N.Y.U. Bleecker St. high-rise would be tallest in the Village

By Albert Amateau

New York University last week filed its plan with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to build a fourth tower in the landmarked I.M. Pei-designed Silver Towers part of the university’s southern superblock between LaGuardia Place and Mercer St.

If approved, the proposed 399-foot-tall tower, in which N.Y.U. intends to include a hotel, would be the tallest building in the Village and about 100 feet taller than the existing towers in the plaza where the 36-foot-tall concrete statute of Picasso’s “Portrait of Sylvette” is located.

L.P.C. has not yet scheduled a hearing on the project, the first official submission of any part of the “NYU 2031” plan to add 3 million square feet of space in and around the Village in the next 20 years — with more than half of that square footage planned for N.Y.U.’s Washington Square Village and the Silver Towers superblocks.

The proposed tower, which needs L.P.C. approval because it is within the designated landmarked Silver Towers site, has been a focus of preservationist and neighborhood opposition.

“We’re opposed to N.Y.U.’s 400-foot tower plan, which would compromise the award-winning Pei design, block views of the Picasso sculpture and overwhelm its surroundings,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Berman repeated his demand that the university plan its future development outside of the Village.

Sean Sweeney, president of the Soho Alliance and co-chairperson of Community Board 2’s Landmarks and Public Aesthetics Committee, also said the tower would degrade the prizewinning I.M. Pei design. But the university’s plan to include a hotel in the proposed tower was the underlying reason for Sweeney’s resentment of the project.

“I can’t believe that they need another hotel in the area,” said Sweeney, noting that there are more than a dozen existing or soon-to-open boutique hotels in Soho south of the superblocks. “Maybe [N.Y.U. President] John Sexton and Donald Trump should get together and talk about the hotel business,” said Sweeney, adding that the Trump Soho condo-hotel on Spring and Varick Sts. has had disappointing condo sales.

However, Jo Hamilton, C.B. 2 chairperson, noted on Tuesday that the L.P.C. review must consider only whether the project is aesthetically appropriate for the designated landmarked complex.

“There is a lot of concern about the hotel among board members, and of course we’ll mention it. But the Landmarks Preservation review cannot consider the uses of the project,” she said. Hamilton said the necessity to consider the landmark issue before land-use and environmental issues makes community board reviews of major projects very difficult.

The N.Y.U. submission to L.P.C. said the fourth-tower proposal would continue Pei’s “pinwheel” configuration of the existing towers and preserve the view corridors from the existing towers. The proposal would also add a half-acre public green space to the superblock, according to N.Y.U.’s submission.

In an earlier plan, N.Y.U. had proposed a shorter, mixed-use building for the site of the existing low-rise Morton Williams supermarket on the northeast corner of the south superblock between Bleecker and West Houston Sts.

Because the Morton Williams site was excluded from the Silver Towers complex when it was designated a landmark in 2008, a project on that site would not require L.P.C. approval. Moreover, when the university purchased the Morton Williams property in 2001, there was an old urban renewal area deed restriction that allowed “as of right” redevelopment (not requiring any special approval or special permit) up to 225,000 square feet — but a project there can only be built after 2021, when the deed restriction expires.

N.Y.U. designers came up with the current design with a taller tower on a smaller footprint to the east of the supermarket site and within the landmarked Silver Towers complex. The university says this design, submitted to L.P.C. on Oct. 7, completes Pei’s pinwheel arrangement of buildings and maintains the unobstructed views from each of the three existing towers. The new plan also adds green space on the site of the Morton Williams market, which N.Y.U. intends to move to a new development that will replace its Coles gym on the Mercer St. side of the south superblock.

If L.P.C decides against issuing a certificate of appropriateness for the planned fourth tower, N.Y.U. would propose developing the Morton Williams site and would include the site in the uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, for the two superblocks. The ULURP, only one of several reviews required for the N.Y.U. large-scale development, is expected to begin next year.

From the neighborhood preservation angle, Berman said that a major development on the current supermarket site would be “terrible,” even though it wouldn’t be as tall as the 399-foot tower in the landmarked plaza area to the east.

“N.Y.U is holding a gun to the community’s head and saying, ‘Pick your poison.’ That’s not a game we’re playing,” Berman said.

Sweeney said if it came to a choice between the Morton Williams site and the proposed location, he would pick Morton Williams rather than compromise the I.M. Pei design. Commenting on the N.Y.U. statement that the proposed location complements the Pei arrangement, Sweeney said, “If they got I.M. Pei himself to say that, I might believe it more.”

Hamilton said C.B. 2 would schedule a joint public forum of its Landmarks and Public Aesthetics Committee and its Arts and Institutions Committees to hear the issue before the L.P.C. hearing, which is yet to be announced.

In addition, there will be a joint meeting of C.B. 2’s Arts and Institutions Committee and its Parks, Recreation and Open Space Committee on Mon., Oct. 18, at 6:30 p.m., at P.S. 41, 106 W. 11th St., auditorium, for the community to discuss N.Y.U.’s plan to take over the public open spaces on Mercer St. and LaGuardia Place on the two superblocks. A history of the strips will be discussed, and ideas will be aired about transferring the land from the Department of Transportation to the Parks Department, according to the meeting agenda.