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Zipper reconsidered: N.Y.U. retools project it says it can still build

An N.Y.U. graphic of the Zipper Building after it was reduced by 140,000 square feet by the City Council before it approved the N.Y.U. 2031 superblocks plan in July 2012.
At the Tues., March 4, release of the University Open Space Priorities Committee report, working group members, from left, Professor Lawrence White of the Stern School of Business; Allyson Green, associate dean of the Institute for Performing Arts; Ted Magder, associate professor at the Steinhardt School; and Laurence Maslon, arts professor at the Tisch School of the Arts.  Photo by Lincoln Anderson
At the Tues., March 4, release of the University Open Space Priorities Committee report, working group members, from left, Professor Lawrence White of the Stern School of Business; Allyson Green, associate dean of the Institute for Performing Arts; Ted Magder, associate professor at the Steinhardt School; and Laurence Maslon, arts professor at the Tisch School of the Arts. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  working group of mostly N.Y.U. faculty members last week issued its recommendations on what should be included in a new building at the current Coles gym site. They suggested a mix of classrooms, performing-arts space, equal space for student and faculty housing, and student study areas, but no retail space.

They also said the university’s development plan is fiscally responsible, but urged the school not to increase tuition or other expenses to help meet construction costs.

In addition, the group recommended the creation of a Superblock Stewardship Advisory Committee, which would provide “improved stewardship” by the university of the superblocks land and buildings to “enhance the neighborhood’s quality of life.”

The group stated that the university “should continue to concentrate its academic activities within the [campus] Core to the greatest extent possible and that increasing the density of activities within the Core improves the academic quality of the institution.”

Several days later, President John Sexton announced that he, deans and members of his senior leadership team enthusiastically supported all the working group’s recommendations and were prepared to pass on the report to the university’s board of trustees with their glowing seal of approval.

Focus on the Zipper
 After Judge Donna Mills’s Feb. 7 ruling, in which she found that three out of four disputed open-space strips on the university’s two South Village superblocks are indeed public parkland, New York University is now focusing its development plans on the Coles site.

Mills ruled that the open-space strip in front of Coles is not public parkland, so N.Y.U. says it maintains the legal right to proceed with its building plans there. The new Zipper Building slated for the spot would partly sit on the open-space strip currently used by the Mercer-Houston Dog Run. The dog run would be relocated to the west of the new Zipper.

In addition, the working group noted it is focusing on the Coles site since, under the agreement with the city when the N.Y.U. 2031 plan was approved in July 2012, construction could not start on the north superblock until 2022 anyway. Over all, the group said, regarding any potential construction on the north superblock, as well as on the Morton Williams supermarket site, the university should again consult with a similar advisory group on how to proceed.

The 26-member University Space Priorities Working Group was convened by Sexton in October 2012. Last Tuesday, they issued their report.

An N.Y.U. graphic of the Zipper Building after it was reduced by 140,000 square feet by the City Council before it approved the N.Y.U. 2031 superblocks plan in July 2012. The Council approved a building with 980,000 square feet, with 720,000 square feet of that to be located aboveground.
An N.Y.U. graphic of the Zipper Building after it was reduced by 140,000 square feet by the City Council before it O.K.’d the N.Y.U. 2031 superblocks plan in July 2012. In the end, the Council approved a building with 980,000 square feet, with 720,000 square feet of that to be located aboveground.

Up to 80 classrooms

Saying academic space was their main priority, the group recommended that from one-third to one half of the new Zipper Building be set aside for academic uses, including 132,000 to 214,000 square feet for 80 classrooms, ranging in size from small seminar rooms to large lecture halls. They also called for creating 195,000 square feet for academic space for performing arts — including a large, 500-seat, proscenium theater and four, smaller black-box theaters; plus, 40,000 square feet for general student study space that could serve commuter students, among others.

In addition, they said, the Zipper should contain a 150,000-square-foot sports center, which would be air conditioned (unlike the current gym), and could double as an emergency community facility; plus 150,000 square feet for student housing and 150,000 square feet for faculty housing.

