Coles demo kicks off N.Y.U. project, triggers community concerns

BY ALEX ELLEFSON | N.Y.U. may have triumphed in the courtroom — surviving a legal challenge last year to its ambitious development plan on two South Village superblocks. But now locals will see if the university makes good on its promise to be a good neighbor when construction gets underway.

The first phase of the project, called N.Y.U 2031, starts this month, when the university begins tearing down Coles Gym, at 181 Mercer St., to make way for a much larger multi-purpose facility. The demolition work is expected to continue for a year — and the new building is scheduled for completion in 2021.

Coles gym is being demolished, the first step in N.Y.U.'s massive development project for its two South Village superblocks. Photo by Alex Ellefson
Coles gym is being demolished, the first step in N.Y.U.’s massive development project for its two South Village superblocks. Photo by Alex Ellefson

The foes of the project, who held it up in the courts for three years, are now focused on enforcing regulations put in place to mitigate the mega-project’s impact on the surrounding community.

“The community fought valiantly and there was never a question of how the community felt about the project,” said Terri Cude, who battled the development as co-chairperson of Community Alliance Against N.Y.U. 2031. “Now, the job of the community, elected officials and other stakeholders is to minimize the effects of construction.”

Cude attended the inaugural meeting on July 15 of the 181 Mercer St. Construction Committee, which was created to act as a liaison between N.Y.U and neighbors. Additional oversight measures — included in the restrictive declaration passed when the City Council green-lighted the project four years ago — require a third-party monitor to ensure noise and emissions from the site are kept to a minimum.

However, Cude said N.Y.U should aim to go above and beyond the requirements set by the City Council.

“This is an unusually complicated and large site in a very residential neighborhood,” she said. “The question is going to be: If something happens, and something will happen, will N.Y.U. make every effort to be sensitive to the needs of residents? I hope N.Y.U. does what is needed of them and not just what is required of them.”

Cude already sees red flags that the university might be slow responding to unforeseen quality-of-life issues. She said it took more than two months for N.Y.U. to address her complaints about skateboarders and bicyclists grinding on top of a low fence the university installed this year at the northern part of the southern superblock. Cude said the skateboarders’ tricks off the railing caused a hazard for pedestrians.

She said she sent multiple e-mails to N.Y.U. staff, asking them to resolve the problem.

“This is the kind of thing we hoped they were faster in resolving, especially because it was so easy to anticipate,” Cude said. “How did their experts not know something like this would attract bad actors?”

It took two months to get N.Y.U. and the Parks Department to add nobs on top of this Bleecker St. fence to stop skateboarders from grinding on it. Photo by Alex Ellefson

N.Y.U. spokesperson John Beckman said the university had to consult with the Parks Department to design new metal “skateboard deterrents,” which are simply square pegs along the railing, to resolve the issue.

In a statement, he said, “We are keenly aware of the concerns of our neighbors, and we are committed to moving forward with the project — which has been approved by the City Council and affirmed in the state courts — in a manner that reduces the impact of the demolition of Coles and the construction of the new 181 Mercer building.”

N.Y.U. faced vehement opposition from neighbors, including many of its own faculty — who live on the superblocks — and local preservationists who opposed shoehorning a mammoth new development into the low-slung residential neighborhood. A coalition of opponents successfully sued to block the project — arguing that four open-space strips along the superblocks were “implied parkland.” However, the state’s high court, the Court of Appeals, ultimately ruled in favor of the university’s plan, paving the way for N.Y.U. to start constructing four new buildings, with a total of nearly 2 million square feet, on the property.

N.Y.U. says the new buildings are necessary to keep pace with the university’s growth in recent years and on into the future. The multi-use building replacing Coles Gym — currently known as the “Zipper Building” due to its shape when viewed from above — will include classrooms, performing arts and practice space, an athletic facility, and housing for students and faculty, as well as nearly 7,500 square feet for a public atrium and community use. The university’s expansion plan also calls for another building at the southeast corner of Bleecker St. and LaGuardia Place, currently occupied by a supermarket, and two so-called “Boomerang Buildings” — again, called such due to their shape — on the northern superblock.

A notice recently posted on the Coles gym front door warns of coming asbestos abatement, while another tells gymgoers to go to the new N.Y.U. facilities at 404 Lafayette St. Photo by Alex Ellefson

When the process of demolishing Coles Gym gets underway, workers will begin wrapping the site in a sound-attenuating construction fence. The fence will eliminate parking spaces on the surrounding streets. The M21 bus stop on the north side of Houston St., near Mercer St., will also have to be moved one block west. Additionally, a temporary pedestrian walkway along Houston St. will take away the street’s northernmost lane for car traffic.

Bo Riccobono, a member of N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, a faculty organization that opposed the expansion plan, noted that two construction projects east of Broadway have also closed lanes of traffic. He expects the additional lane closure to cause a “traffic nightmare” that will divert motorists onto some of the quieter, residential streets.

When Riccobono reached out to a university representative, asking if the fence could be moved off the street after the demolition is finished, he said he received a boilerplate answer, stating that the fence had been approved by the Department of Buildings and Department of Transportation.

“N.Y.U. does what N.Y.U wants to do,” he said. “But they should be more aware of citizens’ concerns. The more you squeeze traffic, it causes congestion somewhere else.”

The street-lane closure and impending construction work are also making some local small business owners anxious. Wayne Conti, who has operated Mercer Street Books for more than 25 years, said he worries that noise and dust from the work site will drive away his customers.

“We don’t have a tremendous advertising reach,” he said. “A lot of our business depends on the attractiveness of the street because many of our customers found us walking by.”

Conti said even though the completed project could likely bring more foot traffic to his block, he wonders whether his business will be able to survive so many years of construction.

“It’s like saying you’re going to hold a dog underwater for 20 minutes to get rid of all its flees,” he said. “We don’t have the resources of N.Y.U. How are we supposed to survive so many years of construction?”

The demolition of Coles gym has also forced the Mercer-Houston Dog Run to be relocated around the corner. It won’t return to its former location, though, since the new N.Y.U. building will cover part of the run’s former footprint.

Additionally, workers will begin cutting down the remaining cherry trees around the site when they put up the construction fence. Four of the trees were transplanted across the street, onto the north side of Bleecker St., alongside three new Kwanzan cherry trees. N.Y.U. said on its Web site that it consulted with the Parks Department to try to place the remaining trees somewhere else in the community, but was unable to find a suitable site.

But Cude said she had hoped N.Y.U. would make more of an effort to ensure that all the cherry trees found a new home.

“We expressed concern about the trees all throughout the approval process,” she said. “N.Y.U. is our neighbor and they could have done more.

“Those trees are ours,” she added, noting the cherry trees were the property of the city and not N.Y.U.

“They burst into bloom every spring and made everyone happy,” she said. “Now they are going to be chainsawed.”