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The New School vs. NYU — A Telling Comparison

The New School recently “topped out” its new “University Center” at 65 Fifth Avenue at 14th Street.  With the building now having reached its full height and bulk, and the facade beginning to take shape, it’s worth comparing this project, The New School’s ambitious look toward its future, with NYU’s proposed developments under its twenty-year expansion plan, now under public review.

The New School's University Center under construction at 5th Avenue and 14th Street (image courtesy of Curbed.com)

The comparison is quite telling…First, The New School’s (TNS) University Center is a far cry from what TNS originally planned for this site.  A building of roughly double the size and height, originally there was to have been a nearly 350 ft. tall structure which would have risen almost completely without setbacks for the entire height.  The exterior would have been all glass, with projecting, multi-colored lights.

The enormous size of the building would have resulted from two factors: 1) the inclusion of several “quads in the sky” — huge open interior spaces which would have given vast open areas to those on the interior of the building while taking away light and air from the public on the exterior of the building by vastly increasing the building’s bulk, and 2) a series of zoning waivers and variances TNS was to seek in order to allow their proposed structure to climb so high and take up so much public light and air, avoiding the setbacks required under the zoning for the site.

The New School's original design for a much larger, all-glass building with multi-colored projecting lights.

Unsurprisingly, there was a huge backlash from neighbors; while 14th Street and Fifth Avenue may not seem like the most residential location, in fact hundreds of people live in several apartment buildings directly across the street from the site.  For them, among many other concerns, changing the zoning to avoid required setbacks would have profoundly impacted and taken away the precious light and air that neighbors were entitled to under the existing zoning.  Such an “as-of-right” building would have to set back, ziggurat style, to ensure that adequate light and air make it to the street below and neighboring structures.

We at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation agreed.  The existing building on the site was no treasure, and both the existing zoning and the location at the intersection of two major streets meant it was reasonable to build a larger structure there.  And 14th Street and Fifth Avenue are enough of a jumble that we did not feel that there was any one specific style or aesthetic TNS needed to abide by for a new building to fit in with the neighborhood.

But this certainly did not mean that any new building of any size was appropriate, or that any design was right for this area.  While the existing zoning for this or any other site was not necessarily perfect (GVSHP often tries to get zoning changed in our neighborhoods to better protect community character), it had been around for nearly fifty years, and was not likely to change any time soon.  And by allowing a building of a substantial but not overwhelming size for the site, and requiring that it set back, away from neighboring streets, and get narrower as it got taller, we actually thought the existing zoning was a reasonable arbiter of what should, or should not, be allowed on the site.

GVSHP therefore worked closely with neighbors in responding to the proposed building.  We felt that the all-glass design with multi-colored projecting lights was inappropriate for the area, and that asking to nearly double the allowable size of the building by seeking height and setback waivers and variances were wrong.

To make a very long story short, TNS eventually agreed.  They dropped all requests for zoning waivers and variances, limiting their proposed building to the size and height, and with the proposed setbacks, that the zoning required.  And they eliminated the all glass facade and projecting lights, promising to design something more responsive to community concerns about maintaining some opacity to the building, and using more solid materials that would look less like a midtown office building.

The New School's final design, now nearing completion.

These were huge changes; it not only meant that many (if not all) of the public’s concerns were addressed, but it also meant that TNS was no longer asking for special exemptions from zoning rules and light and air preservation requirements, and thus could move ahead with their project “as of right,” with no public approvals any longer required.

This stands in marked contrast to what NYU is seeking.  NYU is in essence asking for many of the same things as TNS, but on steriods, and with some additionally offensive items thrown in.  NYU is also seeking to change and receive waivers from the existing zoning for its sites south of Washington Square Park, so that light, air, and open space which is supposed to be preserved can be built upon by the university.  Instead of one site, however, NYU is seeking to do this on multiple sites spread out over what used to be six city blocks, resulting in the construction of four buildings, one of which would be the tallest in the Village.

NYU is asking the City to sell off or give them jurisdiction over public park space for their project, and to eliminate the terms of the agreement under which fifty years ago NYU was given the land they now own and want to build upon .  The zoning changes they are seeking would allow them to add as much as 2.5 million square feet of space to the area — the equivalent of the Empire State Building.

NYU's massive proposal for the area south of Washington Square.

TNS dropped all of their requests to bend the rules and build more, larger, or taller than they would be allowed.  NYU has not.  In fact, under the current rules and urban renewal agreements, NYU cannot build a single additional square foot on these properties, because their existing buildings are already so big as compared to the modest amount of open space around them (as opposed to TNS’ case, where the zoning did allow them to build a larger building, within limits, because the existing building on the site was actually quite small).

None of this is to minimize the very real issues neighbors have had to deal with around construction of TNS’ new University Center, what kind of an impact the building and all the people coming and going from it may have on its surroundings, and the loss of light and air that neighbors have to contend with from even this building which follows all the rules and zoning requirements.  And it remains to be seen how successful the final design, by Roger Duffy of SOM architects, will be (though even in a worst case scenario — and I am optimistic that this will not be a worst case scenario — it will no doubt be a big improvement over the all-glass/projecting multi-colored lights scheme we started off with).

But there is a world of difference between what The New School has done, and what NYU is asking the City Council to allow them do by breaking the rules, breaking agreements with the public, and selling off public land for development.

The City Council will be voting this month of NYU’s requested approvals; to contact them with your opinion about it, click HERE.

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