Pols and park lovers make a stand on the ‘super’ strips


By Lincoln Anderson

Braving freezing weather last Sunday, nearly 150 superblocks residents and activists — backed up by a unified front of the area’s politicians — gathered around the Fiorello LaGuardia statue on LaGuardia Place to tell New York University one thing: “Keep your hands off the superblocks strips!”

The behemoth blocks are ground zero for the university’s massive, 20-year expansion plan. N.Y.U. wants to add around 2 million square feet of new space for faculty and student housing — including a 1,400-bed dorm — on the two supersized blocks, which are bounded by Houston and W. Third Sts. and Mercer St. and LaGuardia Place.

As part of its development scheme, N.Y.U. wants ownership of the strips of open space along Mercer St. and LaGuardia Place, as well as Bleecker St. — and would also narrow W. Third St. These streets were all to be widened in the 1950’s by planning czar Robert Moses as part of traffic improvements for the Lower Manhattan Expressway — but community activists, led by Jane Jacobs, sank the hated crosstown highway plan. The leftover strip areas were taken over by the city’s Department of Transportation, and have since become home to community gardens, a dog run, a playground and the Time Landscape, meant to evoke a primeval Downtown forest.

Three weeks ago, Community Board 2 passed a resolution strongly opposing the university’s bid to annex this public property. The resolution calls on N.Y.U. to remove the strips from any land changes it will request, and for the city to transfer all seven strips to the Parks Department, noting, “the best way to preserve open space is to keep it in the public domain.” The resolution is C.B. 2’s first official position on N.Y.U. 2031, the university’s 20-year expansion plan.

N.Y.U. has said it will start moving forward on the required city ULURP, or uniform land-use review procedure, for the superblocks plan early in the new year.

‘Halt the assault’

Speaking at Sunday’s rally, Terri Cude, co-chairperson of Community Action Alliance on N.Y.U. 2031, or CAAN, thanked the elected officials for supporting C.B. 2’s resolution.

“We look forward to your continued support as we face N.Y.U.’s upcoming assault on our lives and our desperately needed open areas,” Cude told the five gathered politicians.

“We, the more than 30 community groups that comprise the Community Action Alliance on N.Y.U. 2031, remind N.Y.U. that every one of these strips is not theirs, will not be theirs and cannot be negotiated with during ULURP,” Cude continued. “N.Y.U.’s stewardship and adherence to commitments are woefully apparent in the padlocked and unusable playground and reflecting garden north of the dog run, and in the sterile Gould Plaza — and in the playground on the top of Coles gym that N.Y.U. committed to, created and quickly closed, but never replaced.”

Cude said N.Y.U. should focus on expanding in areas where the community actually supports it — like the Financial District.

“Whatever you do, there’s no more room for you to do it here, and there’s no way we’ll let you take away our open space,” she said.

‘Co-exist, don’t overwhelm’

Borough President Scott Stringer said, “I’m here to support the resolution that says, ‘Leave these strips alone,’ and to support the Greenwich Village tradition of open space. We believe that N.Y.U. must learn how to co-exist with, not overwhelm, this community.”

Stringer said preserving the parkland strips as open space was a key finding of his Community Task Force on N.Y.U. Development — which brought together community members and university representatives to discuss N.Y.U.’s growth plans.

“N.Y.U. must do more than just show up at meetings,” the borough president chided. “A campus plan is about more than just putting up big buildings — it’s a way of life,” he stressed.

“You are going to win this fight, I guarantee,” he told the Villagers. Referring to the legendary mayor on the pedestal behind him, Stringer said, “Mayor LaGuardia said he couldn’t be moved.” Pointing to the statue, he said, “I’m telling you right now — you’re staying exactly where you are!” as the crowd cheered.

N.Y.U. has said it would move the statue so that one of two, large, infill buildings planned for the Washington Square Village superblock could poke out onto the strip a bit.

In addition, the new “Zipper Building,” containing the 1,400-student dorm, under N.Y.U.’s plan, would occupy the strip area currently home to the Mercer-Houston Dog Run. The dog run would be moved to another area on the block.

‘Veggies, kids, dogs, space’

Congressmember Jerrold Nadler called for the strips to be transferred to the Parks Department, so that any “taking” of them would require a review by the state Legislature.

“The vegetable and fruit gardens,” Nadler said, “the space for dogs to run, space for kids to stretch their legs and run — they’re an integral part of the community. I will work to assure that the growth plans of N.Y.U. work for N.Y.U. and the residents of Greenwich Village,” he stated.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick likened N.Y.U. to the Sheriff of Nottingham “that constantly changes the rules on the serfs.”