Under this scenario, the new building’s size would be in the range of 817,000 to 899,000 square feet. The current Coles is just one story, 29 feet tall. The buildable envelope for the Zipper, on the other hand, as stated in N.Y.U.’s agreement with the city, is nearly 300 feet tall at its highest point.

Fifty percent fewer freshmen
An earlier version of N.Y.U.’s South Village superblocks plan as recently as three years ago called for up to 1,000 students to be housed at the future Zipper. But the working group’s report recommends this number be halved to 500 freshmen, along with housing for roughly 100 N.Y.U. faculty families.

In fact, the group said the issue of housing freshmen on the superblocks — which N.Y.U. considers part of its campus “core” — was one of its biggest concerns.

“While recognizing the clear benefits for freshman students in providing more residential halls in the Core,” the report states, “the Working Group also grappled with the impact of a new freshman dorm in such close proximity to the two faculty housing apartment buildings that comprise Silver Towers. In December 2013, the Silver Towers Tenants Association reported strong apprehension about creating a residential unit for students so close to faculty members and their families.”

The working group proposed that the freshmen be kept as far away as possible from the faculty residences: “Entrances to student residence halls should be located on Mercer or Houston Sts., away from the two Silver Towers apartments and the open plaza they share.”

‘Off-site’ quiet time
However, beyond freshmen activity there is the issue of construction-related activity. Faculty members residing on the superblocks face the prospect of living in a “construction zone” if the Zipper is built.

The working group’s partial solution: “Establish a ‘work-study center’ away from the construction site for faculty who currently work at home and who have no other office options.”

Dramatic growth
 As for why such a large performing-arts component is being recommended for the Zipper, the group noted that the number of undergraduate performing-arts students at N.Y.U. has ballooned by 300 percent since the 1980s, but that the university’s space for them is subpar.

Meanwhile, the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, in the new Kimmel Center on Washington Square South, isn’t really even for N.Y.U. productions.

The Skirball theater, the report notes, “serves primarily as a presentation venue for short-term, outside productions, providing N.Y.U. and the broader community with a high-quality program of international and national work.”

Marketless Zipper
Earlier plans also called for a supermarket to be included in the new Zipper, to replace the Morton Williams market at Bleecker St. and LaGuardia Place, a site that was to be redeveloped with a new N.Y.U. building and possibly a 100,000-square-foot public school. (The Department of Education has until the end of this year to decide if it wants to build the school there.) However, the working group’s recommendations for the Zipper don’t include any retail space.

As for the retail strip on LaGuardia Place a block north of the supermarket, the working group said it should be kept well lit at night, and that efforts should be made to rent out its several empty spaces, or at least use them temporarily for classrooms.

Want to keep it in core
In response to the argument that the university should expand its facilities elsewhere — namely, outside of the Village — the report said it doesn’t work for several reasons. For one, it’s too expensive.

“At current rates,” the report states, “the purchase price of a site similar in size and location to the Coles site — if one could be found — would be roughly $600 million, a price that does not include the cost of any build-out to accommodate N.Y.U.’s specific needs for space.”

The working group also noted they couldn’t find anyone who was “willing to give the university a building for free.”

Travel time
Plus, they said, the breaks between N.Y.U. classes are only 15 minutes, which doesn’t leave time to commute from, say, the Financial District to Washington Square. 

“The suggestion of 15 minutes of travel time between classes — whether by foot, bike, trolley or subway — is impractical,” the report says, “since it doesn’t leave any margin of error or account for the extra minutes it takes to enter and leave buildings, secure a bicycle, or gain access to public transportation, and then get into the classroom via elevator and stairs. The distance from Washington Square Park to Union Square is roughly one half mile and at least a 10-minute walk. Given the 15-minute gap between classes, even that distance poses difficulties.”

Shoot down satellite idea
As for the idea of N.Y.U. instead focusing its new development growth at satellite sites, the report says it would only work if those programs were self-contained.

