Is Caffeine More Important Than the Environment?

030507 article foxley Is Caffeine More Important Than the Environment?On a recent Sunday morning in Greenwich Village, a half-dozen patrons of Think Coffee waited in line to place orders for toasted bagels, cappuccinos and the like.

Everything about the scene was wholly unremarkable, except for the flyers taped to the bar where customers collect their drinks: “Don’t Let NYU Drive Us Out of Business!!”

Jason Scherr, Think’s owner and manager, launched the petition as part of a campaign to stop one of New York’s largest landlords from green-lighting a construction project. The project, unveiled by New York University last fall, promised to break ground a few steps from Think’s entrance.

Situated on a quiet, tree-lined block of Mercer between West Third and Fourth streets, Think’s understated air is an essential component of its appeal. And while Mr. Scherr’s mission is hard to miss on a visit to his establishment, it’s impossible to dodge on his MySpace page.

“Think Coffee is an independently-owned cafe with a socially and environmentally conscious bent and a community-oriented mission,” his page says.

It was with these principles in mind that many of Think’s regulars—the bulk of whom are N.Y.U. students and faculty—were surprised when they discovered that this was no ordinary construction project. The petition is meant to halt the core $110 million phase in N.Y.U.’s Green Action Plan.

THE UNIVERSITY’S PROPOSAL INVOLVES the considerable expansion of a subterranean co-generation facility beneath Warren Weaver Hall, a 13-story building housing the school’s computer-science department across Mercer from Think.

In their efforts to find a way to get off the Con Ed grid, university administrators stumbled upon a hyper-efficient process called combined heat and power production, or C.H.P. As opposed to the 70 percent thrown away by the existing 30-year-old plant, C.H.P. loses only about 10 percent of the energy it produces.

Not only are the environmental benefits considerable, but N.Y.U. can also expect to save money and hassle down the road. As Mr. Scherr’s petition asserts, the project “most directly benefits NYU by lowering its electricity bills from ConEd.”

“It’s a huge investment, and we’ve gotten questions from skeptics,” said Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U.’s associate vice president of government and community affairs. “The real reason is that you want to be able to have your major buildings have research data protected from power outages. It would be really detrimental—millions of dollars would be lost.”

While the installation will undoubtedly benefit the university, it will cause a number of problems for its neighbors during construction, which both sides expect to last at least two years. Mr. Scherr and his supporters are upset about the strip of 20 mature trees on public land that would be uprooted to make way for a massive pit. Because of the size of the proposed hole, a large barricade would be erected in the middle of Mercer.

If this option is given the go-ahead, Mr. Scherr and his neighbors stand to lose parking, two-way traffic, supply-truck access and the relative quiet that now makes the block an attractive place to live and work—and sell coffee.

“Are you hearing some of the community fussiness?” asked Ms. Hurley in her bright office on the 11th floor of Bobst Library. “I find it frustrating, but I think we have turned a corner with [Mr. Scherr] this week. I finally just said to him, ‘We’re going to be doing this project, and it’s going to affect all of us either way. Let’s do this together. Let’s stop the antagonistic environment that you’re creating around this and figure out a way to do this together.’”

Despite such peacemaking efforts, Mr. Scherr remains concerned.

“They say they are going to do as much as possible to mitigate the damage. It could arguably help—I just don’t know. My guess is that [the construction] will hurt my business,” Mr. Scherr said over the phone from his office in Think. “It’s just me, and I don’t have an arsenal of engineers to help me out,” he added.

Ms. Hurley explained that Mr. Scherr is simply overreacting to a plan that his petition has little chance of stopping. The petition has over 600 signatures.

“The gentleman from Think is worried that it’s going to hamper his business to have construction, but he’s got one of the best games in town, and our students will go to get coffee; they don’t care about construction so much,” Ms. Hurley said. “I don’t worry about his business, to be honest, but I want to help him.”

WHILE MR. SCHERR MIGHT BE THE LOUDEST opponent of the power plant, he is not the sharpest thorn in N.Y.U.’s side. That jab rests with the Mercer Square Block Association, which mainly consists of the residents of 250 Mercer, a tony 270-unit co-op just down the block from Think.

“We went to one of their full-membership meetings and just got blasted, because all of these people were like, ‘All this construction is going to be in our front yard. It’s going to be horrible—you’re going to kill our dogs and our children and our trees!’” Ms. Hurley recalled. “Now, they’re only seeing this as a construction site, which is unfortunate, because this is a really great environmental project.”

Elaine Hudson, who has lived at 250 Mercer since 1980, was disturbed by the secrecy that she claims has surrounded the project.

“They would have had the trees out in December, but we found out about this by accident from someone who works at Warren Weaver Hall,” Ms. Hudson said. “This had been in the works for over two years without anyone knowing.”

Mr. Scherr, Think’s owner, points out that the expansion doesn’t have to disrupt his business at all. An alternative proposal, drafted by N.Y.U.’s team of engineers and architects in response to the community outrage, proves that the co-gen plant could feasibly go under on the other side of Warren Weaver Hall.

This alternative plan, which puts a bulk of the excavation under Gould Plaza (and, therefore, out of Think’s and the co-op’s sight and mind), would compromise N.Y.U.’s largest piece of open-event space and destroy nearly a dozen classrooms—effectively sending the 6,000 students that use the space each week scattering around the Village.

“I’m a businessman at heart, so I think there are legitimate concerns on behalf of Think Coffee,” said Julio Alvarez, a 19-year-old sophomore at N.Y.U.’s Gallatin School and a member of the task force advising N.Y.U. on the Green Action Plan. “We’re not doing it just because we’re trying to be nasty neighbors, but we’re worried about losing classroom space. Because of the construction across the street from Think, everyone will be pushed on their side of the street, which could potentially raise revenues.”

In response to the community meetings called by N.Y.U., the Mercer Square Block Association staged a gathering of its own last week; 50 or 60 people came together in an N.Y.U. building on University Place to view the association’s PowerPoint presentation attacking the Mercer Street option.

Ms. Hurley has her own presentation, so to speak.

“Yes, Mercer would be impacted,” she says, pulling out plan diagrams in her office, “but we do live in New York City, where there’s construction going on all the time. We just thought that was a great way, a great approach, and we thought it would be a slam-dunk in the community. But for all sorts of reasons—and you know, these folks have been potent—they just don’t feel it’s fair that they bear the burden of this project.”

Which option N.Y.U. will choose has yet to be determined—the university won’t disclose a timeline on decisions—but both Mr. Scherr and Ms. Hudson seem confident that the university will ultimately go through Gould Plaza.

“We’re not standing in the way of the project,” Mr. Scherr said. “We’re just saying choose the option that doesn’t export all of your garbage onto us. They shouldn’t choose the option that is most convenient for them and detrimental to us. If they go for the Mercer Street option, then I would start screaming.”