Volume 73, Number 49 | April 7 - 13, 2004

Pei block tops list at Sexton town hall

By Albert Amateau

New York University President John Sexton held his second community town hall meeting last week, a follow-up to his initial one a year ago, and found neighbors still worked up about the university’s plans for future development.

While Sexton, who took over as N.Y.U. president in October 2002, declared that “the Village is our great asset,” residents persisted in citing the Kimmel Student Center, completed two years ago just south of Washington Sq. Park, to express their anxiety about what N.Y.U.’s next move might be.

The expected redevelopment of the one-story Morton Williams supermarket on university property at Bleecker St. and LaGuardia Pl. was the hot issue at the Tues. March 30 meeting at the N.Y.U. Palladium residence on E. 14th St.

Most people at the meeting made it clear that they dreaded the possibility of a massive N.Y.U. building rising on the site.

But Jim Smith, chairperson of Community Board 2, while insisting that he spoke only for himself and not the board, said he had no qualms about the site. “Of all the places we can give you a pass, it’s the Morton Williams block,” Smith told the N.Y.U. president. Smith’s remarks were met with a stunned silence at first from the 100 people in attendance, followed by a few murmurs.

Many who attended the meeting, however, were wearing tags printed with “Preserve Pei’s Superblock,” referring to the block bounded by Bleecker St., LaGuardia Pl., W. Houston St. and Mercer St., where high-rise residences designed by famed architect I.M. Pei share the block with the Morton Williams market and the N.Y.U. Coles Sports Center.

“We want to work with the community board on planning for that site,” said Sexton, referring to the supermarket. “We do not have a final plan, but don’t say, ‘Don’t build anything there,’ or ‘Build something that’s four stories.’ The site has some F.A.R. [floor-to-area ratio] and we do have needs,” he said.

The speculation is that N.Y.U. will build a planned life-sciences building at this site, though the school says nothing has been decided about the property’s future.

A resident of 505 LaGuardia Pl., located in the Pei block, invited Sexton to a special meeting to talk with residents about the supermarket site. Sexton agreed to discuss serious alternatives for the block, but added wryly, “If people just want to throw darts, I have a big picture you can use. Take your choice, either I or the picture will come.”

Later Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, called on Sexton to renounce using the city’s zoning bonus for community facilities in planning for the Morton Williams redevelopment. The bonus allowed additional density in projects such as the N.Y.U. Kimmel Center and N.Y.U. law school annex and Cooper Union’s planned academic building and commercial building projects on Cooper Sq. and Astor Pl., respectively.

“You can’t ask us not to use the community facility bonus and then say, ‘Don’t build here — don’t build there,’” replied Sexton.

At another point, Berman suggested that N.Y.U. establish scattered-site campuses to relieve the burden on the Village, to which Sexton shot back, “Andrew, let me run the school.”

N.Y.U. is also seeking neighborhood support for a zoning change to allow the university to use existing buildings in the Noho manufacturing district, which under current zoning may be used by trade schools but not by colleges or universities.

However, Zella Jones, a leader of the Noho Neighborhood Association, was skeptical about what the results of such a zoning change might be. “We can only judge you by what you have built,” she said, citing the Kimmel Center, which preservation advocates and community residents unanimously decried as too big for the sensitive site on Washington Sq. Park. “We have no idea about how we can have any true input in your development plans. You are a big institution with loads of money,” Jones said.

“We will be engaged in a significant way,” promised Sexton. “I take seriously our duty to preserve our community,” he said.

Neighbors of the Brown Building at 23-29 Washington Pl. at the corner of Greene St. were concerned about stacks that vent the building’s chemical labs. “We don’t know what comes out of there,” said one anxious resident who called on the university to submit to neighbors an analysis of the exhaust from the stacks.

Sexton tried to assure the resident. “We have tens of thousands of students closer to labs than you are. We’re very aggressive and proactive about the environment,” he said. “We’re breathing exactly what you’re breathing — it’s not an issue.” He said the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s mandate for N.Y.U. to self-audit its 140 buildings would give the university the ability to respond quickly to any problems.

In response to the complaint of a resident of 1 University Pl. about 24-hour-per-day noise from the rooftop of an N.Y.U. building, Sexton said, “We’ve spent a huge amount of money to diminish the sound. The city has told us the noise is well below the level set by regulations.”

Sexton also said N.Y.U. is about to hire a university architect and planner to do strategic planning and create a master plan for future development. “Cheryl Mills [N.Y.U. vice president for operations] is conducting interviews now and we’ll have that position filled by next year,” he added.

Art Strickler, district manager of Community Board 2, paid tribute to Sexton’s decision to hold a community town hall meeting. “It’s the first time I remember an N.Y.U. president doing that. He stuck his neck out,” Strickler said.

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