“A satellite site makes more sense if it was designed to function primarily on its own,” the group said, “as was the case when the Stern Graduate School was located in the Financial District until the early 1990s… .”

The Stern school is now located on Washington Square.

‘It’s an opportunity’
The report was unveiled last Tuesday by four faculty members of the working group, who noted they all live on the superblocks.

As for why — unlike members of N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan — they don’t oppose the project based on its construction impact alone, Laurence Maslon, an arts professor at Tisch School of the Arts, said, “I think saying no to construction is certainly an option, but saying no is not an opportunity. Let’s be honest — nobody likes jackhammers and construction. But we felt this was an opportunity to create something in the core that benefits students, faculty and the university for the long term.”

N.Y.U. and the working group both assert that the group was independent.

“This was a very organic process for us,” Maslon said. “We really started from scratch. We said, ‘What if we build nothing?’ ” 

Takes a slap at FASP
Ted Magder, an associate professor at the Steinhardt School, and the working group’s chairperson, noted that N.Y.U. FASP has just 400 members out of the university’s total of 4,000 faculty.

“They never gave a thorough and detailed response to [our] plan,” Magder said of FASP. “It’s disappointing to me, frankly, that FASP has been unwilling to engage with the working group.”

FASP was the driving force behind the community lawsuit that, as a result of Mills’s ruling, has dealt a serious blow to N.Y.U.’s superblocks plans.

About two-thirds of the university’s faculty live on the superblocks. After the press conference, Magder added, “I face Coles. N.Y.U. needs the space — not to grow, but for its academic needs.”

Along with FASP, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and Assemblymember Deborah Glick were also plaintiffs in the community lawsuit. The plaintiffs, N.Y.U. and the city have all filed notices of appeal regarding parts of Mills’s ruling, so the legal battle could drag on for years.

The plaintiffs say, that after Mills’s stunning ruling, the university should now go back to square one and start its superblocks planning all over again. But N.Y.U. counters that Mills specifically shot down the plaintiffs’ argument that the city’s ULURP review for the entire four-building project was faulty, and so the university can proceed on the Zipper.

‘Seem to be in denial’

Andrew Berman, G.V.S.H.P.’s director, said of the University Space Priorities Working Group’s conclusions, “The report’s recommendations seem to be in denial about the legal reality of the recent state  Supreme Court ruling. Instead of looking at coming up with alternate plans for trying to accommodate the university’s needs, they are continuing to try to shoehorn more space into the superblocks and the Village where it simply does not belong.”

Mark Crispin Miller, a leader of N.Y.U. FASP, accused the working group faculty of being, well, flunkies.

“We’re not surprised that President Sexton thinks so highly of the working group’s report,” Miller said, “since it gives him exactly what he wanted that committee to provide: a quasi-academic rationale for pushing forward with the Zipper Building. That’s why he conceived that body in the first place, and then hand-picked its members and its chairperson — after his expansion plan had been worked up behind closed doors, without the faculty’s involvement.

“With all due respect to our colleagues who helped write it, this report is dubious in several ways,” Miller said. “It downplays or ignores key issues, offers questionable numbers, and misrepresents the Zipper as an academic building, although just a fraction of that space will go for classrooms.

“We believe that N.Y.U. should table this report, along with the expansion plan itself, and make a fresh start at assessing N.Y.U.’s real need for academic space — this time with the faculty as partners.”  

‘No timetable’ for starting
Although N.Y.U. has now decided what would go in the Zipper, the university isn’t charging ahead on the construction.

Spokesperson John Beckman said, “While there is no legal impediment to us moving forward with the Coles site now, the next steps will be to establish the Superblock Stewardship Committee, as recommended by the Working Group, and to establish an advisory group to examine how to address the absence of Coles during the construction period, which is also consistent with their recommendations.

“We’re working on the timetable for the next steps. There is no specific timetable for moving forward with construction at this point.”

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