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July 25th, 2008

PURE GOLD: A KINDER, GENTLER NYU?

by Ed Gold

We are told that the elephant in the neighborhood is a kinder, gentler colossus than in the past. The habitat will grow during a 25-year expansion plan that so far calls for cautious optimism with a heavy dose of continuous community alert.

Running the growth program from the executive suite perched on Bobst Library’s top floor is Senior Vice-President Lynne Brown, who has a good view of Lower Manhattan from her window. Her top aides in this new buildathon are a genial couple: Alicia Hurley, an assistant vice-president, and Gary Parker, director of government and community affairs.

So far Hurley and Parker have appeared before somwhat apprehensive community groups and have maintained a friendly disposition, an improvement over university attitudes during earlier expansion moves.

The early evidence in current NYU-community relations can be called mixed.

A few years back, the community asked NYU to reduce the height of a planned science lab on Waverly because it threw a shadow on residential buildings to the north. Actually, NYU raised the height an extra story on the grounds that it was necessary for their education plan.

On Washington Place, NYU wanted a mall that would run from Broaday to University Place. Some years back, the community had rejected a one-block mall in the same area. This time around NYU heard the community and put the mall in mothballs.

But the university did suggest that one of its residential buildings on Washington Place was destined to be turned into a classroom location. This frightened long-time residents who had raised families there and considered it their permanent home. NYU responded by saying “we won’t do anything for five years,” which did not soothe the residents.

A serious debate then develped about the Provincetown Playhouse, part of a four-building complex south of West Fourth on MacDougal. NYU’s plan was to maintain and refurbish the playhouse but replace the complex with a new structure that would serve as a lab for the law school. It would be the third law school expansion in more than a decade. It looks very much as though NYU President John Sexton, former dean of the law school, is intent on being up there with Harvard.

The university showed some flexibility in cutting back on the height of the new structure from eight to five stories–just modestly heigher than what now exists.

Landmark people considered the four buildings an historically significant site, but Community Board Two was satisfied with the compromise, partially in light of the many changes in the four buildings over the years.

As David Reck, chair of CB2’s zoning committee, pointed out, the original buildings all had stoops and the house with the playhouse at one time was a horse stable and later a car garage. In the early ’40’s, he noted, both the facades and interiors of all four buildings were redone.

Theatre representatives asked for use of the playhouse when it wasn’t being used as part of NYU’s teaching program, and the university would be wise in keeping their promise to open facilities to local theatre groups who uniformly appear to have weak cash flow.

Discussion with the community has begun on the so-called superblock: Bleecker to Houston, north to south; Mercer to LaGuardia Place, east to west.

Currently, the site includes three residential buildings, a modest dog run, Coles Sports Center, a supermarket and a public garden. NYU proposes to tear down Coles and the dog run and replace them with structures that could serve as residential or teaching buildings. NYU says it will not disturb the public garden, but will build a school building on the Bleecker side that will be taller than the three tall buildings already on the site, further threatening the Village ambience.

Several of the major institutions in the area, including the New School and St. Vincent’s Hospital, are also facing space problems and are planning to go conspicuously vertical.

NYU will find room for the dog run sometime down the road, Hurley promises. The run, by the way, was part of a deal between CB2 and NYU when NYU sought a zoning variance in building Coles, and CB2 agreed. As to a sports center, NYU mentions the possibility of building underground, but where?

Many activists in CB2 and CB3 still remember the fight over the giant dorms on Third Avenue and the wall south of Washington Square Park with the construction of Bobst and Kimmel Student Center. Then, of course, some recall NYU removing 60 families form Washington Square Village.

My friend, Lynne Brown, insists this is a new day, a new approach, a much more considerate and cooperative elephant. Everyone hopes she has it right.


For more information on NYU’s expansion plans, click here.

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