In the ongoing battle between NYU and its Village neighbors, the community had generally been rolled by the powerful, politically connected university, which has built massive buildings throughout the largely low-rise neighborhood. Well, score one for the little guys, thanks in part to a big name.
The university will now be moving forward with alternative plans for an expansion on the two superblocks NYU controls between Houston and Bleecker streets. The university had initially intended to build a fourth tower, rising to 40 stories, on the site of its Silver Towers complex, which was designed by famed architect I.M. Pei. But Pei, according to a release from the university, was among the project’s many opponents. This led to the decision to build on a neighboring site that is not part of the apartment complex, which was landmarked in 2008, and thus would require an additional set of city approvals, from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, in order for anything to be built on the site.
It is an unusual arrangement, given that the commission typically only preserves buildings and not the surrounding landscapes. In so doing, the commissioners stressed the importance of Pei’s site planning as much as they celebrated the buildings themselves.
“From the beginning, we sought a design for the Silver Towers block that was most respectful of Mr. Pei’s vision. Some people disagreed with our proposed approach; others agreed. We believed that among those who agreed was Mr. Pei himself, who expressed no opposition to the concept of a tower on the landmarked site when we spoke with him directly in 2008,” NYU Senior Vice President Lynne Brown said in a release . “Mr. Pei has now had a change of heart. The clarity Mr. Pei has now provided -that the Morton Williams site is ‘preferable’ — is helpful to us in understanding how to proceed with our ULURP proposal.”
Meanwhile, NYU’s critics are elated. Well, sort of. Andrerw Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and a major university foe, had still urged the unversity to look elsewhere for its plans:
I am deeply gratified that in the face of overwhelming opposition, including from architect I.M. Pei, NYU has chosen to withdraw its plans for landmarks approval for a 400 ft. tall tower in the Silver Towers complex. However, NYU’s insistence on moving ahead with seeking public approvals for its alternative plans for a development on the adjacent non-landmarked supermarket site, as well as the remainder of its massive NYU 2031 expansion plan to add 2 million square feet of space around Washington Square Park, shows that the university still does not get it.
Indeed, the architecture firm Grimshaw, which is planning the project, made an elegant argument for building on the Pei site, as it would create a more open and symmetrical site. Now, it will be lopsided. But as Berman makes clear, that still does not address the issue of those 2 million square feet. While this may be the rare victory for the community, it is also a small one. It is not like there will be fewer college kids swarming the neighborhood. They will simply be swarming to a different hive.