West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 5 | July 4 - 10, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

John Sexton, N.Y.U.’s president, was buttonholed by Teresa Hommel on the issue of electronic voting machines at the planning open house last Thursday. Hommel, who feels electronic voting is ripe for abuse since it lacks a paper trail, told Sexton the university’s Brennan Center for Justice is on the wrong side of the issue.

With doors open, N.Y.U. invites community into planning process

By Lincoln Anderson

Symbolically opening a pair of doors on Washington Square East that had been locked for 10 years, New York University welcomed neighborhood residents into its Hemmerdinger Hall last Thursday for an open house on its new strategic planning initiative.

“Nobody can remember the last time those doors were open,” said John Beckman, the university’s spokesperson. “The people in Lori Mazor’s group felt it was important to open them.”

The custodial staff didn’t have the key, however, so N.Y.U. had to call a locksmith to open the entrance.

Last month, Mazor, N.Y.U. associate vice president for planning and design, and her in-house planning team unveiled to The Villager their projections that N.Y.U. will grow by 6 million square feet, or one-third its current size, and 5,500 students, or 13 percent its current student body, in the next 25 years.

Last week’s open house was a chance for community members, in turn, to meet Mazor and her colleagues, as well as a team of outside planning and architectural consultants the university has retained to create a long-term strategic plan for the university’s growth. According to N.Y.U., 300 community members attended the event, which lasted five hours. They were all encouraged to fill out comment cards.

John Sexton, N.Y.U.’s president, also attended and spoke with residents about N.Y.U. and its future plans, and things in general — like a film on aborigines that one man recommended to him, which Sexton dutifully jotted down on his notepad.

In a statement to The Villager about the open house, Sexton said: “This century will see the development around the world of six or eight ‘idea capitals.’ It is vital to the future of New York that it be one of them, a fact increasingly recognized by New York’s public officials. And in its great research universities, New York has the assets to succeed. But as universities advance, they must do so in a way that maintains the character of their neighborhoods and the city. 

“That’s why this was an important moment: the first of a series of opportunities to solicit input and ideas in what has been developing for a long time at the university, as we try to engage the community and create ownership in the community of the fact that they have a wonderful, great university in their midst. We are committed,” Sexton said, “to the process of being respectful of the ecosystem in which we live even as we go on to become as great a university as we can.” 

Ringing tables heaped with grapes, cookies, pink punch and even magnums of champagne, the large room sported 30 “stations” — aluminum easels each holding a styrofoam-backed board with information and graphics about particular aspects of N.Y.U. and its growth challenges.

One board noted N.Y.U. is one of the city’s top 10 employers, with 12,000 employees and an additional 5,000 working within its N.Y.U. Hospital system. The same board noted that, each year, N.Y.U. buys $17 million worth of goods and services from Greenwich-Village-based businesses.

Another display board, titled “Thinking Outside the Square,” showed a map of the city with green circles on areas where N.Y.U. could possibly expand instead of the Village, such as Long Island City, Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn and Governors Island.

The accompanying text on the board stated: “N.Y.U. recognizes that its future growth cannot all be located within the Washington Square core. The New York City Economic Development Corporation has identified potential locations across the city for academic growth. The [N.Y.U.] strategic plan will develop a strategy to determine the amount and type of growth and where it can be accommodated. It will also develop a set of principles that will guide evaluation of these remote locations for future growth.”

Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said it was encouraging to see the “Thinking Outside the Square” board. G.V.S.H.P. has been a leading voice calling for N.Y.U. to create a second campus, so that the university’s growth will occur outside the Village.

“I’m really glad to see it in here,” Berman said of the board. “I hope it’s not just rhetoric, because there’s no way N.Y.U. can fit all of their growth into the Village. We started saying it five years ago. But we really started an intense campaign a year and a half ago about it after the plan for the 26-story dorm on E. 12th St. came out.

“Too many times, we’ve heard them say the right thing and do the wrong thing,” Berman said. “Some of the language here is good, but it’s meaningless its it’s not followed up with action.”

Working the core

The outside planning team that N.Y.U. retained is being led by SMWM. Karen Alschuler, SMWM’s principal in charge of planning and urban design, flew in from San Francisco for the open house.

“We’ve gotten tons of comments on comment cards,” Alschuler said. “We’ll read ’em all — and when we come up with ideas, we’ll read ’em again.

She said their initial goal will be to resolve the question of what portion of N.Y.U.’s growth can be absorbed by Washington Square.

“Our most pressing charge is figuring out what can fit in the academic core — so, if there’s 6 million square feet, how much of that can fit in the academic core?” she said.

“There’s only so much we can fit here, but I don’t know what that is yet,” she added. “The other challenge is where else they [N.Y.U.’s new facilities] can go. We’re going to mostly look at how you resolve the issue of Washington Square — then we’re going to look at satellites.”

Alschuler explained that N.Y.U., like other universities, generally considers the “magic number” for commuting time from a student’s residence to class to be 20 minutes. This number has been given for every other university plan SMWM has done, she said.

