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Volume 77, Number 9 | August 01 - 07, 2007


New interfaith project inspires faith in N.Y.U.

A year ago, New York University announced it wasn’t interested in acquiring the N.Y.U. Catholic Center property at Washington Square S. and Thompson St. One had to view that statement, though, in the context of the university’s recent building efforts on the south side of the square — Kimmel Center and new Law School building — and the firestorm of angry opposition from the community that these projects engendered.

Now, John Sexton, N.Y.U.’s president, has turned over a new leaf, saying that, in certain cases, when the university develops new buildings it won’t always build to the maximum floor area ratio — in other words, that it won’t use all its development rights.

That position is a major change for the university. In building Kimmel, which is 150 feet tall, N.Y.U. exploited all its development rights available under the community facilities zoning allowance. Ditto the Law School project.

Obviously, N.Y.U. has learned something from the dreadful experience of those two large projects. As a result, as Sexton told The Villager last week, the university now is planning to purchase the Catholic Center site and erect a new university building there but — incredibly — not max it out on its full development rights. Sexton and university officials told The Villager that N.Y.U., if it reaches a deal with the archdiocese to buy the site, would only build roughly half as tall as the site allows — perhaps six or seven stories.

Sexton doesn’t want to be pinned down on an exact figure because the contract isn’t signed yet, but the university would be making a big concession by paying market rate for the property but foregoing use of its full development potential.

As part of N.Y.U.’s new planning initiative, architect consultants are creating guidelines for improving the university’s building designs. We just pray, no pun intended, that the new interfaith center looks nothing like Kimmel.

Of course, some will say that even six or seven stories is simply too big or that N.Y.U. should do nothing there and that the leaky Catholic Center, which needs $1 million in repairs, should remain. But the site isn’t landmarked and it’s right in N.Y.U.’s campus area, so realistically something is going to happen there.

By building lower than it could, N.Y.U. will help preserve what’s left of the park’s southern vista and prevent more deep shadows from being cast on the park by yet another behemoth — the most egregious example being the university’s Bobst Library.

This is a triple winner: the community gets a less-intrusive building on the critical southern edge of the square; N.Y.U gets probably the most iconic and central site available to them in the Village; and both the archdiocese and N.Y.U. do the right thing for the community, of which they both are a huge part.

By saying N.Y.U. will build the building half as large as it could, Sexton is, at least in this case, saying the university will meet the community halfway. That’s progress, major progress.

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