Is it a 2-on-1 game again? City files notice on N.Y.U.

Hurricane Harvey 2017
Mental health outreach after a natural disaster is a vital service provided by the Red Cross. Photo courtesy Red Cross.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  Is there a heart app? I need a heart app that’s a defibrillator,” John Leguizamo quipped as he mock-staggered off the court, smiling and flush-faced, after 30 minutes of half-court 4-on-3 at N.Y.U.’s Coles gym last Sunday morning.

The actor, 49, had been trying to keep up with a group of scurrying 12- and 13-year-olds and the pace was fast and furious. At least he had his son, Lucas, 13, on his team.

“Basketball is a young man’s game,” he said, catching his breath. “These kids are already my height — they had an age and height advantage.”

But it wasn’t just any old pickup game. And there was a serious cause behind it: One of the items up for bid in a December star-studded auction by N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan was the chance to play hoops with the movie star, who is known for voicing Sid the sloth in the animated “Ice Age” films. The auction’s proceeds are all going toward N.Y.U. FASP’s ongoing legal battle against the university’s 2031 superblocks expansion plan.

John Leguizamo took a jump shot against fan Billy Miller at Coles gym on Sunday.  Photo by tequila minsky
John Leguizamo took a jump shot against fan Billy Miller at Coles gym on Sunday. Photo by tequila minsky

Mark Crispin Miller, an N.Y.U. media studies professor and a leader of the N.Y.U. FASP effort, had the winning bid for the Leguizamo basketball game. He got it as a twofer for his son, Billy, who is a big fan of both basketball — “it’s all he ever talks about,” Miller said — and “Ice Age.”

Rounding out the teams were several friends of Billy’s and Thom Schuchaskie, who trains Leguizamo for his movie roles.

The actor, who lives in Greenwich Village with his wife Justine — a founding member of the new Washington Square Park Conservancy — said he’s fully behind the faculty members’ fight.

“It’s all for a good cause, man — stop that Zipper Building,” the Murry Bergtraum High School alumnus said, as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “N.Y.U. used to be in the Bronx. N.Y.U. moved here for the history and the beauty, the peace. The Village has been the heart of creativity since the ’50s and ’60s. The beatniks, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman all lived here. The Bitter End…oh, my God. The history always attracts the artists and the intellectuals. Ginsberg. Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor performed at The Bitter End. When I was starting out, that was a dream of mine, to be at The Bitter End.”

As for Miller and his fellow faculty members who are battling the administration’s development scheme, Leguizamo said, “I just find them heroic. They stick their necks out like it’s nobody’s business.”

Driving the faculty members’ opposition is the fact that many of them live on the superblocks and dread the prospect of living in a “20-year construction zone.”

Coles gym, in fact, on Mercer St. between Houston and Bleecker Sts., is one of the four main project sites — each slated for a new building — in the university’s megaplan. N.Y.U. plans to raze Coles and replace it with a new 1-million-square-foot structure called the Zipper Building.

On Jan. 7, in a stunning decision, Supreme Court Justice Donna Mills largely ruled in favor of the community plaintiffs’ argument that the open-space strips on the eastern and western edges of N.Y.U.’s two South Village superbloks are de facto parkland, throwing a massive curveball into the university’s ability to build at least two, if not three, of the buildings.

However, while the judge said that three of the open-space strips are parks — and would, thus, first need to be “alienated” by the state Legislature before N.Y.U. could use them for construction-related purposes — she said that a fourth strip, the one in front of Coles gym, is not parkland. N.Y.U. says this clearly means it can proceed with the construction of the Zipper Building. But the plaintiffs — supported by many of the area’s local politicians — counter that the entire 2-million-square-foot plan must now go back to the drawing board.

