What did Nostradamus know about Soho’s fate?


By Albert Amateau

Volume 80, Number 11 | August 12 – 18, 2010

West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Outside Monday’s forum, a member of the Community Action Alliance on N.Y.U. 2031 handed out informational material and took people’s contact information so they can get involved in fighting the university’s expansion.

Groans as N.Y.U. pitches its plan; New mega-dorm in mix

New York University last week submitted its plan to Community Board 2 to add 6 million square feet of space in the next few decades — most of it in the Greenwich Village area — in preparation for going to the Department of City Planning in the fall to lock into place its long-term mega-project.

The board’s two public information meetings on Wed., Aug. 4, and Mon., Aug. 9, were the first of several that the board will hold in the next few months to explore such issues as development density, zoning, construction and project timing, open space, schools and alternative development sites.

The heart of the expansion plans — known collectively as N.Y.U 2031 — is the development of between 1.5 million and 2.2 million square feet on the two superblocks the university owns between LaGuardia Place and Mercer St. The northern superblock, between W. Third and Bleecker Sts., is occupied by Washington Square Village. The southern superblock, between Bleecker and Houston Sts., includes Silver Towers and the Coles Sports Center.

The plan additionally calls for between 800,000 and 1.5 million square feet of development in the neighborhood outside of the superblocks “within walking distance of Washington Square.” The growth strategy also includes 3 million square feet of development in “remote” areas, including the hospital corridor along First Ave. between 23rd and 34th Sts., in Downtown Brooklyn near the Polytechnic Institute of N.Y. U. and at a later date on Governors Island.

Village residents who packed the two meetings were loud and clear in their opposition to developing the superblock sites. They repeatedly demanded that N.Y.U. look outside the Village for expansion. Many wore tags that read “Financial District Yes, Village No,” distributed by the Community Action Alliance on NYU 2031, a newly formed coalition of about 15 Village neighborhood associations. The alliance statement says that it is “working…to ensure that N.Y.U.’s growth plans do not destroy the qualities of our neighborhood we hold dear.”

Jo Hamilton, C.B. 2 chairperson, said at the Aug. 9 meeting that the board would ask the university some hard questions.

“We want N.Y.U. to tell us what they are building, why they are building it and why does it have to be in our neighborhood rather than someplace else?” Hamilton said.

Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. vice president for government affairs and community engagement, said the university was planning about half of its total expansion outside of the Village. But, regarding the focus on the superblocks, at one point, she said, “It’s our home.” Again, in response to more superblock questions, she said, “It’s our own property — we can develop it incrementally [rather than all at once].”

“The Financial District is looking to diversify,” Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said at the Aug. 9 meeting. “Why is it not possible to accommodate 3 million square feet of growth outside of our neighborhood?” added Berman.

Berman was a member of the Community Task Force on N.Y.U. Development, which Borough President Scott Stringer suspended last month in anticipation of the current public review process.

At the Aug. 4 meeting, Berman said the community “should draw a line in the sand and tell N.Y.U. what they can do and what they cannot do.”

But Stringer replied that such a strategy could effectively end community participation as the project moves forward.

“I don’t think we should do that now,” Stringer said. But Berman insisted that if N.Y.U. pushed its plan through the city’s uniform land use review process, or ULURP, without modification, it would be rejected.

Although the university’s brochure on its plan outlines possibilities for “remote” expansion, it does not include the Financial District.

Hurley, however, said, “We have had meetings with the Port Authority [about potential Downtown development] and we’ve received several offers of space Downtown, but we have to decide whether they satisfy our academic needs and whether they fit our financial plans.”

One real estate broker, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Villager that she presented N.Y.U. with more than 350,000 square feet of alternative space near the World Trade Center site on behalf of a property owner whom she declined to identify.

One Villager at the Aug. 9 meeting said, “The Financial District is just two stops on the E train. I’ve been taking the subway alone since I was 10 years old. I don’t think it’s too much to ask N.Y.U. students to use public transportation.”

Will Haas, N.Y.U. director of planning, outlined some specifics of the superblock plans. On the Silver Towers/Coles block, the university plans to build a 36-story fourth tower, taller than the three I.M. Pei-designed residential buildings, with a total of 275,000 square feet for faculty apartments and a 100-unit hotel to accommodate visitors and guests attending university events.

The current one-story Morton Williams supermarket on LaGuardia Place would be demolished and be replaced by public open space. A supermarket would be developed below grade on one of the superblocks.

The Aug. 9 audience groaned at the announcement that the current Coles gymnasium on the Mercer St. side of the southern superblock would be replaced by a dormitory of 13 to 17 stories and 160 to 200 feet tall to accommodate 1,400 students.

On the Washington Square Village superblock, the university plans to retain the existing residential buildings facing W. Third and Bleecker Sts. and add two new academic buildings between them facing LaGuardia Place and Mercer St.

Of the 1.5 million to 2.2 million square feet of new development in the two superblocks, 30 percent would be below grade, Haas said.

“I’m still not ready to accept 3 million square feet of development in the superblocks and the surrounding neighborhood,” said David Gruber, chairperson of the C.B. 2 Institutions Committee and a member of the now-suspended Stringer task force. Gruber also questioned N.Y.U.’s intention to seek a single ULURP for all of the superblock development — since the projects would be done in phases, making the whole plan take from 20 to 40 years to complete. “It seems that you’re asking for a long-term development line of credit,” Gruber said.

N.Y.U. wants to avoid surprises like the university’s acquisition of the controversial E. 12th St. dorm three years ago, Hurley said. In response to an angry Villager who faulted N.Y.U. for doing nothing to save St. Vincent’s Hospital from closing this spring, Hurley said the university did enter discussions about taking over the hospital, but the debt, estimated at $800 million to $1 billion, was too big for N.Y.U. to handle.

At one point during the Aug. 9 meeting after an N.Y.U. reference to the university’s “Washington Square core,” members of the audience shouted, “It’s not your core campus, it’s our neighborhood.”