Volume 79, Number 15 | September 16 - 22, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Playhouse hysterics

There’s no question New York University has done a great deal to reshape forever Downtown’s spatial landscape and that it has, in many instances, done so in a detrimental manner. From Washington Square South to Third Ave., several of the buildings that N.Y.U. has constructed in the last four decades are oppressively large and their institutional architecture is, frankly, uninspiring and awful, dragging down the area’s whole aesthetic.

We could go on about N.Y.U.’s missteps and aggressive expansion over the years, but the point is, the university, as of late, has made a real effort to chart a new course. Specifically, as part of its N.Y.U. Plans 2031 initiative, the school launched a community-outreach process about its space needs and enlisted outside planners and architects to devise solutions for how the university can meet those needs, while keeping down its impact on the “campus core” around Washington Square, in particular. This effort was consistent with longstanding community demands for a master plan, as opposed to opportunistic and often inappropriate development.

The university feels it will need 6 million square feet of new space in the next 22 years. The planners concluded up to 3.6 million square feet of this somehow can be shoehorned into the university’s core — mainly on N.Y.U.’s two South Village superblocks.

Although the Coles Sports Center indeed would seem to be a likely development site, we think N.Y.U. needs to try to focus on growing outside of the Downtown area, and on creating a satellite campus or campuses.

Currently, N.Y.U. is mainly building anew on sites that were already home to university use, such as at its new Law School project on the former Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments site on MacDougal St. and its new Center for Academic and Spiritual Life at the former N.Y.U. Catholic Center location on Washington Square. In both cases, N.Y.U. isn’t building to the maximum allowable square footage, or floor area ratio (F.A.R.), but is “leaving space on the table.” That’s a radically new — and positive — step.

Furthermore, N.Y.U. has adopted new “planning principles” that emerged from the Borough President’s Task Force on N.Y.U. Development. The critics argue the university betrayed the principles by demolishing almost all of the Provincetown site; but the new structure, though larger, won’t appear visibly so from the street, again leaves F.A.R. on the table, and will be an aesthetic improvement over what was there before. Community Board 2 agreed, overwhelmingly approving the project by a vote of 37 yes, 2 abstentions and 1 opposed.

That’s why we’re disappointed to see certain people bashing N.Y.U. on the Provincetown Playhouse project. Admittedly, it took initial prodding, but N.Y.U. ultimately did commit to saving and restoring as much of the historic playhouse as it could, and has already spent more than $2 million just to keep its rickety brick walls standing. The university has pledged the restored playhouse will be an active theater. Downtown has been hemorrhaging performance spaces, but this space will be a home for local independent theater for decades to come.

Basically, the section of the playhouse’s northern wall that was removed that is causing such hysterics was little more than 150-year-old rubble, and unstable. The rest of the wall is laid brick, and so has been less compromised over the years. There are no ulterior motives in the removal of the wall section, which will be replaced with concrete.

N.Y.U.’s wrecking ball has done much wrong that, sadly, can’t be undone. But the university now really is trying to be more sensitive in its development.

Those who are loudly excoriating N.Y.U. on the Playhouse should choose their battles more wisely and refrain from knee-jerk attacks on the university whenever any opening arises. This behavior becomes akin to the Boy Who Cried Wolf — and only serves to diminish the impact of the watchdogs’ vital message.

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