Members of the N.Y.U. Student Labor Action Movement, or SLAM, protested outside Coles gym two weekends ago, saying that if the Zipper Building is constructed on the site, N.Y.U. will have no real campus gym until 2019. “3,000 people — N.Y.U. students, faculty and neighbors — use Coles every day,” their flier said. “Where will we go to swim, work out, play tennis, squash and basketball? What about the hundreds of classes that Coles offers every term?”  Photo courtesy Glen Milstein
Members of the N.Y.U. Student Labor Action Movement, or SLAM, protested outside Coles gym two weekends ago, saying that if the Zipper Building is constructed on the site, N.Y.U. will have no real campus gym until 2019. “3,000 people — N.Y.U. students, faculty and neighbors — use Coles every day,” their flier said. “Where will we go to swim, work out, play tennis, squash and basketball? What about the hundreds of classes that Coles offers every term?” Photo courtesy Glen Milstein

Notices of appeal
N.Y.U. has filed a notice of appeal of Mills’s ruling and plans to challenge her decision on the park strips. Interestingly, the city’s Law Department also, on Feb. 10, filed a notice of appeal, saying it, too, intends to challenge the parkland strips ruling. The city approved the N.Y.U. project in 2012 under former Mayor Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs — which also include Assemblymember Deborah Glick, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and dozens of local residents and community groups — filed their own notice of appeal; Jim Walden, one of their attorneys, said they will be challenging Mills’s ruling on the Coles strip, “among other things.”

While Mills upheld the plaintiffs’ first argument — that the strips (or at least three of the four) are parks — she shot down five other arguments in the suit. The notice of appeal states the plaintiffs’ intention to argue that Mills should have issued an injunction to stop the project where it would impact the three park strips, plus that there was insufficient environmental review, and that the city’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) was faulty.

There was a 30-day window in which parties had to file their notices of appeal. The actual appeals don’t need to be submitted until nine months from now, so this is a process that could drag out two years or longer.

What is city’s ‘intention’?
A spokesperson for the city’s Law Department told The Villager that its notice of appeal is not a mere placeholder, but represents a real “intention” to appeal.

The Mayor’s Office did not respond by press time for a request for clarification of Mayor de Blasio’s position on whether the city will, in fact, contest Mills’s ruling.

However, plaintiffs attorney Walden said he believes the city may just be keeping its options open by filing the notice, but that this doesn’t necessarily mean the city will, in fact, file a court challenge in support of the N.Y.U. plan.

“It’s possible they’re filing the form, but mulling whatever,” he noted.

If, on the other hand, N.Y.U. drops its plan to dispute Mills’s ruling, and the entire project is sent back to the drawing board, everything could be ironed out quickly within six months instead of two years, he said.

“N.Y.U.’s wasting time,” Walden said. “They’re certainly wasting money, and they’re wasting political capital because there’s a growing number of elected officials that are saying the process should start anew.”

Walden said if Mayor de Blasio and the City Council decide to have the Council do a new review and a revote on a revised N.Y.U. plan, the university wouldn’t fight it.

“N.Y.U. would abide by that,” he noted. “They do too much business with the city.”

Garden impact
N.Y.U. has also indicated it thinks it may still be able to build on the current Morton Williams supermarket site, at Bleecker St. and LaGuardia Place, despite Mills’s ruling that the abutting LaGuardia Corner Gardens is parkland. However, Walden noted that Mills, in her ruling, stated that N.Y.U. — without first getting the state’s O.K. — cannot do anything that “substantially interferes” with the parkland strips or the public’s use of them. This could include, for example, shadowing the garden by building a protective construction shed over it, Walden maintained. If that were to happen, he warned, the plaintiffs would “immediately go to court and file an injunction” to halt the work.

Zeroing in on Zipper
However, Philip Lentz, a university spokesperson, said N.Y.U. is currently focused on the first phase of the project, the Zipper Building. The university hopes to start construction on the Zipper in about 18 months, and it would take about three to four years to complete. As for the Morton Williams site, Lentz said, work conceivably could start there in four to six years from now, at which time all the court appeals on the case would be resolved. Meanwhile, construction on the northern superblock — where two infill buildings are planned — wouldn’t start until around 10 years from now. This timetable was all spelled out in the university’s ULURP, or Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, application, he noted.

