Volume 74, Number 8 | June 23 - 29, 2004



Strip poker on superblocks;does N.Y.U. hold the cards?

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert

The LaGuardia Corner Gardens have been located at Bleecker St. since 1981.

It would seem to be a natural: Two 50-ft.-wide strips along the east side of LaGuardia Pl. and west side of Mercer St. are filled with a garden, parks and playgrounds. Local residents and Community Board 2 want the strips — which extend between W. Third and Houston Sts. — transferred to the Parks Department.
But Parks doesn’t want them. And New York University, which owns the two superblocks that the strips border, doesn’t want Parks to have them either. As a result, for years, the properties haven’t been transferred.

The strips are home to a variety of uses, including the Time Landscape — supposed to replicate a patch of native, pre-colonial Manhattan foliage — a community garden; the Friends of LaGuardia Place green — which includes a statue of Fiorello LaGuardia — Mercer Playground; a currently dilapidated children’s playground; and a dog run.

Some of these uses are maintained by the Parks Department — like the Time Landscape and Mercer Playground — yet all are under the jurisdiction of the city’s Department of Transportation.

Nine years ago, Board 2 unanimously supported a resolution to have the strips transferred from D.O.T. to Parks. According to a March 31, 1995, resolution by the board’s Parks Committee on the matter, D.O.T. had “indicated that they would be agreeable” to the transfer. The transfer process started to get underway, with Alan Moss, Parks’ then-deputy commissioner of operations, sending letters to property owners on the block — including the corporation that owned the then-Grand Union supermarket and the general manager of Washington Sq. Village, owned by N.Y.U. — requesting written consent and “waiver of damages” from owners and/or lessees with building frontage along the strips.

But somehow the process stalled and the strips were never transferred.

In 1995, the chairperson of C.B. 2’s Parks Committee was the late Tony Dapolito, known as “Mr. Parks,” along with his other title, “The Mayor of Greenwich Village.” Aubrey Lees, current chairperson of Board 2’s Parks Committee, said upwards of 30 people have turned out at each of the last two Parks Committee meetings to show support for the revived transfer idea. Lees recently faxed the Parks Committee’s 1995 resolution to D.O.T.

“So far, I haven’t heard from N.Y.U. yet. So I figure it’s of no importance to them,” Lees said.

The properties — officially mapped as roadbed — were left over from planning czar Robert Moses’ plans to widen LaGuardia Pl. for the never-built Fifth Ave. connector to the unrealized Lower Manhattan Expressway, an elevated superhighway that would have run between the Manhattan Bridge and Holland Tunnel.

Although the highways weren’t built, in the 1960s the community lost an epic battle when the Board of Estimate at the last minute voted to allow N.Y.U. to build its Bobst Library into part of the leftover strip on LaGuardia Pl.

Renewed interest in the transfer idea has arisen because of the university’s latest anticipated development project: N.Y.U. has made it clear it needs a new science building, and the supermarket site at the corner of LaGuardia Pl. and Bleecker St. — purchased by N.Y.U. several years ago and now home to a Morton Williams store — is its prime development site.

Adjacent to the supermarket site is the LaGuardia Corner Gardens, a Greenthumb community garden space at the spot since 1981. Whether N.Y.U. would try to “pull another Bobst” and acquire the garden property from D.O.T. to build a larger facility is unknown. But no one wants to take any chances.

City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who lives in 505 LaGuardia Pl., a Mitchell-Lama building on the block, strongly backs the plan — and didn’t mince words suggesting why the transfer has never happened.

“The reason [for the proposed transfer] is to make sure that it remains green — or in the case of the dog run, recreational,” Gerson said. “We want to make sure we don’t lose these valuable open spaces. This is something that we sought for years.”

Asked if the intent of the proposal is to stop N.Y.U. from developing buildings on the properties, specifically on the garden, Gerson said, “I don’t think it’s directed at N.Y.U. It’s directed at any usage. Whether it’s N.Y.U. or a private developer or a city project — obviously, we don’t want a science building there — we don’t want any building there.

As for why the transfer has never happened, Gerson said, “Clearly, in general, there’s a degree of bureaucratic inertia in transfers. The fear is there may be some persons or institutions behind the scenes pressuring that this does not take place. That would be outrageous and impeding the proper functioning of the city.”

Gerson noted that, unfortunately, the Council doesn’t have the power to legislate change of ownership of land.

Gerson said he has spoken with D.O.T. and plans to take officials from the agency on a tour of the strips.


N.Y.U. sees NO RATIONALE

John Beckman, N.Y.U.’s spokesperson, said the university is fine with the Parks Department simply maintaining the Time Landscape and Mercer Playground.

“That’s something we don’t have a problem with,” he said. “If we are talking about transferring the jurisdiction from D.O.T. to the Department of Parks — demapping the land [as street] — that would be something we oppose. We don’t see a rationale. Secondly, were the land to be made parkland and demapped, it would have impact on our rights as an abutting land owner — I don’t think any land owner, whether individual, institutional or commercial, would willingly give up such rights.”

Asked if the university envisioned ever developing on the LaGuardia Corner Gardens, Beckman said, “The university has said that at some point it expects to develop the Morton Williams site. But including the community garden is not something that has been considered.” Would developing the community garden be something that would potentially be considered in the future? Beckman wouldn’t say.

He declined to speculate on whether the motive for the transfer may somehow be an effort to frustrate N.Y.U.’s development plans.

“Given that things have worked so far in creating recreational and green spaces — and, accordingly, the absence of a rationale,” Beckman said, “I’ll have to leave it to others to judge what the reason for this idea is.”

