New School show and tell on its new University Center


By Lincoln Anderson

New School officials and project architects presented the latest plans for the University Center — to be built at the site of the school’s current 65 Fifth Ave. — at a meeting of Community Board 2’s Arts and Institutions Committee last Wednesday.

As its name indicates, the building is intended to be a new unifying center for the university, which has lacked a well-defined focal point.

Scaled down from an earlier, $400 million design that was dropped due to the recession, the project, between 13th and 14th Sts., will be as of right, meaning it will conform to the site’s current zoning. 

The Durst Organization is the developer. Construction will be by Tishman. 

Lead architect Roger Duffy of SOM stressed that not all the design elements are finalized — such as the exterior surface treatment — and that they still might undergo some tweaking; as a result, while there was a slide presentation of the building plan at the meeting, SOM isn’t releasing schematic renderings to the press yet, according to New School spokesperson Jane Crotty.

Leah Gartner, New School vice president of facilities, said the project is “fully affordable,” meaning that, financially, it’s ready to go.

It’s planned to be 16 floors above grade, with two floors below street level. 

Floors one through seven will be for academic uses, with a total of 200,000 square feet. 

Floors eight through 16 will house a 600-bed student dormitory, with 143,000 square feet. The student residence will be for freshmen and sophomores.

As opposed to the earlier design from 2007, which called for a 350-foot-tall building, this one will rise only half as high, at 178 feet.

In compliance with zoning, there will be a setback at a height of 85 feet, which will mean the building will look like a smaller box set on top of a bigger box. Students won’t be allowed to use the setback area, which will be inaccessible, according to New School officials.

A ground-floor retail space on 14th St. will have around 11,000 square feet.

An auditorium that can be configured with up to 848 seats will be at ground level. The number of seats will be able to be reduced to 740 to add a runway down the middle for fashion shows.

The building design features 12 “interactive spaces,” including the auditorium, as well as a library, cafeteria, student lounges and student meeting area.

The building’s entrance will be on Fifth Ave. near the corner of 13th St. The student residence will have a separate entrance, near midblock on Fifth Ave., slightly closer to 14th St.

In terms of energy efficiency, the school hopes the University Center will obtain “Gold” LEED certification, the second-highest ranking in the Green Building Rating System.

The University Center may have a power co-generation system, taking it off the city grid. Gray-water and rainwater retention are being looked at, as well. Solar reflectors to heat the water are being explored.

The design aims to maximize the amount of light “harvested” by the building during daylight. Light entering academic spaces will be bounced off shelves under windows and then reflected off the ceilings, allowing it to penetrate farther into the building’s interior. Lighting levels will adjust to the daylight’s intensity.

About 33 percent of the exterior will be glass. The rest of the exterior surface is planned to be metal, though the exact material hasn’t been decided yet, Duffy said. It might be aluminum or a dark copper, and, in any case, it will be coated so it won’t create reflective glare, he noted.

The existing, two-story building at 65 Fifth Ave. housed May’s department store in the 19th century, according to Crotty. Asbestos abatement is almost complete, and demolition will occur between this March and July. Excavation of the site and foundation work will start in August. 

Crotty said a mitigation plan is in place to reduce construction noise.

The new building is slated to open for classes in late August or early September 2013.

Questions from board and audience members ran the gamut, but mainly focused on the building’s potential impact on quality of life and its contextuality with the neighborhood.

As to whether the auditorium will be open to the public, Crotty said, yes, there definitely will be public programming.

Residents said they wanted to be consulted about the retail space. Gartner, the facilities vice president, said a study is underway, examining “what would be compatible with an academic institution”; but it’s a long way off till 2013, she said, so no decisions have been made yet on the retail tenant.

To a query on light shining from the building at night, it was noted that the building will have no exterior lighting.

“As for the amount of lumens or foot-candles coming out of the building, we can get back to you,” Duffy responded, though he added that most of the lighting inside will be directed downward, not outward.

Asked about students leaving their windows open and playing loud “stereos,” Duffy responded, “I don’t know what teenage students do for music nowadays, but my 11-year-old son uses an iPod. He doesn’t know what a stereo is.”

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said the new design was better than the previous one, but that the facility could be more contextual with the neighborhood.

“The scale is vastly improved,” Berman said, though adding, “It’s still a very large building that will have a large impact.” 

Berman said the design had “a Midtowny, office building aesthetic. It’s an image that feels not quite right for this area,” he stated. “Certainly, 14th St. is a bit of a jumble, but we hope that Midtown won’t be brought to the Village.”

Similarly, Union Square activist Susan Kramer said most buildings in the area are “light beige and masonry.”

“When I hear ‘dark’ and ‘cooper,’ it just raises red flags for me,” she said.

Kramer also pointed out she’d heard the project would have a green roof, which she suggested could be park space for New School students, taking pressure off usage of Union Square Park.

But Crotty said, “At this point, I don’t think we want to have students out on the roof; that’s a safety concern for the university.”

Furthermore, Jordan Barowitz, of The Durst Organization, said, “A green roof designed to resist heat gain and hold water — you can’t walk on it.” 

C.B. 2 member David Reck remarked that the community has had problems with noise from rooftop usage.

One neighbor wanted to know if all the dorm’s students would eat in the cafeteria. Crotty said the cafeteria is designed to accommodate all of them, and that the university hopes they all get meal plans.

However, she added, “We have a lot of students and our students eat all over the neighborhood and support the local merchants, which we feel is a good thing.”

Studies are underway on cafeteria usage, she said. The students, who will live in suites, will also have a small kitchen in each suite.

Asked if anything will be done to lessen the impact of noisy garbage pickups, Gartner explained, “We’re making extensive provisions to hold the trash until the time the pickup arrives.”

Finally, Deley Gazinelli, a member of Community Board 4, which covers Chelsea and Clinton, sent a mild titter through the audience when he noted that people passing The New School’s five-year-old dorm on Eighth Ave. at 19th St. sometimes see students having sex inside.

“They can’t help it,” he said. “The rooms are very small and the beds are close to the window.”

Crotty replied she was distressed to hear about it, that it was the first she was hearing of it, and that The New School “will investigate further.” The University Center shouldn’t have the same problem, she said, since the dorm will be in the top floors and less visible from the street.

Jo Hamilton, C.B. 2 chairperson, said after the presentation, “It’s come a long way from what we first saw. And because it’s an as-of-right project, we don’t have a role,” in terms of the board’s issuing an advisory opinion. In other words, The New School is reaching out to the community even though it doesn’t have to. 

In the previous, larger design, because the project included applications for two zoning variances — to combine two zoning lots and waive the setback requirement — it had to undergo a public review by C.B. 2.