’s a dorm — I don’t think it should be anywhere near that size. There’s nothing that size south of 14th St.”

Yet, both the developer and N.Y.U. say that as of now the building is being planned at that height.

“We have announced it will be 26 stories,” said Lynne Brown, N.Y.U. senior vice president. “That was the height the developer was talking about, whether it was N.Y.U. or someone else, regardless. We have said we’d like to accommodate 700 students there.”

Regarding the fact that N.Y.U. is committing to save the church tower facade, Brown noted, “Our first gesture on this site has been in keeping with John’s promise.” Regarding whether the project can somehow be shoehorned into the Village’s “fragile ecosystem,” Brown said, “Certainly, this project would be one in which those words would be a guide for us. It’s no problem for us to hear those words and do the best we can — and we’ll be meeting with Andrew [Berman] and others on this.”

Brown noted that the project will get only a negligible bulk addition under the contentious community facilities zoning bonus, and that if it were a hotel or condos — and thus not able to benefit from the zoning bonus — it would be the same size as the dorm.

“The community facility allowance is not what’s driving the size of the building,” Brown noted. Indeed, it’s the air rights transfer from the post office that is responsible for the project’s size. It’s also the air-rights transfer that has raised the ire of the project’s critics, who charge that the Postal Service and developer skirted what is known as the Section 106 review, which is required when the act of shifting a post office’s air rights affects a historic property. The 1930s-era Peter Cooper Station Post Office itself is a historic property, on the National Register of Historic Places.


‘Tainted process’

“The transaction never should have happened in the first place,” said Langwith. “But the post office doesn’t want to go back and review this.” Furthermore, the church was in the pipeline for possible naming to the historic register.

“Part of the problem here is that this has already gone through a tainted process,” echoed Berman. Claiming that the Postal Service has admitted it failed to do the required review, Berman cites an Aug. 16 letter from Katherine Sitterie, a Postal Service government relations representative, to Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, in which she states: “We have decided that when similar proposals arise in the future (purchases of air rights coupled with physical changes to a historical postal property), we will follow procedures under Section 106, while the transaction is in negotiation.”

What’s more, the air rights transfer was never presented to Community Board 3, which usually is kept abreast of development projects in its district.

“I know questions have been raised about the post office selling their air rights without public review,” said David McWater, C.B. 3 chairperson. “They should have told somebody. I’d like to think it’d be us.”

Although a rezoning of the East Village is being pushed by C.B. 3 and the East Village Community Coalition, who seem to have gotten the ear of City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, the dorm site is outside the rezoning area, which stops at Third Ave. McWater said he hoped the development site could be added to the rezoning proposal in the future.

David Kramer, a principal in Hudson Companies, disagrees that a Section 106 review was required. Originally, Hudson Companies planned a condo tower, for which, under zoning, it would have had to meet public-space requirements: the post office roof would have been used for this, with a land bridge extending over it from the condo tower.

“All I know is that we bought the air rights [in January] and the transaction was concluded,” said Kramer. “The post office told us it was a discretionary review — that for an air-rights transfer it’s ambiguous and it’s discretionary. And their lawyers told us it was not required — and they haven’t strayed from that position. It’s inaccurate to say that the post office failed to conduct a Section 106 review. Our agreement with the post office allows us to put a bridge on the post office roof — but we’re not going to do it.”

Robert Anderson, a Postal Service spokesperson, said at this point, any questions about the development should be posed to Hudson Companies and N.Y.U. He referred to the plan for the land bridge on top of the post office, but noted that this has been scrapped.

“Preservation rules are open to legal interpretation,” Anderson said. “And air rights are complicated legal issues and their interpretation is open.”

He did note that the Postal Service is asking to meet with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to “ask for guidance,” but it wasn’t clear if any aspect of the air-rights transfer to Hudson Companies would be affected retroactively.

“To the best of my knowledge, the Postal Service has nothing to do with that development now — only if it affects our historic structure,” he said.

Hudson Companies’ Kramer added that another potential sticking point raised in a recent article in the New York Sun — that the archdiocese put a deed restriction on the church property banning abortions — is “again, a nonissue.” Kramer said the restriction basically means the site can’t be used as an abortion clinic. “A dorm is not in violation of the spirit or the letter of the restrictive covenant,” he said.