Morton Williams’ lease runs until 2021, according to Beckman. However, as with most commercial properties, it’s likely there is a demolition clause in the store’s lease. Or N.Y.U. could buy them out.

Margaret Johnson, a Parks spokesperson, said the department is happy to keep maintaining the Time Landscape, but doesn’t want the LaGuardia and Mercer strips placed under its jurisdiction.

“At the moment, the current arrangement hasn’t presented any problems,” she said. “The arrangement works very well.”

Johnson noted there are many other small city properties under D.O.T.’s jurisdiction maintained by Parks in the Greenstreets program, which greens spots along roads, like traffic triangles.

Keith Kalb, a D.O.T. spokesperson, said the agency recently received the resolution from Board 2 but hasn’t taken a position.

“We received the request and we are evaluating it,” he said. “No decision has been made yet.”

However, Henry Stern, who was Parks commissioner in 1995 at the time of the last push to transfer the strips, says he personally supports the idea of the transfer. In fact, he said he thinks the current Parks administration — despite its public statement to the contrary — would welcome the properties, but that N.Y.U. won’t grant consent and is blocking the move.

“Those things should get protection,” Stern said on Monday. “I differ on this with N.Y.U. We’ve always tried to get that from D.O.T. N.Y.U. wants to make sure they have complete access to them. It was Anthony Dapolito’s dearest wish over the years to seek the transfer of these properties to Parks.

“If it’s parkland, it can’t be sold,” Stern continued. “If it’s [under the jurisdiction of] D.O.T., it can be purchased without any legislative review. If it’s under Parks, the state Legislature would need to approve its sale.”

Told some fear N.Y.U. might someday build on the D.O.T. properties, Stern said, “What — and put up another monstrosity like the Kimmel Center?”


BROAD LOCAL SUPPORT

Lawrence B. Goldberg, president of Friends of LaGuardia Garden, Inc., said, in his view, the LaGuardia Garden — between Bleecker and W. Third Sts. — should be transferred to Parks.

“Of course we support it,” he said. “We’ve been involved in the effort to transfer the property for years. I think the Parks Department is the more natural place for it. Having the agency that understands parks, gardens and statues be in charge would be a benefit.”

Goldberg said he never heard of discussions by N.Y.U. to build on the LaGaurdia Pl. green, but added, “I might be concerned about large buildings next door, where the restaurants are.”

Enid Braun, a member of LMNOP, the group that got Mercer Playground created, said she supports the transfer to Parks.

“As a mother formerly of a small kid — looking at the public spaces, the muddy jurisdiction is a problem,” Braun said. Part of the impetus for the transfer is to get the strip fixed up on Mercer St. north of Houston St. where the surface has caved in and buckled. Because the pavement is so sunken, the children’s playground, located south of N.Y.U.’s Coles gym entrance, is currently locked.

“D.O.T.’s position is they’re not in the playground business and they’re not going to fix it,” Braun said.

N.Y.U. spokesperson Beckman explained that when tenements were razed on Mercer St. when the property was designated as a federal urban-renewal project, the site was backfilled. Shifts in the surface are caused by settling of whatever was used in the backfill, he said, adding that fixing the “underlying substructure is the city’s responsibility.”

Karen Cardone, a member of the 505 LaGuardia Pl. board of directors, said the building’s residents back the D.O.T.-to-Parks transfer of the strips.

“There’s no reason for it to be [under the control of] D.O.T.,” she said. “If Parks has already taken over the maintenance of the Time Landscape, why not give it to Parks? We just feel that any current green space should be protected as green space.

Said Meg Movshon, president of LaGaurdia Corner Gardens, “We’re the only Greenthumb garden on D.O.T. land. There’s been a move to change it over to Parks in the past and it’s had lots of support from Tony Dapolito — but it just floundered.”

At the LaGuardia Corner Gardens on a recent Sunday afternoon, several gardeners were busy tending their plots. One man was contentedly tending a trellis of large pink dahlias, as his dog was tied nearby. Another woman was watering her vegetables. Hanna Joy Ain, 8, was skipping around with a mud pie she had made.

Sara Jones, vice chairperson of the garden, emerged from one of the garden’s paths looking like a farmer, carrying a large pitchfork and wearing a sunhat.

Jones, a Thompson St. resident — and, fittingly, a florist — noted that the garden had previously been located at W. Third St. and LaGuardia Pl. but was kicked off that spot for another N.Y.U. development. The current garden started out as a vegetable garden, but is now filled with perennials, since, Jones noted, people didn’t feel it was too healthy to eat food grown on city lots.

“It’s more difficult to wrest land from the Parks Department — that’s our feeling,” Jones said in support of the transfer idea. Does she fear N.Y.U. will develop on their little green oasis? “Yes,” she said. “They certainly built everywhere else.”

Over on Mercer St., in a severely sunken sitting space separating the locked children’s playground and the dog run, three homeless men quietly slept and sprawled on benches under the shade of trees. The railing on the locked children’s playground was as uneven as a roller coaster because of the shifting ground.

In addition, there is the ongoing effort to landmark the entire superblock between W. Houston and Bleecker Sts. and Mercer St. and LaGuardia Pl., because it is home to the I.M. Pei Silver Towers. However, the landmarking would also include the uses on the strips of D.O.T. property, as well as the supermarket site — which, the proposal’s advocates argue, would have to be preserved as a low-scale development so as not to compromise the aesthetic of Pei’s soaring towers.

The Pei superblock landmarking effort is supported by, among others, residents of 505 LaGuardia, Gerson, State Senator Tom Duane and Assemblymember Deborah Glick, and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. However, N.Y.U. opposes landmarking the block, which it owns.

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