City Planning Commission Shrinks NYU’s Campus Expansion

NYU superblock development as originally proposed. Credit: NYU

Modifications include reducing building heights and below-grade space, and eliminating the proposed commercial overlay for the “Loft Blocks” and hotel use in the “Zipper Building.” On June 6, 2012, the City Planning Commission modified New York University’s proposal to expand its Greenwich Village campus. NYU’s proposal included developing four new buildings on two superblocks divided by Bleecker Street and bounded by West 3rd Street, West Houston Street, Mercer Street, and LaGuardia Place. The southern superblock contains three landmarked 30-story buildings designed by I.M. Pei and used for NYU faculty housing (Silver Towers 1 and 2) and middle-income affordable housing (505 LaGuardia Place). The superblock is also occupied by a supermarket at the corner of Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place, and NYU’s Coles Gym along Mercer Street. The northern superblock is occupied by NYU’s two, nearly 600-foot-long, Washington Square Village apartment buildings, and a one-story retail strip along LaGuardia Place.

NYU estimates that the project would take 19 years to complete. The project’s first phase would focus on the southern superblock. NYU planned to replace the supermarket with a 178-foot tower providing space for a public school and an NYU dormitory. Coles Gym would be replaced with the “Zipper Building,” a block-long building featuring a four- to five-story plinth with six staggered towers in a zippered pattern that rise in height toward West Houston Street. NYU planned to use the Zipper Building for faculty housing, a supermarket, a below-grade gym to permanently replace the Coles Gym, and an NYU-affiliated hotel. NYU also planned to build a temporary gym on the northern superblock facing Mercer Street to provide gym space while the Zipper Building was being built. The northern superblock would be redeveloped in the project’s second phase. NYU planned to replace the temporary gym on Mercer Street with a curved academic building. A shorter curved building would replace the one-story retail building on LaGuardia Place.

The proposal would also create nearly four acres of parks and improved open space, and provide additional below-grade academic and parking facilities. NYU planned to locate some of the space underneath landscaped strips along Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place. The strips are mapped as parts of Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place, but the street beds were never widened following the defeat of the Lower Manhattan Expressway project. NYU asked the City to demap and convey the strips’ below-grade space to the University. NYU also asked the City to apply a C1-5 commercial overlay to six blocks north of the superblocks characterized by loft-style buildings primarily owned by NYU and known as the “Loft Blocks.” (read CityLand’s coverage of the proposal as certified into ULURP here).

Manhattan Community Board 2 opposed the proposal, citing concerns about the project’s size and its impact on the neighborhood during and after construction. Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer supported the proposal under certain conditions. Stringer recommended, among other things, eliminating the proposed below-grade space from under the landscaped strips, reducing the size of the new buildings on the superblocks, and eliminating the construction of the temporary gym. Stringer also recommended imposing limits on eating and drinking establishments if the Loft Blocks were rezoned with a commercial overlay.

More than 100 people testified at the City Planning Commission’s public hearing on April 25, 2012. In response to extensive questioning from the commissioners, NYU’s representatives stated that the proposed hotel would be available to the public to the extent that rooms would not be needed for NYU-related events. The representatives conceded that the proposed commercial overlay for the Loft Blocks was not crucial to the project, but would permit NYU to address past community concerns about the campus’s unwelcoming ground floors.

Opponents of the proposal echoed the concerns of CB 2, and included residents, preservationists, elected officials, and a group of NYU faculty members. Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, argued that the proposal would allow NYU to dominate Greenwich Village. Berman said that if NYU could have a satellite campus in Dubai, the University should be able to identify another part of the City that could better accommodate the project. State Senator Thomas K. Duane stated that he appreciated NYU’s role in the City, but said NYU should have been more responsive to community concerns. He asked the Commission to deny the current proposal, and urged NYU to negotiate an alternate plan with the community.

The Commission approved the proposal, but made several modifications. To facilitate the core redevelopment, the Commission approved NYU’s request to rezone the superblocks from R7-2 to C1-7. The Commission, however, refused to apply a commercial overlay to the Loft Blocks, noting that the rezoning would be extraneous to the proposal’s primary purpose. The Commission reduced the height of several buildings and eliminated the temporary gym, the dormitory component, and the proposed hotel. On the northern superblock, the height of the curved building on Mercer Street was reduced from 218 feet (248 feet with bulkheads included) to 162 feet, which would match the height of the existing Washington Square Village apartment buildings. By eliminating the proposed dormitory, the Commission also reduced the height of the building at the corner of Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place from 178 to 108 feet. According to the Commission, this would ensure that the building would contribute positively to the neighborhood. The Zipper Building’s building envelope was left unchanged, but the Commission eliminated the proposed hotel, finding that NYU had not adequately demonstrated a need for such a use.

The Commission approved demapping the landscaped strips, but eliminated the disposition of the below-grade space requested by NYU. The Commission found that developing the below-grade space below what will be designated as parkland would inevitably lead to the removal of trees and interfere with its use. In order to address concerns about the management and operation of the project’s proposed open space, the Commission required the establishment of an Open Space Oversight Organization. The Organization’s Board of Directors would include representatives of NYU, the local council member, borough president, community board, and Department of Parks and Recreation. NYU would need to submit any application involving changes to the design of the project’s open space.

The Commission voted 12-1-0 to approve the modified proposal. Commissioner Michelle de la Uz voted ‘No.’ Commissioner de la Uz said that despite the significant modifications, she was still concerned about the project’s size and the lack of clarity about the northern superblock’s building program.

The City Council has until July 27, 2012 to review NYU’s proposal.

CPC: New York University Core (C 120122 ZMM – rezoning); (N 120123 ZRM – text amend.); (C 1202124 ZSM – special permit); (C 120077 MMM – City map change) (June 6, 2012).

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