Kramer said they are being community sensitive, because they are saving the church tower facade and, as required by zoning for a dorm, will set the building back 50 feet behind the church facade. Were it a hotel or condo tower, they wouldn’t be able to do the setback, which could complicate saving the church facade.

Kramer denied the project would shatter local height records.

“This is not going to be the tallest building in the East Village,” he said. “I can do the homework on that,” he said, saying he’d check it out, but did not name a taller building by press time. “We’re just building what’s within our legal rights,” he added. “I’m building as of right.

“I don’t see this upsetting the Village ecosystem,” he said.

Kramer said the decision to go for a dorm instead of condos was because of the “stability” and “less market risk” it offered.

Beyond the height and accusations of violations of air-transfer review rules, there is the concern by residents of the further inundation of college students into the neighborhood.

“I think the idea of having 700 students living next door is not appealing,” said Langwith. “There are already so many dorms nearby. Condo residents are a lot less transient. Students are not going to be linked into the neighborhood — it’s not going to contribute to the stability of the neighborhood.

“It feels like eminent domain — N.Y.U. is taking over,” she said. “They’re not contributing anything to us except more fast-food joints, noise and congestion.”

She also said it would likely be a much nicer building if it was a hotel or condo — that for N.Y.U. the bottom line will be the main thing and that the materials likely won’t be as nice.

Although it appears there’s little residents can do at this point to stop the project, Langwith said neighbors would ideally like to see N.Y.U. build a more innocuous dorm along the lines of New School University’s 200-student dorm on E. 12th St., which is about 10 to 12 stories tall.

Yet, Brown said the 700-student residence planned on E. 12th St. will actually be a “midsize dorm” by N.Y.U.’s standards, several hundred students smaller, for example, than N.Y.U.’s Palladium residence nearby on E. 14th St. and Third Ave. She said the university is seeing this area — Union Square and Third Ave. along the East Village — as a sort of second campus area, in addition to Washington Square. She stressed, however, that N.Y.U. is not expanding its student body — if anything, the student body has increased only “marginally” in recent years, she said — and that N.Y.U. is just moving students up from leased housing farther Downtown. There are now close to 4,000 N.Y.U. students living in a 10-block area along Third Ave. and in Union Square, Brown said.

“We went very quickly from a commuter school to a residential school,” Brown explained.

As to complaints that N.Y.U. is “eating the Village,” while its students are eating too much fast food, Senior V.P. Brown felt those comments were both out of line and inaccurate. It’s in N.Y.U.’s interest to have its students eating in the university’s dining halls, and, in fact, most of them are on university meal plans, she noted. The fast-food places would be there with or without N.Y.U. students, she said. Furthermore, if one asks the retailers and the local business improvement districts, she said, they’ll say they’re happy the students are there and going to movies, eating out and injecting dollars into the economy.

“The students add vibrancy and pedestrian traffic,” she said, adding, “Certainly, the East Village and Union Square — these are very young areas, anyway.”


Campus planning— a new approach

Brown announced that N.Y.U. within the next couple of weeks will be introducing its new Campus Planning and Real Estate team, whose job will be to assess the university’s physical plant needs and also to work with the community. The team will be led by Sharon Greenberger, formerly of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, who previously worked closely with Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Dan Doctoroff.

The goal will be “trying to have a more coherent long-term plan for the university,” Brown said.

As for one major expected development site the university owns, the Morton Williams supermarket at Bleecker St. and LaGuardia Pl., Brown said it’s still not known what this will be, though N.Y.U. will definitely develop it. Brown said that because neighbors objected to a science building there, the university decided to renovate buildings it owns at 12-16 Waverly Pl. for its new life sciences and genomic study labs.

Although residents frequently call on N.Y.U. to “reveal its master plan,” Brown said that’s difficult for the university to do. Yet, she said, the university will aspire to provide more of a time frame for what it’s doing and where.

“You really only have a master plan if you have a lot of real estate, like Columbia,” she said. “We don’t have that luxury of sitting on a lot of real estate. It doesn’t mean we can’t take a look five or 10 years down the line.”

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