Cooper Union Faculty in Fight With Board Over Its Hotel Plan

An architectural holy war has erupted over a plot of land where the East meets the West Village.

The faculty of Cooper Union, which owns the site at the convergence of Lafayette Street, Astor Place and Fourth Avenue, would love to get its hands on the property. The last undeveloped triangular intersection in the city, it has been called “one of the great building sites left in the world” by John Jay Iselin, the president of the college.

But a plan by the board of trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science to develop 26 Astor Place does not guarantee involvement of the Cooper Union faculty. Nor students. Nor alumni. And that has them fuming.

Even outsiders are stunned. “It is a profoundly important site for that part of the city,” said George Ranalli, dean of the architecture school at the City College of New York. “It is a very important intersection and crossroads from the southern part of New York to upper Greenwich Village to the main grid of the city.”

“Certainly, I would imagine that if they were going to do it, then a Cooper alum and/or faculty member should be on the short list for any project considered by the institution. They have a pool of quite good people from the faculty and alumni,” Mr. Ranalli said.

The cash-starved college has made arrangements to lease the site to the Related Companies, who are also developing the Coliseum at Columbus Circle, which will develop it into a commercial space, in partnership with Ian Schrager, the hotelier and former manager of Studio 54. The plans call for a 100-room hotel and a movie theater. The school will make about $1 million a year.

The architect has not yet been selected. At a meeting in late May, faculty members were told by Anthony M. Tung, a member of Cooper’s board, that the list under consideration was to be kept secret.

“He was run out of there on a rail. I’ve never seen such anger,” said Rod Knox, a graduate of Cooper and a faculty member for 23 years.

The initial list of architects developed by a board committee was to consist of one-third faculty members, one-third alumni and one-third outsiders, but it will be up to Related and Mr. Schrager to pick two finalists, at their own discretion. The decision should take place before the fall. Neither Mr. Schrager nor Jeff Blau, executive vice president of Related, will say who’s on any of the lists.

Board chairman Robert Bernhard, however, told The Observer the names of the architects considered for the short list have changed since Mr. Schrager hooked on to the Related deal. Reportedly, he is interested in such well-known architects as Rem Koolhaas, Herzog & de Meuron and Peter Zumthor. “I would want to have a world-class architect, perhaps one that hasn’t built in New York City,” Mr. Schrager said from his South Hampton, L.I., home.

The problem that the faculty and others see is that none of these names are even remotely associated with the school. And neither, in style and reputation, is Mr. Schrager.

“Cooper should not be building a sleazy hotel for Eurotrash clientele. That’s the kind of people these hotels attract. The Delano, the Royalton, the Mondrian, they’re hardly compatible with an institution of Cooper’s caliber and legacy,” said Alexander Gorlin, an alumnus of the school and a winner of the Rome Prize in architecture.

The deal is widely seen as a slap in the face to those who have helped make Cooper’s Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture “perhaps the most important architecture school in the world,” according to Domus , the architectural journal. Its graduates include Ralph Lerner, dean of the Princeton University’s School of Architecture; Stanley Allen, a tenured professor at Columbia University; Toshiko Mori, a tenured professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, and Daniel Libeskind, the creator of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Its professors include such architectural bigwigs as Peter Eisenman and Raimund Abraham, and its dean, John Hejduk, rebuilt Cooper’s renowned Foundation Building.

Many feel it’s certainly an insult to the legacy of Peter Cooper, an inventor and industrialist, who founded the school in 1859 as a private, tuition-free educational institution, offering degrees in art, architecture and engineering. The endowment specified that the school should be “as free as air and water” and dedicate itself to “the future improvement of humankind.”

“[Peter Cooper] would die again if he knew what was going on,” said Mr. Knox. “For him to find out what his legacy turned out to be, he would be appalled. He was never one for pure mercenary gain.

“It’s all about money, money, money. It’s a short-term gain, because they’re selling out the place,” he continued.

One faculty member who asked to remain anonymous said, “Why can’t they act as a developer themselves rather than hand it over to some half-assed commercial developer? What in God’s name makes the goals of developers so prescient? If you hand a shovel over to a mounted soldier, do you think that he is going to make a garden or is he going to put the horse at full gallop and try to take someone’s head off with the shovel?”

