Volume 74, Number 37 | January 19 -25, 2005

Villager photo by Josh Argyle

Taras Shevchenko Pl., with a view of the rear of Cooper Union’s Hewitt Building. The school plans to rebuild the Hewitt site with a new nine-story academic building. East Village neighbors are concerned that the new building’s design will block sunlight from getting through to St. George’s Church on the other side of Taras Shevchenko Pl.

Cooper plan transparency loss has some seeing red

By Albert Amateau

What Cooper Union is calling a minor modification to plans for its proposed new academic building is for East Village neighbors a major change to design guidelines that they say would diminish the cherished view of the dome of St. George’s Ukrainian Church.

In response to the outcry at a Jan. 11 Community Board 3 Housing and Zoning Committee meeting, Ronnie Denes, Cooper Union vice president for external affairs, along with the planned new academic building’s architect, Peter Sampton, and Gordon Davis, Cooper’s land-use lawyer, agreed not to submit the change to the Department of City Planning until after another meeting with the committee on Feb. 8.

“We’ll look at it again, but we can’t promise to change anything,” said Davis, regarding the modification that would reduce by about one third the planned transparency of the nine-story, 135-ft.-tall building proposed for the site of the current Hewitt Building between E. Seventh and E. Sixth Sts., and between Third Ave. on the west and Taras Shevchenko Pl. on the east.

Currently the gilded dome of St. George’s, on Taras Shevchenko Pl. is visible from Third Ave. above the present, low-rise Hewitt Building.

The original design guidelines called for the new building to have a variety of transparent, translucent and opaque facade surfaces, including a double semi-transparent mesh skin that would afford a view into — and in some places clear through — the building.
In 20-ft.-wide bands from the ground level to the roof, on both the Third Ave. and Taras Shevchenko Pl. facades about 45 ft. south of E. Seventh St. the guidelines call for 75 percent transparency. But the proposed modification calls for reducing transparency there to 50 percent. Other transparency reductions are proposed for the top of the building between the 105-ft. and 135-ft. levels.

A curb cut for a loading dock on E. Sixth St. is also part of the proposed modification.

The transparency reduction is proposed now because the use of interior space had not been determined when the guidelines were developed two years ago, said Sampton. “The building has labs on the upper and middle floors,” he said. “You would be looking into the backs of work benches and ventilation hoods,” he continued. Part of an atrium planned for the middle of the building where the transparent bands are located had to be given over on the upper floors for labs, he added.

City Planning regulations rules allow modifications certified as minor by the department staff to be included in plans without a full land-use review mandated for major modifications.

“We feel that these modifications are major,” said Ana Sawaryn, leader of the Coalition to Save the East Village, a neighborhood group that opposed Cooper Union’s general large-scale development plan application to City Planning in 2002. “The view of the church is very important to us,” she added.

The G.L.S.D.P., which was approved by the city, allowed Cooper Union to shift certain zoning uses between its planned redevelopment sites.

“If you take a third of the transparency away — that’s major,” said David McWater, chairperson of C.B. 3 and an ex-officio member of its Housing and Zoning Committee.

But Nicole Ogg, a City Planning staff member who attended the Jan. 11 hearing, said the department defines as minor any modification that does not change the bulk and height of a building, making the proposed transparency and curb-cut proposals clearly minor.

Community board members also resented that they received copies of the proposed modification just one day before the Jan. 11 hearing. “I feel cheated by that,” said Lisa Kaplan, a longtime member of the board and former chairperson of its Housing and Zoning Committee. “I’d like to give a more thoughtful response to this,” Kaplan said.

McWater wanted to know why Cooper Union had not anticipated earlier the need to locate labs where they would interfere with transparency through the building, for which neighbors waged a hard-fought battle.

Neighbors like David Barkin, an E. Seventh St. Block Association leader, and Andrew Lastowecky, head of the Ukrainian American Coordinating Council, and Jaroslaw Kurowyckyj, chairperson of the Taras Shevchenko Pl. Preservation Committee, bitterly recalled the enduring conflicts between Cooper Union and the neighborhood.

They charged Cooper Union with being devious, if not downright deceptive, in dealing with neighbors.

Denes, however, said Cooper Union appreciates the community’s participation in the project. “We took the design guidelines seriously,” she said. Moreover, suggestions made by Harry Weider, a Community Board 3 Zoning Committee member, about handicapped access were incorporated into the design, she noted. In addition, she said the curb cut and loading dock modification was put on E. Sixth St. in compliance with an agreement to keep those elements off Shevchenko Pl.

The one-block street between Sixth and Seventh Sts. east of Third Ave. was named for Taras Shevchenko, the 19th-century Ukrainian artist, poet and national hero.

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