Volume 80, Number 27 | December 2 - 8, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
N.Y.U. ‘super’ errors
In two separate editorials in 2004, our newspapers called for the 50-foot-wide strips of city-owned property on the eastern and western edges of New York University’s two South Village superblocks to be transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Parks Department. Dating back to a resolution passed in 1992, Greenwich Village’s Community Board 2 has long been on record supporting this transfer, which would protect the strips from development.
D.O.T. ownership of the strips doesn’t block their development, whereas if Parks owned them, the state Legislature would have to approve any sale.
Mapped as roadbed despite their current, lush, leafy state in many sections, these properties remain from planning czar Robert Moses’ plans to widen these streets for the never-built Fifth Ave. connector to the unrealized Lower Manhattan Expressway.
With the university now pushing ahead with its ambitious N.Y.U. 2031 expansion scheme — whose epicenter is the two superblocks — these strips are a key battleground between the university and the community. However, showing N.Y.U. woefully lacks official support for acquiring the strips, a phalanx of local politicians will assemble Sunday at a 1 p.m. rally on LaGuardia Place between Bleecker and W. Third Sts. to voice support for C.B. 2’s resolution that the parkland strips be preserved. The residents group Community Action Alliance on N.Y.U. 2031 will join them.
N.Y.U. wants to acquire these strips for its superblocks plans. In the southeast corner, the university hopes to incorporate the current location of Mercer-Houston Dog Run site into the footprint of its “Zipper Building,” planned on the site of its current Coles gym on Mercer St. N.Y.U. says that by using this strip area, it could bring back some form of Greene St. on Coles’s western side — which was demapped under the superblocks’ original urban renewal plan — increasing the width of the obscure alley there now. A new location for the dog run is proposed at the southeast corner of the Silver Towers' landmarked site. If N.Y.U.’s strips bid is rejected, then, from what we’re told, the university wouldn’t redesign the “Zipper” project, but would build it the same size — without widening the Greene St. pathway.
As we editorialized six years ago, the university doesn’t deserve these strips, for one, for failing to step in and fix up the dilapidated and sunken playground and seating areas on Mercer St. between Houston and Bleecker Sts. Yes, D.O.T. owns these strips — but given that N.Y.U. was always rumored to be stymieing the strips’ transfer to Parks, ultimately, the university is responsible for them.
The first, stunning superblock setback, of course, came last week, when N.Y.U. announced it was abandoning its plans to site a fourth tower — 400 feet tall — within the landmarked Silver Towers complex. N.Y.U. had to withdraw after Henry Cobb, partner of the complex’s legendary designer, I.M. Pei, wrote the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission last month, calling the site inappropriate. As Cobb wrote: “…[A] fourth tower is profoundly destructive to the landmarked entity, because it closes a composition that was intended to be open and upsets the carefully considered balance between solid and void.” As for the university now developing a shorter building of equal square footage on its Morton Williams supermarket site at the block’s northwest corner, Cobb stated in his letter, “Ideally the corner building would be designed so as to make it more responsive to its neighbors and to the landmarked entity.”
Cobb’s eloquent letter is a road map for how N.Y.U. must proceed. In short, N.Y.U. must scale back its plans for the superblocks, which simply cannot handle 2 million-plus square feet of new development. Indeed, “responsive” and “balance” are the key words N.Y.U. must be supremely mindful of as it moves forward.