Neighbors take chops at N.Y.U. fourth-tower plan


By Albert Amateau

New York University’s proposal to build a fourth tower in the landmarked I.M. Pei-designed University Village superblock between Bleecker and West Houston Sts. brought nearly 300 Villagers to a Monday meeting on the project.

It was no surprise that opposition to the long-term plan appeared to be unanimous at the forum, which David Gruber, chairperson of the Community Board 2 Institutions Committee, kept in relative focus despite the crowd’s high emotional tone.

While an earlier alternative of the superblock plan called for a fourth tower to be built on the site of the existing Morton Williams supermarket at the corner of Bleecker St. and LaGuardia Place, the current version moves the new tower east onto the landmarked portion of the area.

“We believe our [present] proposal — which better honors the I.M. Pei designed site, preserves views for 505 LaGuardia Place [one of the Pei-designed residential buildings], builds on our own property and creates more green space — is a far better alternative than constructing a large building on the supermarket site,” said Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. vice president for government and community relations.

But the crowd didn’t want anything like a fourth tower anywhere. The audience insisted that the university build outside the Village. They called on N.Y.U. to build on the World Trade Center site. There were frequent comparisons of the N.Y.U. impact on the Village with the BP disaster’s impact on the Gulf of Mexico.

“N.Y.U. wants to have its cake and eat it,” said Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “They’re holding a gun to our heads.”

“We feel that N.Y.U. is building a wall around the Village,” said Judith Callet, residents’ president of the Bleecker Area Residents and Merchants Association.

“You’re an eleemosynary [charitable] institution,” said Sylvia Rackow, adding, “You should go to St. Vincent’s Hospital and make it a branch of N.Y.U.” Regarding the superblock, Rackow told Hurley, “We shall fight you tooth and nail, lying down in front of your trucks on the cobblestone streets.”

Mary Kaplan recalled the late Robert Moses’ failed plan to change the face of the Village 50 years ago.

“Moses thought he was king of New York; John Sexton [president of N.Y.U.] is only the emir of N.Y.U.” she said, taking a dig at the university’s new campus in Abu Dhabi of the United Arab Emirates.

“Community Board 1 is welcoming you with open arms,” said Rita Lee, urging N.Y.U. to build in Lower Manhattan instead of on the I.M. Pei landmarked site.

The existing residential buildings designed by Pei are 30 stories, 305 feet tall and built around the five-story-tall “Sylvette” sculpture by Carl Nesjar based on a Picasso bust.

The proposed new tower designed by Grimshaw architects, would be for university uses and would include a hotel. It would be 38 stories and 385 feet tall.

The plan would require a two-year approval process covering the landmark issues, followed by a uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, for new zoning, said Hurley, who promised another forum to discuss the zoning issues.

The university’s proposal for the superblock between LaGuardia Place and Mercer St. from Bleecker to Houston Sts. also envisions the redevelopment of the school’s Coles gymnasium site on Mercer St. into a building of different heights up to 17 stories, currently known as the “zipper building.”

A new supermarket would be located in the “zipper building” to replace the current Morton Williams supermarket. The Morton Williams site at the corner of Bleecker St. and LaGuardia Place would likely become a playground under the new plan.

The fourth tower with its hotel use would be located on the Bleecker St. side of the I.M. Pei site.

“I feel like Alice in Wonderland,” said Barbara Backer, a Bleecker St. resident. “This [plan ] is like the Mad Tea Party. Bleecker St. has become a major east-west highway with a 10-foot right of way, and you’re going to put a hotel on it? It doesn’t fit,” Backer said. “N.Y.U. sees space as a place to fill with buildings. We see it as already filled with light and air and our views of the Village.”

In a mock-dramatic note, Milton E. Polsky donned a paper gold crown and delivered a speech as “King John” to his loyal subjects “in his royal realm — personally measured by my trusty sexton.”

Martin Tessler, a former member of Community Board 2, recalled Sexton’s pledge in 2003 to preserve “the fragile ecosystem of the Village.” Two years later, N.Y.U. followed that pledge by signing an agreement with the developer of a 26-story tower on the site of St. Ann’s Church on E. 12th St. to use the building as a dormitory. N.Y.U. now owns the building.

Teresa John, a retired N.Y.U. professor, said the university would experience a “brain drain” if it persisted in building in the Village.

“If I were offered a job [at N.Y.U.] now, I’d say I didn’t want to be here, where children are afraid to walk on grass and can’t relate to trees,” she said.

John added that she thought the worst place to put a playground was on the Morton Williams site, right on the corner Bleecker St. and LaGuardia Place.

“Children need to be protected,” she said.

Two days before the forum, members of the Borough President’s Community Task Force on N.Y.U. Development sent a letter to N.Y.U. Senior Vice President Lynne Brown urging the university to focus its 2031 development goals on Lower Manhattan and the Financial District instead of on its South Village superblocks.

In a response, on Monday, Hurley said that building on the university’s own property on its two superblocks would relieve the pressure to grow into the surrounding neighborhood. But she acknowledged that “Lower Manhattan may offer some opportunities, and we look forward to future discussions with stakeholders who can share the vision of Lower Manhattan and with whom we can share our 2031 planning and thinking.”