Tribeca tower riles residents

By Ronda Kaysen

New York Law School might be full of well, lawyers, but it’s their neighbors that are jonesing for a legal fight.

The Tribeca school put its four-story Mendik Library on the market a year ago, promising prospective buyers they could build a limitless skyscraper in the low-rise neighborhood. With the demolition of the library underway and the school 30 to 60 days away from a sale, according to their selling agent, some Leonard St. neighbors are figuring out how to keep a new structure from towering above their neighborhood.

“Putting a glass tower there would wreck the neighborhood,” said Dr. Antonio Convit, a Leonard St. resident. “It’s going to completely change the flavor of the neighborhood.”

Although the sleepy, low-rise neighborhood was re-zoned in 1995, capping buildings at 120 feet, the law school property at Church and Leonard Sts. was carved out of the zoning map. A developer could build a 306,000 sq. ft. residential structure on the 12,500 sq. ft. parcel, realtors for the law school said last year. Some residents estimate that could translate to a 50-story tower.

“Technically it can be [that tall]. That’s the problem,” said Madelyn Wils, the former chairperson of Community Board 1 and one of the Tribeca residents leading the effort to curb the building’s height. “Other than it being a hideous addition to the Tribeca community, you create all these other issues… Do you need to create a whole school just for that building?”

Residents plan to paper the neighborhood with leaflets about the planned tower, giving out phone numbers of the law school and community board office. Convit and a group of neighbors, under the umbrella of the neighborhood organization, the Family Association of Tribeca East, also plan to begin raising funds for legal counsel.

Tribeca residents have little clear information to go on. The school has been quiet about all details surrounding the sale. Alta Garcia Levat, a spokesperson for the school, referred all comments to Studley, the school’s selling agent. In turn, Studley executive managing director Howard Nottingham told Downtown Express that he was bound by a confidentiality agreement with New York Law and could not elaborate on any details of the sale. “I would love to be able to tell you everything, but I can’t tell you anything,” he said.

Residents will have to wait until the buyer comes forward with his plans, which will happen “in short order,” said Nottingham, perhaps in 30 to 60 days. “People should deal with reality opposed to speculation, whatever the reality is,” he said.

Nottingham suspects that “much of the speculation” about the building’s scale “may be wrong.” However, he declined to estimate what the height of the new building would be. “I do not know the answer to that question, and I’m not sure that the buyer knows how big the building is going to be. It’s a complex site.”

Not everyone in the community is convinced that mounting a campaign to influence the development is worth the effort. Several Leonard St. residents, including Wils and Convit, turned out at a recent C.B.1 meeting to plead their case. Board members were skeptical anyone could stop a developer from building a tower on property that is zoned for a tower.

“The building is as of right, there is very little we can do,” said C.B. 1 chairperson Julie Menin at the meeting, referring to the zoning law that permits a developer to build a large tower on the site. “We didn’t want a 75-story tower on Beekman St., but it was as of right and there wasn’t much we could do.”

Wils challenged Menin’s comparison, saying, “Julie, with all due respect, we got a school in exchange for the Beekman St. tower. We would have negotiated a lower building if we hadn’t have gotten that.”

Developer Bruce Ratner will soon begin construction on a Frank Gehry-designed tower on Beekman and Nassau Sts. C.B. 1, under Wils’ leadership, and local elected officials negotiated a 600-seat K-8 school inside the tower and did not fight for a smaller building.

In some respects, the law school tower is just one of many. Lower Manhattan is facing unprecedented development, with new residential buildings rising at a rapid fire pace—the neighborhood expects 13,000 new units of residential housing in the next five years. C.B. 1, a voluntary board with three paid staff members, is currently keeping its eye on several developments, including a proposal to rezone a swath of the North Tribeca waterfront to make way for a residential tower.

“There’s so much development pressure throughout the district, there are so many sites in play. Any site that’s not built on is a potential development site,” said C.B. 1 district manager Paul Goldstein.

The growing frustration with New York Law School has gotten the attention of City Councilmember Alan Gerson who says lowering the height on the building is a number one priority for him. “Being as of right is not the end of the discussion, but obviously it has a significant bearing on the outcome of the discussion,” he said. “We’ll have to be more creative in coming up with ways of influencing them.”

The Law School has gotten some help from the city since it put the property on the market. Late last year, the city awarded the school $145 million in triple tax-free bonds to build a new, five-story library at 40 and 54 Leonard St. Because of the financing, the school will be able to funnel the proceeds from the sale of the Mendik library — as much as $122 million — to its endowment.


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