NEWS AND ISSUES
Testimony of New York State Senator
Thomas K. Duane before the New York City Planning Commission Regarding New York University's Core Project
April 25, 2012
My name is Thomas K. Duane and I represent New York State's 29th Senate District, in which the Washington Square campus of New York University ("NYU"), as well as most of its surrounding neighborhoods, are located. Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today regarding NYU's complex application to expand significantly and change the character of its campus core in historic Greenwich Village by the year 2031.
I certainly appreciate the role NYU plays as an economic, cultural and intellectual engine for our City, and I recognize its prerogative to grow in order to maintain its position as one of the world's leading academic and research institutions. Yet, I am quite concerned about the expansion NYU seeks to undertake, which would add approximately 2 million gross square feet of development on two primarily residential superblocks and expand retail uses on the blocks east of Washington Square Park.
I welcome and acknowledge the modifications that the applicant has made to its proposal as a result of negotiations with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, including an approximately 17% reduction in density, the elimination of the temporary gym, and the preservation of the park strips around Washington Square Village. However, despite these modest concessions, I have grave concerns about the impacts the proposed development will have on the neighborhood. I respectfully request that you deny this application unless the concerns outlined below are fully addressed.
Bulk and Density
The Zoning Map Amendment that the applicant seeks, a change in the zoning from a R7-2 district to a C1-7 district (R8 equivalent) (C 20122 ZMM), is grossly out of scale and context with the surrounding neighborhood. The applicant also seeks a Large Scale General Development ("LSGD") special permit, along with numerous waivers, to grant further massing and bulk that would otherwise be prohibited, even under the proposed new zoning.
Even given the recent reduction in density secured by the Borough President, this rezoning will nearly double the allowable FAR on the two superblocks south of Washington Square Park between LaGuardia Place and Mercer Street (the "northern superblock" or "Washington Square Village," bounded by West 3rd Street and Bleecker Street, and the "southern superblock," or "Silver Towers" bounded by Bleecker Street and Houston Street). The current R7-2 zoning already permits one of the largest building envelopes in Manhattan Community District 2.
However, instead of limiting additional development on the two superblocks to 175,000 square feet – the current maximum – the applicant's proposed rezoning actions will allow approximately 2 million new gross square feet by halving the required Open Space Ratio. The proposed buildings will dwarf Washington Square Village and Silver Towers, which are already among the tallest buildings in Greenwich Village. This significant reduction in the Open Space Ratio destroys the historic "towers-in-the-park" plan of these developments. To make matters worse, the applicant seeks a waiver to the height and setback requirements, so that its proposed buildings can pierce the new R8-equivalent district's sky exposure plane, which was designed to ensure that light and air can reach the street. Combined, these actions eliminate vital light and air to the neighborhood, its visitors and the thousands of existing residents.
As Manhattan Community Board 2 (CB2) noted in its resolution on this plan, the applicant's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) excludes areas that are currently used as public open space from the baseline calculation, ignoring the testimony of many community members about the importance and use of the spaces and grossly inflating the acreage of new public open space. The calculation for the north superblock does not consider the LaGuardia Gardens (La Guardia Landscape), Sasaki Garden (Washington Square Village Gardens) or the Key Park (Washington Square Village Playground) as public open space. The calculation for the south superblock does not include the Silver Towers Oak Grove (Silver Towers Tree Grove), Center Area of University Village (University Village Plaza), Time Landscape, Silver Towers Seating, or the Silver Tower Playground as public open space. By making minor modifications, such as adding benches, NYU is exploiting technicalities in the State Environmental Quality Review Act to define these existing open spaces as new, without changing their use. If these spaces were included in the DEIS, the assessment would demonstrate only a small increase in publically accessible open space upon completion, with a net loss of uncovered land. The walkways, pedestrian paths and other nominal "open spaces" that would replace community parks, playgrounds and gardens are no consolation.
Further, the DEIS determines there will not be increased demand for open space within the non-residential study area because "worker" populations are less likely to increase the demand for active recreation than residential populations. Although this fits the CEQR technical definition, it does not take into consideration the realities of University life. Student populations demand significantly more active recreation resources than other "worker" populations. As demonstrated by Washington Square Park, which is already inundated with NYU students, any increase in students will result in an overwhelming of nearby parks, such as Passannante Park and the West 4th Street Courts.