Yet, N.Y.U. does not dispute that, under Mills’s ruling, it is now extremely difficult to conceive how N.Y.U. could actually build on the northern superblock. The open-space strips on the block’s eastern and western edges would be the main access points for the construction work, but by dint of Mills’s ruling, these are now protected parkland, and so can’t be “substantially interfered” with by any construction.

N.Y.U. issued a statement on the filing of its notice of appeal — pointedly noting that the city filed notice, too:

“Even though the vast majority of the lower court’s findings upheld our arguments, the appeals by N.Y.U. and the City respond to the remaining issues; we expect to prevail on those at the Appellate level,” the statement said. “Over all, this is another important step in the process of addressing N.Y.U.’s pressing academic space needs, which will be further guided by the forthcoming final report of the faculty-led University Space Priorities Working Group.”

In a jam over gym?
That report will answer a number of pressing questions, including exactly what uses would be included in the new Zipper Building. It’s assumed there would be a new gym and ground-floor retail, but beyond that, the university isn’t saying. As for what N.Y.U. would do for a replacement gym for the three to four years during the Zipper’s construction, the university is holding off on answering that until the working group’s report is issued, but says that it does need an “updated” gym.” Coles was built in 1981.

An earlier plan to build a temporary gym — that could be used by N.Y.U.’s Division III varsity basketball, volleyball, fencing and wrestling teams — in the Washington Square Village courtyard on the northern superblock was scrapped in the face of neighbors’ opposition. Last Sunday, as Leguizamo was battling the 12- and 13-year-olds on the hardwood, Coles was bustling with activity. The men’s varsity basketball team was playing Washington University-St. Louis, and a match between the women’s hoops teams was up next. A few days earlier the gym had been packed for a wrestling match.

Peter Rea, a film professor who is part of N.Y.U. FASP and was watching the Leguizamo game, said it’s Coles, not the Kimmel Center, that is, in fact, the university’s true student center.

“We await the recommendations of the University Space Priorities Working Group, but there is no question that the university needs additional space for academic facilities, classrooms, dorms, faculty housing and an updated gym,” said N.Y.U. spokesperson Lentz. “Should the decision be made to move forward with a new facility on the Coles site, the university will address the temporary recreational needs of Coles users — including our team athletes and those who use Coles for recreation and fitness — until a new facility is complete.”

Where does mayor stand?
Meanwhile, Andrew Berman, executive director of G.V.S.H.P., said it was puzzling to hear that the city had filed a notice of appeal in support of the N.Y.U. plan.

“His public comments at the press conference expressed sympathy with us and the concerns we raised,” he noted of Mayor de Blasio.

Indeed, at a press conference in January, the mayor was asked if the whole N.Y.U. plan should now be “reset” in light of Mills’s ruling, and if the city would start its review of the project all over again.

De Blasio responded that he felt the university’s earlier version of the plan was “too expansive,” and that as the then public advocate, he called for it to be scaled back, which was done. As public advocate, he approved that final plan. But Mayor de Blasio said all lawsuits have larger ramifications for the city, so he was withholding legal judgment until hearing more from his Law Department on the decision.

“I think a lot of the community concerns were valid,” de Blasio said, “and we’re going to work with the community going forward.” 

‘Hey, what about us!’
Meanwhile, N.Y.U. said it is also awaiting the working group’s report before it says whether it will finance upgrades to windows and air-conditioner units at 88 Bleecker St., the 100-unit co-op across the street from Coles, as part of efforts to mitigate construction impacts. The co-op says they deserve the upgrades since they would be in the “significant impact zone” for the construction work — and especially since N.Y.U. is installing new sound-muffling windows and A/C-unit sleeves in its own Washington Square Village and Silver Towers buildings.

Beyond that, the co-op residents are disappointed and angry that Mills’s ruling didn’t deem the open-space strip in front of Coles parkland, since that would keep the Zipper project from moving forward. N.Y.U. plans to use part of that open-space strip for the new building.