The land is now a parking lot, in the shadow of the Joseph Papp Public Theater, across from the landmark Astor Place subway station. Last summer, the Cooper Union board began sending requests for proposals to various developers in the city. One, Scott Resnick of Jack Resnick & Sons, said he worked for three years on his proposal for a residential tower, with a cultural component. It was rejected in favor of Related’s. Related will own the rights to the property for 99 years. It does not need either community board or city planning approval to proceed and can build up to six times its base square footage of 17,776, said Richard Barth, the director of the Manhattan office of the City Planning Commission.

According to President Iselin, the school hopes to gain around $1 million per year from the site, through lease fees and a tax loophole created by the city as compensation for Cooper’s public service that allows Cooper to receive all the tax revenues from the site.

An outside audit prepared by KPMG Peat Marwick L.L.P. for the board and obtained by The Observer shows that Cooper needs the cash. In 1997, the school’s operating deficit was $7.84 million; in 1998, the loss rose to $8.56 million, an increase of 9.2 percent. (A spokesman for Cooper Union put the deficit at $5 million for the coming year.) Some faculty said better management–for example, a better lease deal for the Chrysler Building site, a prime source of Cooper Union income–would ease the deficit.

But it’s the way the deal has been done, as much as the fact that it’s being done at all, that has the Cooper Union faculty and alumni irritated. Many are miffed that the list of architects has been kept hidden from the Cooper community, spinning the rumor mill out of control. Some have even said that the architect has already been chosen and the school is simply not telling anyone. Mr. Knox said, “It seems like all the deals are going on in smoke-filled rooms.”

One professor said the secret list “keeps everyone on edge. Some are privileged [to the information] and some are not. It’s Animal Farm . You have got to be kidding! It’s Orwellian! They should make it an open competition!”

Other architects echo that idea. They are concerned that the school is ignoring a chance to foster a productive architectural competition. Such competitions are common in Europe. But U.S. architects rarely have the chance to compete. “It is a unique opportunity that an educational institution, especially one with such a prestigious group of alumni and faculty and with a legacy for public service like Cooper, has an architecturally important piece of land to develop,” said Mr. Gorlin. Reed Kroloff, the editor in chief of Architecture , a monthly trade magazine, agreed: “The main value of any competition of that kind is to generate rich ideas that don’t necessarily result from pre-programming the way they have done it … Absolutely, an open competition would have been the best thing they could have done.”

Elizabeth Diller, one of this year’s MacArthur award winners and an alumna, said: “It’s too bad that a school that has spawned so many interesting people doesn’t have a chance to display its wares … It would be done with a different kind of spirit if it were done by an alum. It’s like building for the family.”

Added Mr. Knox, “As an architecture school, we have an obligation to practice what we preach.”

Mr. Tung, however, dismissed the idea of an open competition with a laugh. “That’s extremely unrealistic and idealistic,” he said. He claimed that only 1 percent of Cooper alumni are opposed to the development plan. Charles Gwathmey, another board member, said that he did not know of any other institution that had developed land using an internal competition. “The Cooper faculty,” he added, “is always angry, very independent, very theoretical and very out of the norm.”

Robert Bernhard, board chairman, an investment banker at Munn, Bernhard & Associates, said the board had actually considered holding an open competition. “That’s a lovely concept,” he said, “[but] we felt that we would be subsidizing another philanthropic institution and that’s not our business … We need to make money from this building.

“It was imperative for the health of the school to really get the most economically out of this site,” he said. He dismissed the complaints of the faculty and alumni: “Usually, with a project like this, the people who may not have quite the talents that they think they have are upset because they weren’t included.”

But the deal does include an architectural competition–of some kind. Related and Mr. Schrager will submit the names of two finalists to the board, and the architect who is not chosen will receive $100,000–a practice unprecedented in architecture, according to Mr. Kroloff of Architecture magazine. “I have never seen a loser get that much,” he said. “If I were a member of their faculty, I’d be curious.”

Or enraged. Mr. Gorlin said, “It’s astounding. I’m speechless. I don’t see why alumni would ever donate money after that. Who would want to pay for Rem Koolhaas’ fee? Why would I as an alumnus? There’s a 2,000-year-old history of competitions where the winner wins and the loser gets publicity. So if, in fact, the point is to raise as much money as possible, why would they do this? It’s senseless.”

“I’ve given up on the school,” said Ms. Diller. “[It] hasn’t proven to be generous to its own.”