As noted above, the proposed development also concentrates "open space" away from public areas, and into off-street spaces that are surrounded by oversized buildings. The "Philosophy Garden," on the north superblock, which represents 62 percent of the open space planned for the project, is an inward facing space, and is bounded by large buildings on all sides. This area will draw a large NYU population that moves in and out of the proposed buildings, and will serve as a university-focused "quad." What is now the public 1.34 acre Sasaki Garden will be completely displaced, despite the fact that is has been deemed eligible for the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places. Further, large swaths of this "new" open space will be little more than paved walkways to accommodate emergency vehicles as well as the high volume of students traveling to the LaGuardia and Mercer buildings.
For example, the "Greene Street Walk," located on the south superblock, widens a rarely used walkway, which will function as an entryway to university buildings and retail, and not as a true open space. This "walk" shifts public street-side open space to the interior of the block and away from most non-university populations.
Likewise, the proposed "Washington Square Village Play Garden" is significantly smaller than the current Key Park also located within Washington Square Village, which this project will demolish for the Mercer Building. Sited on the north side of a tower, and bounded by more towers to both the east and west, this new playground will not see the sun for the vast majority of the year.
I appreciate NYU removing its longstanding objection to the designation of the publicly-owned strips of land surrounding the north and south superblocks as parkland, for which I and many other stakeholders have long fought. However, the Zoning Text Amendment to treat mapped public parks as wide streets (N 120123) undermines the integrity of our city?s parks by allowing developers to surround them with buildings as if they were wide streets, rather than public green spaces, and must be rejected wholesale. Parks, both here in the Village and across our great city, are not streets and cannot be treated as such. This amendment will set a perilous precedent that may endanger other parkland?s access to light and air.
Despite NYU's agreement at the behest of Borough President Stringer not to develop on the Mercer Plaza strip above the NYU Cogeneration Plant and to preserve strips around Washington Square Village, the Zoning Text Amendment (N 120123 ZRM) to waive ownership requirements for developments and enlargements within a LSGD site must be rejected.
No easements should be granted for the use of the park strips along LaGuardia Place and Mercer Street as construction staging areas. NYU must not cover the community gardens with construction sheds, which would destroy them, or remove the mature trees that line the streets. The design for the strips surrounding Washington Square Village must preserve their current uses, and they should not become access plazas for the proposed LaGuardia and Mercer buildings. The proposed Bleecker building must be designed and set back as to not block light to the LaGuardia Community Gardens.
Although I appreciate the applicant's agreement not to develop above the Mercer Street Co-Generation Plant Park, additional commitments should be required. This strip, like the others, should be turned over to the New York City Department of Park and Recreation and the community agreement that created the park, which allows for the future maintenance need of the co-generation plant, should remain in full effect for perpetuity.
The expressed purpose of the proposed C-1 commercial overlay (Zoning Map Amendment C 20122 ZMM) for the blocks east of Washington Square Park is to enliven the area and serve the "local retail needs of the surrounding residential neighborhood." However, like CB 2, I would argue the area already has an active, thriving street life that successfully serves the residential and institutional population. I appreciate the concession Borough President Stringer negotiated with the applicant to ban eating and drinking establishments that have 80% or more of their projected revenue derived from alcoholic beverages; however, I agree with CB2 that there should be no new commercial establishments permitted on these blocks east of the park. The overlay would bring retail to the boarder of Washington Square Park, which would substantially change the character of the historic and landmarked park. Retail spaces bring with them brightly lit window displays, signage and additional commercial traffic. Although this proposal might benefit the Applicant's bottom line, it will not enhance the community in any way. There is already an abundance of vacant retail space available in the general vicinity.
