After Pei protests N.Y.U. plan, supermarket site is new focus

By Albert Amateau

After New York University announced last week that it was withdrawing its Landmarks Preservation Commission application to build a 40-story fourth tower on the superblock site of three I.M. Pei-designed residential towers, Village neighbors and preservation advocates were waiting for the other shoe to drop.

What comes next is the N.Y.U. as-of-right alternative to build on the northwest corner of the superblock on the Morton Williams supermarket site — which is not protected by landmark designation.

Because the supermarket site has a larger footprint, the building would be broader and shorter, 17 to 20 stories, about 200 feet tall; but it would have roughly the same total 250,000 square feet of space proposed for the abandoned project, which is the same square footage of each of the three existing buildings.

Nevertheless, neighborhood and preservation-advocacy opponents vowed last week to fight the alternative. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the Community Action Alliance on NYU 2031 are holding a town hall meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wed., Dec. 1, in the basement hall of Our Lady of Pompei Church, at Carmine and Bleecker Sts., to explore the implications of the change.

This week, Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. vice president for government affairs and community engagement, said the university will file a uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, application next year for development on both the south Silver Towers superblock where the Pei buildings are located, as well as the north Washington Square Village superblock.

“The ULURP will also cover the block east of Washington Square Park between Waverly Place and Washington Place, not for a change in F.A.R. [floor area ratio] but for retail uses,” Hurley said. “We expect the Department of City Planning to certify our ULURP application in the late summer of 2011 to begin a seven-month review process, including community board and department meetings and final City Council approval,” she said.

N.Y.U. decided to drop the tower plan after Henry Cobb, a partner of the architectural firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, sent a letter to L.P.C. saying that Pei, 93, was strongly opposed to the proposed tower on the landmarked portion of the superblock. University design consultants had said the additional tower would complement the “pinwheel” arrangement of the Pei design.

The Cobb letter said in part, “A fourth tower is profoundly destructive of the landmarked entity because it closes a composition that was intended to be open and upsets the carefully considered balance between solid and void. It also seriously compromises the generous visibility of Picasso’s Bust of Sylvette.”

Cobb also said the alternative proposal on the Morton Williams site was “unattractive as represented in [N.Y.U.’s] filing, but as an as-of-right building…is nonetheless preferable to the proposed fourth tower. Ideally, the corner building would be designed so as to make it more responsive to its neighbors and to the landmarked entity.”

Andrew Berman, G.V.S.H.P. executive director, said he was gratified that the university dropped its original plan, “in the face of overwhelming opposition, including from I.M. Pei.” However, Berman added, “N.Y.U.’s insistence on moving ahead with its alternative plans for a development on the adjacent non-landmarked supermarket site, as well as the remainder of its massive NYU 2031 plan to add 2 million square feet of space around Washington Square Park, shows that the university still does not get it.”

Berman said N.Y.U. should look to places like the Financial District to absorb its growth, and vowed to continue to fight the university’s plans for the Village.

Jo Hamilton, chairperson of Community Board 2, said she was surprised and relieved by the university’s withdrawal of its L.P.C. application for the 400-foot tower.

“However, we are equally concerned about the proposal to build on the Morton Williams site,” she said. “It is immediately adjacent to 505 LaGuardia Place and the community garden and just across the street from Washington Square Village.”

Hamilton said the community board is now trying to learn exactly what the university wants to build and how it would fit in the ULURP application.

“We will be considering the impacts of the entire project on light and air, shadows, wind tunnels, open space, traffic, infrastructure and many other factors,” she added.

N.Y.U. officials said last week that the university withdrew its L.P.C. application as a mark of respect for Pei’s vision and for L.P.C., which in 2008 granted landmark protection to the Pei-designed Silver Towers plaza with three 300-foot-tall towers around the 36-foot-tall, sculptural rendering of Picasso’s “Bust of Sylvette.”

The original N.Y.U. plan called for a hotel in the 400-foot tower, and the university intends to include hotel uses in an as-yet-undecided location in the larger project.

Hurley said, “Our former proposal had four buildings and our new proposal has four buildings. With the withdrawal of the application for the tower on the landmarked site, we will keep all of the proposed uses, including hotel and housing, in the mix.”

Lynne Brown, N.Y.U. senior vice president, said in a prepared statement, “From the beginning, we sought a design for the Silver Towers block that was most respectful of Mr. Pei’s vision. Some people disagreed with our approach, others agreed. We believed that among those who agreed was Mr. Pei himself, who expressed no opposition to the concept of a tower on the landmarked site when we spoke to him directly in 2008. Mr. Pei has now had a change of heart. The clarity Mr. Pei has now provided that the Morton Williams site is preferable is helpful to us in understanding how to proceed with our uniform land-use review procedure proposal.”

Cobb said this week that although he was not present at the 2008 conversation between Pei and N.Y.U., he has spoken to Pei and other people who were there.

“Mr. Pei made no comment on the fourth tower plan. On that issue he was silent,” Cobb told this newspaper on Monday. Cobb noted that the conversation occurred shortly before L.P.C. designated the Silver Towers complex a city landmark in November 2008 — two and a half years before N.Y.U. applied to L.P.C. for approval of the fourth tower.

“The letter I wrote to the L.P.C. was narrowly focused and carefully written, and the only reason we commented was because we felt obliged to comment on any alteration to the landmarked site,” Cobb said.