You Win Some, You Lose Some: NYU Checked in South Village, Approved for Expansion in NoHo

You'd never guess it, but Vanderbilt Hall was actually build in the '50s.

You’d never guess it, but Vanderbilt Hall was actually built in the 1950s.

If you thought that the war over New York University’s expansion in and around the Greenwich Village was over, think again: the university’s banner “NYU 2031″ plan to add infill buildings to its superblock may be over (okay, well, almost over), but skirmishes continue on the periphery, and two battles that broke out over the past week showing no sign of abating.

The first battle involved the new South Village historic district, which preservationists wanted to go hand-in-hand with  the Hudson Square rezoning. Preservationists claimed that the rezoning, in addition to endowing property owners with millions of square feet of residential development rights in exchange for ensuring that nothing like the Trump SoHo would ever happen again, would imperil the unprotected historic neighborhood next door.

Now, the forces of preservation have got their wish, but a few properties were curiously left out of the proposal. And, what do you know, they happened to be owned by New York University! A coincidence, surely?

Well, omitted they are no longer: the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s Andrew Berman declared victory on Friday, as the Landmarks Preservation Commission added the three NYU sites—the 1950s historicist Vanderbilt Hall (which you’d never know isn’t actually a prewar building), the modern-but-not-huge Kekorvian Center for Near Eastern Studies and a row of four-story 19th century townhouses on the north side of West Houston Street, between MacDougal and Sullivan Streets. (Vanderbilt Hall is an especially worrisome site for anti-development forces, as NYU could build around 300,000 square feet of space on the parcel—around 50 percent more than the current four- and five-story building holds.)

The historic district has yet to pass the full Council muster, and Mr. Berman has warned that NYU’s buildings could still be removed at the last minute (he noted that a few buildings, initially included in the district, were excised at the last minute from the East Village district)—but for now, the sites are slated for inclusion.

The second battle, whose outcome was determined this morning at a Board of Standards and Appeals hearing, did not have such a happy outcome for Mr. Berman and the Village’s less-than-merry band of community activists.

After renting in 726-730 Broadway for years, NYU finally acquired the building in 2008, and just today won the right to use it as classroom space.

After renting in 726-730 Broadway for years, NYU finally acquired the building in 2008, and just today won the right to use it as classroom space.

In 2008, New York University paid $210 million for the old Amalgamated Life Insurance Company building at 726-730 Broadway, on the eastern Noho side of the street. With a block-through siting and massive 32,000-square foot floor plates, the university thinks it would make a good classroom and research space—”primarily for science and scientific research,” according to the university, which it would like to keep close to its existing facilities.

Only one problem: when the area now referred to as Soho and Noho were rezoned in the 1970s, dorms and classrooms were explicitly prohibited.

So NYU applied for a zoning variance—one that was granted this morning. NYU will now be able to use the building for classrooms and research space, and not just offices.

Mr. Berman, unsurprisingly, opposed the granting of the variance, not least because he feels that the university misled the public during the fight over NYU 2031, when it implied that it was putting all its cards on the table, and would not seek further changes in the near future.

As he told The Observer today, “This basically dismantles the firewall that Noho and Soho have had against NYU’s expansion into their neighborhoods, which are located close to the university’s ‘core’ and could easily be overwhelmed by NYU expansion.”

“You can guess what the future will then hold for these neighborhoods” if the variance is approved, he intoned back in January.

The incursion is a relatively minor one—the building is on Broadway, on the edge of the neighborhood now known as Noho, and aside from mechanical equipment on the roof, involves no new construction. Still, it remains to be seen what sort of precedent it will set. The relatively opaque and unaccountable Board of Standards and Appeals is no longer the exception-granting machine that it was during the Giuliani years, with the Bloomberg administration preferring broader formal zoning changes and city reviews to BSA one-off variances. With the BSA largely limited to adjudicating disputes about the use of existing structures, we’d be surprised if the decision on 730 Broadway led to a sea change in policy.

But we’d be even more surprised if this is the last we hear from lower Manhattan’s most epic development battle. La lutte continue!