‘No 400-foot tower!’ hundreds say as N.Y.U. seeks approval

By Albert Amateau

About 300 people attended Monday night’s Community Board 2 hearing on New York University’s Landmarks Preservation Commission application for approval of a proposed, 400-foot-tall tower on the university’s south superblock.

It was a nearly unanimous “No,” although a quick show of hands called for by Sean Sweeney, chairperson of the board’s Landmarks & Public Aesthetics Committee, showed six people among the standing-room-only crowd who admitted being in favor of the proposal.

N.Y.U. is seeking L.P.C. approval to build the tower on a portion of the block — between LaGuardia Place and Mercer St. from Houston to Bleecker Sts. — that was landmarked in 2008 because of the Silver Towers complex with three existing high-rise towers and plaza designed in 1960 by the modern architectural master I.M. Pei.

Neighbors and preservation advocates, however, were dead set against the proposed fourth tower because at 400 feet it would be 100 feet taller than the three existing Pei-designed buildings on the landmarked site — and would be the tallest building in Greenwich Village. And while the hearing was supposed to confine itself to the design aspects, many speakers were outraged that the tower is planned to include a hotel.

“We have a lot of hotels in the area,” said Brad Hoylman, former C.B. 2 chairperson, citing more than a dozen in Soho. “How much of the design and the height of the tower is driven by the need for a hotel?” he asked.

Members of the C.B. 2 Landmarks & Public Aesthetics and Arts & Institutions committees, which jointly convened the forum, also asked university officials tough questions.

“Why does N.Y.U. feel it can violate the landmark designation?” demanded David Gruber, chairperson of the Arts & Institutions Committee. Other members questioned the reason for the additional height. Committee members also protested that the fourth tower would interrupt the views to the south from Washington Square Village and north from Soho.

Julie Menin, chairperson of Community Board 1, which covers Lower Manhattan, appeared at the joint C.B. 2 committee hearing and repeated her often-made suggestion that N.Y.U. come Downtown.

“We are hoping to find tenants for the 1.3 million square feet in a new Tower 5 under construction in the World Trade Center,” Menin said to enthusiastic applause. Noting that N.Y.U. held its first classes in 1831 in rented space in a building on Nassau and Beekman Sts., Menin said, “We’d like to welcome N.Y.U. once again to be a member of the Downtown community.”

Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. vice president for government affairs and community engagement, said the university was exploring the suitability of Downtown space, but it was clear that the university wants to build on the superblocks, which it already owns.

At the end of the two-and-a-half-hour Nov. 8 hearing at the Grace Church School, at 94 Fourth Ave., the joint C.B. 2 committees decided not to make a recommendation to the full board, which will hold its regular monthly meeting on Nov. 18, also at the Grace Church School.

On Tues., Nov. 16, N.Y.U.’s plan to donate space in the superblock for a public elementary school will be the subject of a 6:30 p.m. C.B. 2 Social

Services & Education Committee meeting at the Local 32BJ Service Employees union building at 101 Sixth Ave., at Grand St.

Mark Husser, of Grimshaw Architects, an N.Y.U. design consultant, reminded the Monday forum that the university acquired the Morton Williams supermarket site at the LaGuardia Place-Bleecker St. corner in 2001, but the site was excluded from the landmark designation. While the university could build a slightly smaller building on the supermarket corner without L.P.C. approval, N.Y.U. is seeking to build just east of it on the landmarked portion.

Husser said the choice was made because the proposed site would carry out Pei’s “pinwheel” concept that gives every apartment in each of the three buildings a view unobstructed by the complex’s other buildings.

The L.P.C. issue is “a critical first step to determine whether the project is located on the landmarked site or the Morton Williams site,” said Hurley, who declared that N.Y.U. believes the proposed landmark site is a better design option than the supermarket alternative.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission will make a final decision on the landmark issue after its hearing in January. The L.P.C. issue is the first mandatory municipal review, with others to come, of the NYU 2031 plan to add 6 million square feet of space in the next couple of decades. Between 1.5 million and 2.5 million square feet is envisioned for the two superblocks: the southern block where the fourth tower is planned and the northern block between Bleecker and W. Third Sts. where Washington Square Village is located.

The proposed fourth tower would have the same square footage as each the three Pei residential towers but would be “squeezed” on a smaller footprint, Husser said. The fourth tower’s ceiling heights of 9 feet 1 inch would be higher than the 8-foot-3-inch ceilings of the existing three buildings, accounting for some of the tower’s 100 feet of additional height.

Committee members and neighbors, however, were skeptical about the necessity for the new tower to encompass the same square footage.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, told the community board, “The proposed oversized, out-of-context development has no place on this site.”

Berman denounced the proposal that N.Y.U. would exercise its as-of-right option on the Morton Williams site if L.P.C. does not approve the landmarked location.

“To add insult to injury, N.Y.U is now also trying to hold a gun to our head, telling us to pick our poison by threatening to build on the adjacent supermarket site if they are not given approval to build on this site,” Berman said. “This development — like very much of the overly grandiose plans N.Y.U. is seeking to foist on the Village with its 20-year expansion plan — if it must be built, rightly belongs in places like the Financial District, where it would be contextual and would actually be welcomed by leaders of that community,” he said.

Berman and others said the 400-foot tower would be “just the nose of the camel,” a precedent for other high-rise development in the Village.

Regarding the differences between the original Pei design of the plaza, centered on the 36-foot-tall statue of Picasso’s “Sylvette,” and what would result if the fourth tower were built, Husser cited I.M. Pei’s design of the glass pyramid entrance to underground galleries in the middle of The Louvre in Paris as an example of new-but-different additions to a revered old plaza.

The day before the Monday forum, the Community Action Alliance on NYU 2031 (CAAN 2031) and G.V.S.H.P. held a rally at the Bleecker St. site of the proposed tower, where nearly 100 people called for rejection of the proposal. Berman told the outdoor rally that the plan was bad for the Village, bad for the city and bad for N.Y.U.

Representatives of the organized graduate teaching assistants and adjunct professors joined the rally to oppose the project and to denounce the university’s relations with staff unions.

Jeanne Wilcke, a former C.B. 2 member and a Noho neighborhood activist, anticipated that N.Y.U. would lop off “a floor or two” from the proposed 400-foot tower during the landmarks approval process. “But that’s not going to work,” she told the rally. “They have to take back their whole 2031 plan.”

Residents of Washington Square Village on the superblock to the north said the project belonged in Abu Dhabi — the emirate where N.Y.U. opened a campus last year — not in the Village. Alan Horland, president of the Washington Square Village Tenants Association, said the project was “the tip of the iceberg.” It would block views and sunlight for the estimated 3,000 residents of the complex and subject them to years of noise and debris from construction, Horland said.