Volume 80, Number 50 | May 12 - 18, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Worries N.Y.U. project would endanger blocks’ ‘ecosystem’

By Albert Amateau

From butterflies to deed restrictions, the priorities that Villagers want New York University to include in the scope of its environmental impact study for the redevelopment of its two superblocks took shape last week at a Community Board 2 forum.

The list of concerns developed at the forum will inform the board’s testimony at the City Planning Department’s May 24 scoping hearing on N.Y.U.’s plan to add four buildings totaling 2.5 million square feet to the superblocks over the next 19 years.

“We want N.Y.U. to know our concerns, and most important, we want the city to know what our priorities are,” said David Gruber, chairperson of the board’s Arts and Institutions Committee. City Planning’s scoping document will determine the issues to be included in the plan’s environmental impact statement, or E.I.S.

“If [an issue] is not in the scoping document it won’t be studied and we may not have a chance to suggest an alternative to it,” Gruber said at the May 5 forum.

The butterfly issue came from Ellen Horan, a Village resident for 35 years and a member of the LaGuardia Corner Gardens since 1987. She was concerned that the shadow of the proposed building on the northwest corner of the south superblock would affect the flowering time of milkweed, which is the food source of the larvae of monarch butterflies. LaGuardia Corner Gardens were registered in 2007 as a way station for monarchs, the orange-and-black butterflies that migrate in the fall and spring. The gardens are also recognized as a “Backyard Wildlife Habitat” by the National Wildlife Federation, she noted.

Horan urged the city and N.Y.U. to incorporate Battery Park City’s environmental guidelines and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s World Trade Center 9/11 memorial’s green guidelines in the development plan.

Peter Liberman, a resident of 505 LaGuardia Place, one of the three I.M. Pei-designed buildings on the southern superblock, said the proposed lifting of a deed restriction, dating from 30 years ago when the block was in an urban renewal area, could threaten the 175 moderate-income families in the building.

The Mitchell-Lama co-op at 505 LaGuardia Place does not own the land on which it is built, and the block’s deed restriction limiting development has kept the land value low, Liberman explained. If N.Y.U. succeeds in lifting the restriction, the land value could rise and encourage N.Y.U. to displace the residents and redevelop the site, he said.

“We want to know the risks concerned with lifting the deed restriction and with other changes that we would face,” Liberman said.

Andito Lloyd, special projects director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said the E.I.S. should analyze the maximum possible development allowable under the proposed rezonings, “not simply what N.Y.U. is saying at this point it plans to build if given the requested approvals.”

The society also wants studies done for alternative zoning changes that would allow development on some but not all of the proposed sites and at building densities lower than what the university has proposed.

“That way, if City Planning and the City Council are unwilling to reject the plan in its entirety but are willing to reduce or minimize it, such changes can be considered ‘in scope’ because they have been studied in the E.I.S,” Lloyd said.

The society also wants the E.I.S. to consider the project’s impact on a proposed South Village Historic District, as well as on the existing Soho and Noho historic districts. The project’s impact on the open spaces on the northern superblock, where Washington Square Village is located between W. Third and Bleecker Sts., and on the southern superblock, where the landmarked Pei-designed Silver Towers are located between Houston and Bleecker Sts., is also a G.V.S.H.P. concern.

Jeanne Wilcke, a former C.B. 2 member, submitted a four-page list of concerns about the impact that the university’s plan for 1,400 new student dormitory units would have on fire and police security.

“Private N.Y.U. security statistics do not report publicly on drug and other crimes, keeping statistics artificially low,” said Wilcke, who urged that internal N.Y.U. statistics be given to other agencies to assess true conditions.

Wilcke also suggested that adding new student population, mostly non-income-earning, in the project area would distort economic information in the E.I.S. She also said the economic impact of a single large institution on retail space should be studied for its effect on existing businesses, on the mix of businesses and services and on the diversity of people who work in the area.

Judith Callet, of the Bleecker Area Merchants and Residents Association, said she was concerned about the effects of increased student population, along with underage drinking and illegal drugs, on the neighborhood.

Elaine Hudson, president of the Mercer St. Block Association, noted that the E.I.S. study area in the draft scope of work covers a quarter-mile radius and the study area for open space is in a half-mile radius.

“This will completely skew the results of the E.I.S. and make it appear as if what N.Y.U. is doing is no big deal,” Hudson said. “N.Y.U.’s study should focus primarily on the areas where they propose to do construction [on the north and south superblocks] since that is exactly where the greatest impacts would take place,” Hudson said.

However, Martin Tessler, another former C.B. 2 member, noted in a written submission to the board that the quarter-mile radius area is too restrictive to judge the interaction between the superblocks and other major locations of N.Y.U. dorms and other facilities that extend as far north as Union Square.

Moreover, Tessler noted that previous N.Y.U. projects near Washington Square have involved extensive pumping of water from the now-underground Minetta Brook and its tributaries. The issue should be included in the impending environmental study, he said. Tessler added that the recent invitations to N.Y.U. to expand in the Financial Center should also be included in the scope work.

Tessler told the forum about a previous large-scale project that originally included a proposal to close a street.

“The word came down from the Mayor’s Office at the time that it would not happen, and the street closing was taken out of the project,” Tessler said. “That’s just to remind us that beyond the technical and socioeconomic categories in the E.I.S., the process is basically political and we have to work closely with our elected officials.”

Larry Goldberg, of Friends of LaGuardia Place, said the size of the N.Y.U. project requires an entirely different kind of review.

“This project is so enormous and has such an enormous impact on a very small area — nothing like this has every been studied,” Goldberg said. “There has to be a separate category for projects this big in such a small space.”

Villagers were especially concerned about the proposal to move the dog run from where it is now on the northwest corner of Mercer and Houston Sts. to the site of the current children’s playground to the west and closer to the Silver Towers residences.

“Close to 300 families use the dog run 24 hours a day and don’t want it moved,” said Beth Gottlieb, the run’s president. “It would be hidden away from the street where people passing by love to stop and watch the dogs cavorting.” The proposed dog run relocation is sure to provoke complaints from Silver Towers residents, she added.

Lee Schwartz, a member of the LaGuardia Corner Gardens, was anxious about the noise generated by more than 1,000 N.Y.U. students and their parents during “Moving Day” in September and June in and out of the proposed dorm in the proposed “Zipper Building” on Mercer St.

“The traffic on Mercer St., which is about 35 feet wide, would be a disaster,” Schwartz said. In fact, the street is even narrower, 33 feet 8 inches.

“Complete wall-to-wall students will alter whatever is left of our neighborhood,” said Barbara Quart. She added that she and her neighbors on Washington Place were also opposed to the N.Y.U. application for a commercial overlay zone in a six-block area north of the two superblocks between Washington Square East and Mercer St. from W. Fourth St. to near W. Eighth St. The overlay is intended to encourage more retail use in the area.

“It will load Washington Place with tawdry retail stores, duplicating and competing with Eighth St. and Broadway, just to provide N.Y.U. with more money, and in total disregard to the ferocious opposition of Washington Place residents of many decades like myself,” Quart said.

Gruber noted that the city considers 19 categories in a project, including socioeconomic conditions, open space, historic and cultural resources, hazardous materials, sanitation services, air quality, neighborhood character and construction impact, to be assessed in an environmental review.

The community board will include neighborhood concerns in its submission to City Planning for the agency’s scoping hearings at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tues., May 24, at 22 Reade St.

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