Volume 74, Number 24 | Octuber 13 - 19 , 2004

LaGuardia Corner Gardens at Bleecker St. and LaGuardia Pl.

Sparks fly over strips at Parks Committee meeting

By Lincoln Anderson

Community members entered last Wednesday night’s Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting hopeful some progress might finally be made on two strips of city property long in limbo along the edges of the New York University-owned superblocks south of Washington Sq. But afterwards, many left with the same certainty with which they entered: that the strips remain a jurisdictional no-man’s land because that’s how N.Y.U. wants it.

The strips — along LaGuardia Pl. and Mercer St. between W. Third and Houston Sts. — have been under jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation since the 1960s, when the avenues were widened for superhighways planned by Robert Moses but defeated by the community. Many of the 50-plus residents at last week’s meeting were tenants from the neighboring 505 LaGuardia Pl. Mitchell-Lama apartment building as well as members of the LaGuardia Corner Gardens. They all want the LaGuardia strip transferred because they expect that the university is planning to develop either a science building or faculty housing on the Morton Williams supermarket site, which N.Y.U. purchased four years ago.

If the gardens were under Parks Department jurisdiction, it would be harder for N.Y.U. to obtain this corner property to build a larger facility. In 1995, Board 2 requested that the strips be transferred to Parks. With N.Y.U. President John Sexton having recently spoken publicly about the need for a new science facility near the square, the push to transfer the strips has revived.

At a Parks Committee meeting a few months ago, according to committee chairperson Aubrey Lees and others who attended, Bill Castro, Manhattan borough Parks commissioner, said Parks would take the strips and that all that was needed would be a letter from D.O.T. authorizing the transfer.

However, at last week’s meeting, Bob Redmond, Parks’ head of capital projects, said Parks was too busy to deal with the issue.

“At this time, we’re just a little overwhelmed,” Redmond said.

Councilmember Alan Gerson, who has lived almost his whole life at 505 LaGuardia Pl., said he was “terribly disappointed” at Redmond’s statement.

“What we’re seeing here is a lot of behind-the-scenes ingenuity,” said Gerson. The councilmember noted that since he took office in 2001 he has been talking to Parks constantly about transferring the disputed strips. If budget concerns are a factor, Gerson said he’ll get the City Council to transfer the necessary funds from D.O.T. to Parks so that Parks can maintain the strips.

“I have heard from D.O.T. that they’d be only too happy to turn it over to Parks,” added Gerson.

No D.O.T. official attended the meeting.

“What bothers me is that we’re not having an open and honest discussion here,” Gerson continued, adding, “I’ve been told that there is pressure being put on both agencies to stop the transfer.”

Gerson conspicuously refrained from saying who is exerting the pressure.

“You want me to say it?” asked Lees.

“N.Y.U.! N.Y.U.!” community members in the audience called out.

“It’s the owner of the library on what used to be our green,” shouted one woman, referring to how N.Y.U. in the 1960s acquired part of the LaGuardia strip to build its new Bobst Library larger.

Gerson said he will draft legislation requiring green space owned by an agency other than Parks but serving no purpose to the agency to be transferred to Parks.

Saying he didn’t understand the “confusion,” Michael Haberman, N.Y.U. director of government and community relations, said the university’s position was clearly spelled out in a June Villager news article on the strips.

“Like any property owner, we want to protect our rights,” Haberman said. “We want to protect our property from any negative effects.” Haberman said the issue is whether the supermarket site on LaGuardia Pl. is considered street-front property or landlocked, which affects how they could develop there, he said.

“If it becomes Parks property, it makes it landlocked,” Haberman explained, adding, “We’re not quite sure what the rationale for the transfer is.” He said the university can’t sign a 1995 letter from Parks to property owners authorizing the transfer, because N.Y.U. feels it would “suffer damages from the changes.”

More to the point, Haberman said, N.Y.U. is currently not looking to develop on the gardens.

“We have no plans to develop any of the property that is open property,” he said.

However, Margot Eisenberg, a 505 LaGuardia resident, interjected that she felt Haberman doesn’t know enough about zoning and that N.Y.U. should send an expert to meetings.

Gerson said he couldn’t see any negative impact on N.Y.U. from making the strips Parks property, though he did note, “Parks property — it’s harder to alienate and develop.”

Eisenberg added it’s important to protect the gardens, since they represent “24 years of growth.”

“We have absolutely no plans of touching that,” Haberman assured.

“So protect it!” she shot back.

Haberman noted that while the Board of Estimate transferred the strip for Bobst against the community’s wishes, the Board of Estimate no longer exists. Now any transfer would undergo a lengthy uniform land-use review procedure. Haberman said any councilmember representing the district would surely block such a transfer during the ULURP review.

Still, N.Y.U.’s assurances did not satisfy the community members.

“Let them make a commitment to the community just once and live up to it — put it in writing that they won’t take [the gardens],” said Susan Goren, a 505 resident and daughter of Arnold Goren, a former N.Y.U. vice chancellor.

However, Bob Cohen, an N.Y.U. community relations official, chimed in, “The chances of N.Y.U. taking over that property are zero. I don’t want you to be worried.”

“Put it in writing,” retorted Martin Tessler, the board’s Institutions Committee chairperson.

A member of LaGuardia Corner Gardens presented Lees and Haberman with 1,300 signatures they had collected in support of saving the gardens.

Karen Cardone, a 505 board member, said N.Y.U. at least should maintain the sinking strips on Mercer St., which affect a dog run and have made a pocket park and children’s playground unusable. Haberman said D.O.T. has to fix the subsurface.

Lees concluded it’s up to Board 2 to negotiate directly with N.Y.U.

“We need to follow up with N.Y.U. Parks isn’t going to do it — because N.Y.U.’s opposed,” she stated. Lees and Haberman agreed he would return with more detailed zoning information. Afterwards, Lees said she felt progress was made at the meeting and was glad the board and N.Y.U. will be having further discussions.

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