Walking through the two N.Y.U. superblocks just north of Houston Street can be both a tranquil and oppressive experience. Surrounded by brusque, mid-century apartment buildings many times taller than the townhouses and loft buildings surrounding them, the open space at the Silver Towers and Washington Square Village is not exactly inviting.
Created by some of the greatest landscape architects of their day, these spaces are, to put it mildly, challenging. Like the modernist architects redefining what buildings should look like in the middle of the last century, so too did these landscape architects, favoring viny slopes and more concrete than vegetation in places. At the corner of Houston Street and LaGuardia Place, Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape, which to most New Yorkers may look like an overgrown thatch, is actually a celebrated space taught in design and art schools around the world.
These “parks” need, if not improving, at least updating. That is a big part of N.Y.U.’s pitch to the community as it works to rezone the area, one of the most vicious Village NIMBY fights since Robert Moses built these superblocks half a century ago.
Still, does that mean N.Y.U. can bend the truth when talking about the project?
Last month, the University announced that its plan would create a whole swath of new, wonderful open space in this quiet corner of the campus and the Village, an exciting new amenity rivaling Washington Square Park. A celebratory press release declared “N.Y.U. will present its plans to add a net new 3.1 acres of publicly accessible open space to Greenwich Village, an increase that will improve the area’s open space ratio.”
This suggests a major net gain of open space for the neighborhood, one about one-third as big as Washington Square Park. Crunch the numbers, that is not actually the case. It is one thing to knock down a building or transform a parking lot into a park. It is another to take one park and turn it into another park.
After all, the superblocks already boast a good deal of open space, onto which N.Y.U. is planning to build new buildings. Just because the open space that is there now is not perfect does not mean it does not exist. But in the university’s opinion, because this land is generally uninviting and inconvenient, this means the new open space is essentially the only open space. Greenwich Village, you are welcome.
“We are making publicly accessible [existing] open space that is not—and is not perceived—as publicly accessible now,” university spokesman John Beckman told The Observer.
Still, this ignores the fact that this is already N.Y.U. owned land, and many of the impediments in place that the university cites, such as fences and locked gates and requisite visitor passes, could merely be done away with by the institution. The public space would not be the best, but it still underscores the fact that there is not nearly a net open space gain on the scale the university is suggesting.
N.Y.U. critic-in-chief Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said in an email that he remains suspicious of the school’s promises for its open space.
Basically what they are doing is saying that virtually none of what you and I would call ‘open space’ on the superblocks now is ‘public open space’ for a variety of reasons, but they are claiming that virtually all of the tiny amount of open space that would be left after they are done building their four huge new buildings would be considered ‘public open space’ even though nearly all of it would be owned by N.Y.U., and the tiny piece of it that would be given to the parks department N.Y.U. would maintain an easement over, so they could build under it, dig through it, park construction equipment on top of it, and close it to the public for years at a time at will (which they admit they would do).
To the university’s credit, it is creating some amount of new open space, and it is no doubt better.
One of the common assumptions about this land deal is that because N.Y.U. is building new towers on its open space, this will mean a reduction in open space. This actually turns out not to be the case, though, as the university’s architects astutely point out. The footprint of the crescent-shaped academic buildings planned for the Washington Square Village superblocks measure 28,000 square feet, which would occupy a good deal of the 1.5-acre open space located between the two apartment slabs. But it turns out that driveways and parking lots and a small retail building on LaGuardia Place actually occupy more land than the proposed towers.
“If one adds up the surface parking areas, the Green and Wooster Street driveways, the mail services driveway, it adds up to 35,700 square feet,” Mr. Beckman said. “In other words, nearly 8,000 square feet more.”
Holly Leicht, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, agrees with the university that the quality of the space presently available is considerably worse than what is on offer, and therefore the numbers bandied about by the university do not necessarily matter. “There will be legitimately more, better public open space than what is currently there,” she said in an interview. “It will be more inviting, more obvious, with no need for membership passes or other impediments.”
Ms. Leicht did share some of Mr. Berman’s concerns, though, specifically what regulations and guarantees will be in place to ensure the open space remains publicly accessible, since it is privately owned land—not quite Zucotti Park, but not far from it, either. “What kind of controls will be in place, what are the specific regulations to ensure reasonable public access,” she said. “That is something we will be looking at very closely as the public review continues.”
Mr. Beckman ensured that a restrictive declaration, the technical term for thee rules governing such spaces, would be implemented, but those details are still to be worked out as the university’s rezoning makes its way through the public review process. “The answer is ‘yes,’ there will be a restrictive declaration that will govern, among other things, the open space,” Mr. Beckman said.