Volume 80, Number 41 | March 10 -16, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

A rendering of how part of Washington Square Village’s courtyard would look under N.Y.U.’s latest renovation plan for the northernmost of its two South Village superblocks. Green areas and seating would be interspersed among paved walkways, and the currently private area would be made open to the public.

N.Y.U. gives a preview of its superblocks open-space plan

By Lincoln Anderson

With New York University poised for a major March 15 media roll-out of its revised development plans for its two South Village superblocks, The Villager, last Friday, got an exclusive preview of the university’s latest open-space plan for its northern superblock.

As in previously viewed versions of the plan, the university’s intention is to open up Washington Square Village’s large, private, garden courtyard to public use; the latest plans include details about what that open space would look like, including green areas, seating, reconfigured playgrounds and two “light shafts” to underground classroom space that would be added beneath the block. Also, N.Y.U. still wants to get ownership of some of the city-owned “strips” of land edging the superblocks — specifically, N.Y.U. wants four of the remaining seven strips.

In total, N.Y.U. plans to increase by 130,000 square feet, or 3 acres, the amount of publicly accessible open space on the two superblocks, which are bounded by W. Third, Houston and Mercer Sts. and LaGuardia Place. Currently, the two behemoth blocks have a total of about 50,000 square feet of public open space.

In addition, on Monday, at Community Board 2’s Landmarks and Public Aesthetics Committee meeting, N.Y.U. presented its plan for modifications to the grounds of the landmarked 1960’s University Village (Silver Towers) complex on the southern superblock. As part of its application to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, N.Y.U. is proposing to shift the Mercer-Houston Dog Run into the southeastern corner of the landmarked site, so that the university can incorporate the current dog run site into a new building it plans along Mercer St. on the spot of the current Coles gym. But, at Monday night’s meeting, Beth Gottlieb, the run’s president, said the dog owners don’t want to vacate their space.

“I think it’s an appropriate time to say, We would decline the opportunity to be moved,” she declared. “We’ve been where we are for 30 years and we want to stay there.” The run’s membership numbers 300 families.

Speaking to this newspaper later, Gottlieb added they are already taking steps to block N.Y.U.’s efforts to relocate them, namely, by seeking permanent park status for the dog run from the Parks Department. Asked if they would go so far as to sue to stop N.Y.U.’s plan, she said, “I would certainly consider that — absolutely.”

Putting the dog run closer to the Silver Towers buildings would create problems because of barking from the run, which is currently open 24 hours, she warned. Certain breeds are the worst, she said, noting, “Some of the hounds can be heard until Cleveland.”

Open-space tour
On Friday, Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U.’s vice president for government and community relations, gave The Villager’s editorial staff a tour of the superblocks grounds, showing exactly how the university intends to make them more open and inviting to the public. (Hurley said the university is waiting until next week to unveil its site plans for the grounds and the latest designs for the four new buildings it intends to construct on the two blocks.)

Under the plan, on the northern superblock, the low-rise retail strip along LaGuardia Place would be removed to open up the Washington Square Village courtyard for public access on its western edge. The block’s underground parking would remain underground, but would be shifted to the block’s northeastern corner; the current amount of parking spaces for residents, 380, would be kept, but 200 public parking spaces would be eliminated. There would be no underground parking added on the southern superblock.

The Washington Square Village courtyard garden — which is only lightly used — would be lowered to grade level and completely redone. There would be a large, circular grass lawn at the center of the courtyard’s northern side, and numerous, smaller green spaces, many of them ringed by seating. The rest of the space would be paved with some sort of stone surface. There would also be two “light shafts” extending down to space that would be constructed below ground for school facilities that don’t need to be aboveground, like theaters, rehearsal space, dance studios and libraries, as well as some classrooms. According to Hurley, N.Y.U. doesn’t envision this new public space being gated at night, yet, at the same time, doesn’t see it as a place for musical performances or busking.