“Years later, N.Y.U. wants to relitigate what has already been determined,” she said of the superblocks plan, which also needs key zoning changes to allow the new development. “We won’t let that happen,” Glick said. “We’re not fooled. We’re here to say, ‘Open space forever.’ ”

State Senator Tom Duane told the crowd that open spaces are “gathering spaces — what we are doing right now. Look at us here,” he said. “This is democracy — and democracy happens in open spaces.

“We need open space so we can breathe,” Duane said, telling everyone to take a deep breath. All savored inhaling the crisp, cold air, infused with oxygen by the LaGuardia Garden’s greenery.

City Councilmember Margaret Chin stated, “These strips need to remain as public parkland.” Saying she supports C.B. 2’s resolution on the strips, she added, “There are other places for N.Y.U. to grow.” Having been waiting for the new councilmember to come out with a strong position on the superblocks plan, the Villagers applauded her comments.

‘Parkland — so, Parks Dept.’

Tobi Bergman, chairperson of C.B. 2’s Parks Committee, said, “Neither N.Y.U. nor the Department of Transportation is equipped to manage these important public areas for the best benefit of the neighborhood, N.Y.U. and the city. It requires cooperative stewardship under the leadership of the agency that knows how to manage parkland, our Parks Department.”  

David Gruber, chairperson of C.B. 2’s Institutions Committee, said, “We understand that N.Y.U. is part of Greenwich Village and a neighbor, but it is inappropriate for them to take what little public space we have and privatize it for reasons which seem unclear and unnecessary.” The community is calling on N.Y.U. not to include the parkland in its ULURP application, Gruber said.

Also speaking in support of C.B. 2’s resolution were Ellen Horan of LaGuardia Corner Garden; Beth Gottlieb of the Mercer-Houston Dog Run Association; Larry Goldberg of Friends of LaGuardia Place; Enid Braun of LMNO(P), the group that advocated for Mercer Playground’s creation; and Alyson Beha of New Yorkers for Parks.

After the rally, Goldberg said, “I do not believe that you transfer public property for private use.” He said he’s looking forward to this time next year, when a new children’s playground named for his late wife, Adrienne’s Garden, is planned to open just north of the LaGuardia statue.

Goldberg said N.Y.U. officials have told him, if the university’s plans are approved, they would move the statue of “The Little Flower” either toward W. Third St. or Bleecker St. The new infill building’s entrance would be right where Adrienne’s Garden will be, he said he was told.

“They can’t move Fiorello. They can’t take Adrienne’s Garden,” Goldberg said. “They can’t take this community garden.”

N.Y.U. as new Moses

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation is a member of the CAAN coalition. Andrew Berman, the society’s director, handed out a statement that recalled the community’s defeat of Robert Moses’ superhighway plan.

“These pieces of public land are not only a precious piece of open space in a park-starved neighborhood, they are a precious piece of our history as well,” Berman’s statement said. “Much as we defeated Moses 50 years ago, we will defeat N.Y.U.’s plan to overbuild and overwhelm our neighborhood.”

In C.B. 2, Stringer and Chin, three of the four levels of the ULURP review process were present at the rally, and all of them are now on record opposing N.Y.U.’s takeover of the strips. The City Planning Commission also has to weigh in on the plan as part of ULURP. Given that sort of overwhelming opposition, several people at the rally wondered why N.Y.U. still is even including the strips in its superblocks plan.

Alicia Hurley, vice president of N.Y.U.’s Office of Government Affairs and Engagement, issued a statement on the Dec. 5 rally on the strips:

“For the past three years, N.Y.U. has been engaged in a dialogue with the community. As we proceed with refining our plans and preparing our submission for approval through the city’s uniform land-use review procedure (ULURP), we will continue these conversations on a broad range of topics, including how best to improve publicly accessible open spaces. We remain committed to seeking a path forward that balances the needs of the community, N.Y.U. and the city.”

Last month, in an embarrassing setback for the university, N.Y.U. scrapped plans to build a 400-foot-tall tower — including faculty housing and a hotel — in the landmarked Silver Towers complex on its southern superblock. N.Y.U. had claimed it had I.M. Pei’s support for the project. But Henry Cobb, partner of Pei — who designed Silver Towers — in November wrote the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, saying he and Pei felt the fourth tower would be “profoundly destructive” to the landmarked complex.

As a result, N.Y.U. is now planning a shorter, 17-to-20-story, as-of-right tower on the Morton Williams supermarket site at the block’s northwest corner.