Architect's Newspaper

The pubic review process got off to a cantankerous start on January 3 after New York University (NYU) filed plans with City Planning for its 20-year expansion on two superblocks in Greenwich Village. In a move that struck some Villagers as audacious, the university touted the addition of more than 140,000 square feet of publicly accessible open space, while building out 2.4 million square feet in new construction. Nearly one million square feet will sit below grade, making the new public space on the northernmost block akin to an elaborate rooftop garden. This prompted consternation among residents who fear that future university administrations will renege on the public space arrangement. 

Currently, the two twin slab buildings of Washington Square Village sit on the northern superblock with an elevated courtyard designed by Hideo Sasaki. The university has proposed eliminating the Sasaki Garden and replacing it with two new buildings designed by Grimshaw with Toshiko Mori. The substructure for these two buildings, known as the Boomerang Buildings, would run the entire width of the superblock from La Guardia Place to Mercer Street and would be capped with a garden designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. The substructure alone is nearly 770,000 square feet.

In tallying the promised 135,000 square feet of open space, NYU combined about 90,000 square feet of privately owned public space (POPS) with nearly 40,000 square feet of newly designated parkland on what are commonly called the “DOT strips,” which run beside Mercer and La Guardia. The parcels were assembled by the Department of Transportation in the 1950s as part of Robert Moses’ failed attempt to build a downtown highway. The new substructure would sit beneath the strips as well as the POPS. In order to assuage further development fears, the university included language in its ULURP application to designate the strips as parkland under the control of the Parks Department, which they say would be very difficult to ever reverse. But opponents said that the land is already owned by the city, and there’s no good reason to cede, sell, or redesignate.

Because the substructure sits beneath the strips, the university has also sought easements for future maintenance. It’s this issue in particular that has inflamed neighborhood activists. “Yes, Michael Van Valkenburgh can design the best landscape plan going, but that doesn’t guarantee it won’t be ripped up in the future,” said Martin Tessler of the Community Action Alliance on NYU 2031 (CAAN). “Their institutional memory is nonexistent, because events change, circumstances change, and administrators change.” CAAN’s Terri Cude added that since the strips sit at entrances to the Boomerang Buildings, the newly designated parkland is essentially an entry plaza to private buildings to be maintained by the public.

In a telephone interview, NYU’s vice president of government affairs and civic engagement, Alicia Hurley, said that such details haven’t been ironed out yet and added that by designating the area as parkland, NYU has committed itself to additional public review. “We initially designed the space with Michael Van Valkenburgh with the intention of purchasing the strips,” she said. “But once we shifted and agreed to map these areas as parkland, then we’ll have to go though a whole new effort to test our design with the community and the Design Commission.”