On Washington Square Village’s eastern side, the Mercer Playground would be reconfigured into a sort of right-angle macaroni shape, extending partly along Mercer St. and partly into the courtyard’s interior at its north end, so as to open up the courtyard to access along Mercer St.

These changes on the northern superblock wouldn’t occur until 15 years from now, Hurley noted. The projects on the southern superblock — including new buildings N.Y.U. plans for its Morton Williams site and its current Coles site — are what N.Y.U. is focusing on now, and work here could start in three years, Hurley said.

N.Y.U. wants 4 strips
Hurley said N.Y.U. still wants to take over the strips of city-owned land along Mercer St. between Houston and Bleecker Sts. (which includes the Mercer-Houston Dog Run); Mercer St. between Bleecker and W. Third Sts. (which includes Mercer Playground); Mercer St. between W. Third and W. Fourth Sts. (which sits above part of N.Y.U.’s new co-generation plant); and LaGuardia Place between Bleecker St. and W. Third St. (which includes LaGuardia Park). However, in early December, community residents and activists were joined by all the area’s local politicians in a rally at the Fiorello LaGuardia statue in LaGuardia Park to protest any university takeover of the city-owned strips, decrying it as a blatant taking of public property.

Hurley said N.Y.U. decided it will no longer seek approval to decrease the width of W. Third St. between LaGuardia Place and Mercer St. The school had wanted to extend out the sidewalk here, since this part of W. Third St. street is extra-wide, turning it into a “speedway” for cars; narrowing the street would slow down traffic, Hurley said.

All these strips of land are remnants of former planning czar Robert Moses’s grand street-widening plans for the Village half a century ago.

Hurley said N.Y.U. wants the strip on LaGuardia Place between Bleecker and W. Third Sts. because it intends to build university space underground there. N.Y.U. wants the strip on Mercer St. between Houston and Bleecker Sts. so that it can shift the current Coles gym footprint to the east for the new building that it would build there; by shifting this new project to the east, the current little-known alley to the west of Coles could be widened, so that it would be a more inviting passageway between Bleecker and Houston Sts. Hurley stressed that, under the plan, “It’s not an expansion of Coles’s footprint — but a shift [onto the strip].”

Buildings would poke out less
On the northern superblock, two infill buildings — dubbed the “boomerang buildings” because of their shape — that N.Y.U. plans to add in the Washington Square Village courtyard would now extend less far onto the Mercer and LaGuardia strips than in the plan’s earlier incarnation. Previously, the “boomerang” that bumped out onto LaGuardia Place would have forced the LaGuardia statue’s relocation; but, under the revised plan, moving “The Little Flower” will no longer be necessary, Hurley assured. Also, the site of the planned new Adrienne’s Garden playground, which had formerly been north of the statue, will be shifted to the south of it, Hurley said. The current playground inside the Washington Square Village grounds would be rebuilt as part of the plan for the northern superblock, which would have a total of three playgrounds.

On the southern superblock, the dog run would be shifted from Mercer St. into the site of the current toddlers’ playground in the Silver Towers complex, and the playground converted for canine use. The new dog run, at 3,195 square feet, would be 20 square feet larger than the existing one, according to Hurley. A new playground would be built just to the north, replacing the existing one. These changes would have to be cleared by the Landmarks Preservation Commission since they are within the landmarked site. In addition, N.Y.U. wants to remove the 6-foot-high metal fencing that has been added around the complex’s edges and replace it with a lower fence, as well as restore the complex’s original lights with globe-style light bulbs, among other things.

At Monday night’s C.B. 2 committee meeting, Matthew Urbanski of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the landscape architects for N.Y.U.’s Plan 2031 expansion scheme, made the presentation on the Silver Towers grounds modifications.

Urbanski gave a PowerPoint presentation to the audience of about 50 people, showing a design rendering of how the university would shift the Coles site onto Mercer St., while shifting the dog run onto the Silver Towers playground site. But local residents in the audience — which included residents from 505 LaGuardia Place — several community board members and Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, all voiced suspicion over why only an illustration of N.Y.U.’s desired outcome was being shown while there was no illustration showing a scenario with the current dog run and Coles footprint remaining in place.