Commitment for a Public School
NYU continues to insist on its intent to create a public school in Greenwich Village; however, this promise is one that the community has heard several times before. I appreciate the applicant agreeing to not build a dormitory above the proposed school, and limiting the number of floors beneath it at Borough President Stringer's request. However, NYU's offer to share land with the New York City Department of Education ("DOE") for a public school at the site of the Bleecker Building rings particularly hollow, given that under the current proposal NYU may take back the land in 2025 should the DOE or School Construction Authority ("SCA") fail to build on the site, and no community benefit would be seen. NYU must make a binding, verifiable agreement to donate this land to the DOE/SCA for a school, and should do so regardless of the outcome of this application.
Traffic and Transportation
The applicant's proposed project will increase the area?s population by approximately 1,500 to 2,000 permanent residents and 10,000-12,000 daily students, workers and visitors in an already crowded area. These additional populations will result in clear and lasting impacts on traffic and access to that need to be addressed. Specifically, the influx of people will overwhelm the area?s already crowded subway access points at the Broadway-Lafayette and West 4th Street stations. Loading zones and deliveries along Mercer Street for the Zipper Building and Bleecker Street for the suggested school will cause congestion along this already heavily trafficked area. Both Mercer Street and Bleecker Street have a single lane that would be blocked by increased pick-up/drop-off activity by cars, taxis and limousines surrounding the prospective school and hotel. The New York City Department of Transportation is already looking at ways to alleviate traffic buildup along the length of Bleecker Street. Furthermore, reducing the available parking by replacing the current 670-space garage below Washington Square Village with a 389-space garage and eliminating on-street parking, while simultaneously significantly increasing the number of both residents and day-time visitors, may cause a shortage of parking in the surrounding area.
NYU is the landlord or land-leaseholder of a significant amount of affordable housing in Greenwich Village, specifically at Washington Square Village and 505 LaGuardia Place. Every effort must be made to preserve these units as affordable both for the current residents and future generations because of the significant contributions that economic diversity has made to the fabric of the Village and New York City as a whole. Rent-regulated units in Washington Square Village should be preserved as such, and should be open to members of the larger community. NYU should sell the land beneath 505 LaGuardia Place to the cooperative, a state-sponsored Mitchell-Lama development, at a fair price so that it can remain affordable for the foreseeable future. Barring the sale of the land, NYU must make every effort to ensure that any future lease terms are such that affordability is able to be preserved.
Environmental and Construction Impacts
The sustained and lasting negative impact that nearly 20 years of continuous construction will have on the two superblocks and the surrounding area cannot be overstated. The heavy trucks and delivery vehicles associated with large-scale construction will severely congest the area, creating hazardous conditions on both streets and sidewalks. The noise and vibrations from the large amount of below-grade excavation and above-grade construction will have severe and unrelenting adverse effects on the neighborhood. The residents in both Washington Square Village and Silver Towers will be virtually entombed in their homes, and will face undue hardship due to this unremitting construction. NYU must make every effort to limit the impact on surrounding residents.
Specifically, the applicant must ensure that noise does not violate City codes at any time. Strict monitoring and regulation of construction activities, including: limitations on hours of construction; use of low-sulfur fuels, closed truck beds, and noise-dampened construction equipment; and prohibition of after-hours and weekend work, and truck idling, must be enforced. To ensure compliance with these environmental controls, continuous third party monitoring must take place. This monitor must have the ability to suspend construction activities that are violating standards and report regularly to the community. It would be irresponsible to allow this plan to move forward without forceful protections for the community which will look out the bedroom window into a construction zone for the next two decades.
NYU is a valued and important member of the Greenwich Village community. However, it is not the only member, and this proposed development is simply too large for the neighborhood. The new buildings will permanently block light and air to a significant number of properties, as well as to community parks and open spaces, and will permanently, fundamentally and negatively alter the surrounding community. Even Robert Moses understood the virtue of towers in the park, not towers surrounded by more towers. I urge the University to continue to work with its neighbors, CB2, and the local elected officials to develop an alternative that would more successfully integrate with the neighborhood. Therefore, I again respectfully request that the City Planning Commission deny this application.
I would like to formally thank CB2, which has put in countless hours of time to engage in a public dialogue that resulted in a thoughtful, well-reasoned resolution on this proposal. I also thank CPC for the opportunity to testify and for its consideration of my testimony.