Alschuler flies into town every other week to meet with Mazor and her staff, and plans to keep doing so until they have completed the long-range plan in nine to 12 months, she said.

Alschuler said they’re not going to question the growth figure of 6 million more square feet of academic and residential space by 2031 projected by N.Y.U.’s in-house planning group.

“We’re accepting it as a base number. We’re glad the university is saying, ‘This is what we need,’” she said.

William Haas, N.Y.U. director of planning, said the 6 million figure is a ballpark number, and that it’s hard to project anything with reliability 25 years into the future.

Spokesperson Beckman later said, “Coming to an understanding of the need — the bottom-up work — is a different process than developing a plan to meet that need. Typically, a university does the bottom-up work itself or with school-by-school consultants, though it is not inconceivable that one might ask the strategic planner to do that work. However, the bottom-up planning does take time, probably a minimum of one and half years…. Now, the university has brought in some of the nation’s top urban planners, designers, architects to help the university determine how it should grow, where those 6 million square feet can be best situated across New York City, and what the limit is in the immediate area — and that is very much an inherent assumption.”

Designing a change

New N.Y.U. projects over the past 30 have been derided for their design by neighbors as, if not overly large, then simply outright eyesores marring the landscape. These neighbors likely would take heart at the comments of Toshiko Mori of Toshiko Mori Architect, one of three other architecture and planning firms working with SMWM on the strategic-planning initiative. Mori was quite upfront last week in saying that N.Y.U.’s architecture has much room for improvement. A Cooper Union graduate, Mori heads Harvard’s architecture department.

“Kimmel Student Center is a disaster,” she said, wrinkling her nose in distaste. “Bobst is quite foreboding. There’s something ominous about it. It’s one thing to be monumental, but there’s something sinister about it. It doesn’t reflect what N.Y.U. today is — which is very urban, engaged with the community and active, accessible. Of course, Bobst is way too big for the space, and urbanistically you have to take into account Washington Square — which, next to it, makes it double [in terms of Bobst’s inappropriately large size]. Gould Plaza is desolate.”

Asked her thoughts on the new 26-story E. 12th St. dorm, she just said, “I don’t know why — horrible.” Keeping the front of the former St. Ann’s Church for the new dorm wasn’t a good idea in her view. “That’s very cruel. It’s just a fragment,” she said. “Don’t do something halfway — either restore it or just get rid of it.”

Asked if she thought Kimmel’s yellowish color was fitting for the location, Mori said, “It’s not color, it’s the size. Scale is important, the issue of size and setback.” She noted she really liked the Loeb Student Center, which had been there before, for its architecture and setback off the square.

“It’s so easy to criticize what’s wrong,” she said, adding that the challenge will be to come up with a better set of “evaluation criteria” for the university’s architecture.

Olin Partnership, a landscape architecture firm also working with SMWM on the long-range plan, will be looking at the exterior spaces around N.Y.U.’s buildings with a focus on “cultural and environmental sustainability.”

“A terror” was how Olin’s David Rubin described Gould Plaza, the space in front of N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business on Waverly Pl. He said a way to improve the plaza might be simply to plant trees, the soil around which could collect runoff water to be used for irrigation or flushing toilets.

“That’s a hypothetical, but that’s the type of planning analysis we’d like to take here,” he said.

Grimshaw Architects is also working with SMWM on the project. Grimshaw’s Mark Husser and Andrew Whalley noted that the firm has done projects for University College London, which like N.Y.U. is a school without a clearly defined campus within a historic, urban environment.

Tough audience

Ed Gold, a Community Board 2 member who was touring the display stations at the open house, said the test will be how N.Y.U. approaches its major development site, the supermarket property at the southeast corner of LaGuardia Pl. and Bleecker St.

“The Morton Williams site will be an indicator to the community where N.Y.U. is going,” Gold said. “People at LaGuardia Corner Gardens can’t get a commitment from N.Y.U. that the university won’t take it.” Gold said the suspicion is N.Y.U. wants the gardens so that it can have a larger footprint for whatever it will develop on the site.

Other residents also offered tough comments and words of warning. Said Stan Ries, co-chairperson of Noho Friends Architecture, “Kids come to N.Y.U. to be in Greenwich Village. If they do this expansion in the square, there’s no Greenwich Village — it’ll all be condos to house these kids.”

Added Lois Rakoff, resident chairperson of the Bleecker Area Merchants’ and Residents’ Association, “What I want to know — where are they going to put the football field?”

Haas explained to her that N.Y.U. doesn’t have a football team.

Describing the kind of feedback he’d gotten over the five hours, Haas said, “Some think the buildings are more of a problem than the students. Others say the undergraduates are the bigger problem, that they’re noisy and loud, and that the buildings are still ugly. We didn’t hear too many good things about our new buildings.”

“I got mixed feedback,” said Mazor. “The feedback I got as people walked out the door is that ‘We’re really happy to be here and that you’re disclosing all this information.’”

N.Y.U. plans to post the 30 display boards online within about two weeks at a Web site address to be determined.

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