“I’m confused about doing a total plan here before we know what the destiny of that sports center is,” said one board member, her comments greeted with shouts of “Thank you!” and applause from the audience.

Hurley said, “If you want us to redraw it, to shift it, that’s fine,” but she added that the new playground would be open to the public (the current one is accessible only with a key), and that, if Coles’s footprint isn’t shifted, then the new playground would have to be smaller because of the site’s space constraints.

Photo by Lincoln Anderson

N.Y.U. plans for this concrete-walled toddlers’ playground on Houston St. to undergo a “canine conversion” into a dog run.

Dog run do’s and don’ts
Speaking to this newspaper later, Hurley said, no dog run or playground in the city is located right up against a building with windows, which is the reason it would have to be moved. Coles gym doesn’t have windows, but the new building would. She said she was confident that, since this would be a “significant” new building, the Bloomberg administration is already on the same page with N.Y.U. in terms of where the dog run should be situated in relation to it.

In a statement on Wednesday, Andrew Brent, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, said, “It’s critical for New York City that higher education institutions continue to grow and succeed while meeting the needs of the community. In some cases, the transfer of land may be an important tool to facilitate that, especially when it enables the creation of more publicly accessible open space than exists today. In N.Y.U.’s case, it’s still very early in the process.” He added that the dog run relocation would have “to go through the Landmarks Preservation Commission process.”

Berman called the university’s assumption that the city would O.K. shifting the Coles footprint onto the Mercer St. strip “incredibly premature,” and said the building that N.Y.U. plans to erect there would be “ginormous...looming over the playground and dog run.” Berman said “there’s good reason to believe” the city won’t approve the footprint shift, but didn’t give any specifics as to how he knew that. (The most recent plan had called for a 17-story building, including a 1,400-bed freshmen dormitory, on the Coles site.)

Another resident cautioned that the spot where N.Y.U. wants to put the dog run and the new playground is “a very cold, windy place — about the windiest place around.”

More to the point, audience members stressed that they want assurance — in the form of a letter from I.M. Pei or his colleague, Henry Cobb — that legendary architect Pei definitely supports N.Y.U.’s latest proposed modifications to the Silver Towers complex. Hurley said Pei is onboard with these current modifications, but said, yes, N.Y.U. will get a letter stating this.

Big roll-out coming
On March 15, the university will unveil its latest plans for the four new buildings it intends to construct on the two superblocks, which are part of the scheme to add a total of 1.5 million to 2 million square feet of space both aboveground and underground. These plans will include the latest details on a hotel and public school that are part of the projects. In November, N.Y.U. decided to scrap plans for one of these planned four buildings, a 400-foot tower within the landmarked Silver Towers site, after Cobb, a partner with Pei — who designed the complex — sent Landmarks a letter on Nov. 10 saying that Pei, 93, was strongly opposed to adding the new building within the landmarked, three-tower site.

The fourth tower, as then planned, would have included N.Y.U. faculty residences and also a hotel. As a result of Pei’s objection, N.Y.U. subsequently announced it would shift its development focus to its Morton Williams supermarket site, at the southeastern corner of Bleecker St. and LaGuardia Place — which is just outside the Silver Towers landmarked complex — as the site for this new building. Under the previous plan, the Morton Williams site would have been converted into open space as a playground, and northern sightlines from 505 LaGuardia Place (a Mitchell-Lama building which N.Y.U. does not own but which is part of University Village) would not have been blocked.

On Monday night, C.B. 2’s Landmarks and Public Aesthetics Committee decided to put off voting on the Silver Towers site modification plan until its meeting next month. The board’s vote is advisory only.

Later this month, on Mon., March 21, the university will present its updated superblocks plans to Community Board 2’s Arts and Institutions Committee, at 6:30 p.m., at the Grace Church School, 86 Fourth Ave., auditorium.

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