Volume 74, Number 30 | December 01 - 07, 2004

Talking Point

N.Y.U.’s life sciences building: A new town-gown era?

By Martin Tessler

The announcement by New York University that it is going to pursue the adaptive reuse of three older existing buildings on Waverly Pl. for its new life sciences building is a ray of hope. I say this as someone who has spent 12 years on Community Board 2 and witnessed N.Y.U.’s less-than-friendly additions to the neighborhood scale, namely the Kimmel Building and the new Law School addition, not to mention the new privately built dorm on our eastern periphery in C.B. 3’s area. What hopefully sets the life sciences building apart from its predecessors is that this is not a done deal as were Kimmel and the Law School addition at the time they were presented to the public.

If we are to take N.Y.U.’s word that they have not finalized any design but have merely announced to the community that it is their intent to renovate the existing buildings and final plans have not been set, it hopefully means that they are putting a new policy into practice. That policy is President John Sexton’s statement at his first town hall meeting last year when he said that N.Y.U. will follow, wherever feasible, the practice of utilizing existing N.Y.U.-owned buildings rather than buying and building anew. The other part of this, if indeed it is a new policy, is the acceptance by N.Y.U. of opening a dialogue with the community and receiving feedback on elements of design. In times past, the pattern N.Y.U. has followed has been one where it has finalized its designs and then brought them before the community. This would usually be followed by adversarial debate, vituperative comments and general outrage by the community. N.Y.U. would then claim that it had consulted with the community and go on to build what it originally intended (Law School/Poe House addition notwithstanding).

This vituperation obviously continues as witnessed by the reaction at last week’s C.B. 2 full board meeting of many in the community who were already accusing N.Y.U. of bringing an overbearing building onto Waverly by virtue of the additional two stories it will add above the existing buildings. This is where the jury is still out. Mike Haberman, the university’s director of government and community relations, complained that N.Y.U. was already being denounced for doing something that the community has always wanted — bringing their plans before the public before they have been finalized. We fervently hope that this is the dawn of a new era. Namely that the plans have yet to be finalized, that N.Y.U. will listen to what the community has to say and that some of this will find its way back to the design process and give direction to N.Y.U. in guiding its architects to alternative solutions that have been evaded in the past simply because their building plans were a “done deal” without community input.

I’m sure I would be joined by many in the community who would unequivocally tell President Sexton that we all know that we have no veto power over N.Y.U.’s building plans. What we have, however, is a sense of neighborhood and community scale and have tried to tell N.Y.U. for many years that we do not want to micro-design their buildings as much as we want to macro-design them, to lower them, to keep the street wall but to set the buildings back above certain heights to promote contextuality; to continue the streetscape so that there is no jarring displacement such as what is happening at Astor Pl. with its celebrity architect or as has happened with Bobst and Kimmel. We all know that N.Y.U. enjoys a playing field where it has a leg up on the community by virtue of the community facility regulations under which it builds.

I asked Haberman who the architects on the new life sciences building are and he mentioned that they were the Hillyer Group. He stated that they were selected because they have done other institutional buildings that were recycled and retrofitted into the existing community fabric. If this is indeed the road that N.Y.U. is embarking on as a result of President Sexton’s announced policies, they will find a community that will be responsive and not adversarial. Unfortunately, too much water has passed under the bridge to still leave us skeptical, but we are eager to participate in what hopefully will be a new process and a new “Good Neighbor Policy.” For those of you whose American history is a foggy memory, the “Good Neighbor Policy” of F.D.R., which came into being in the 1930s, was a declaration by the U.S. that it would no longer intervene and interfere in the sovereignty of Latin American nations as it had done in the past. The analogy here is to the hated community facilities zoning provision that has been the tool of intervention. We know that it can be invoked at any time, but it takes a high-minded administration to say, “Why bother if we can get there with talented architects who can practice enlightened architectural design?” Wasn’t it the famous architect Mies Van der Rohe who said, “Less is more”? Maybe the life sciences building can be N.Y.U.’s new “Good Neighbor Policy.”

Tessler is chairperson of Community Board 2’s Institutions Committee

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