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A Landmark of Hypocrisy?

You never know what you might stumble upon when walking around the neighborhood.

Recently I discovered that NYU had installed a sign on the grounds of the I.M. Pei-designed Silver Towers complex touting its landmark designation by the City in 2008.  The signage appeared to indicate that the NYU administration was proud of the landmark designation, citing the many awards and accolades the design won over the years.

The sign

That’s quite a sign.  What a difference a few years make.

GVSHP first proposed the Silver Towers/University Village complex for landmark designation in 2003.  At the time, representatives of the NYU administration reached out to GVSHP to express their displeasure at our seeking landmark designation for the complex, and their disbelief that we, or anyone else, would have anything good to say about the design.

It took five long years to get the Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider the complex for designation.  We were told directly by the Chair at the time that the NYU Administration was bitterly opposed to the proposed designation.  But GVSHP gathered strong support for designation from residents of the complex, neighbors, preservationists, and local elected officials.

One iteration of NYU’s planned 400 ft tower addition to the Silver Towers complex.

Of course NYU was (as we well knew) planning to pursue massive new construction on the block, in and around the complex.  They wanted to replace open space and low, horizontal buildings, which were integral to the original design concept in their deference to the central, pinwheel tower plan, with huge new construction.  This would have included a 400 ft. tall fourth tower they sought to add to the site, near Bleecker Street, which would have been the tallest building ever constructed in Greenwich Village.

When time came for the hearing on the proposed landmark designation, the NYU Administration saw the writing on the wall.  They knew the complex was going to be landmarked.  But they hoped to at least prevent the inclusion in the landmark designation of the two structures at the eastern and western edges of the complex — the Coles Gym at Mercer Street and the Morton-Williams Supermarket at the corner of LaGuardia Place and Bleecker Street.  These non-descript one-story buildings were not designed by Pei and not part of the original design, though they did reflect the design concept of the three, 30-story concrete frame towers arranged around open space with Picasso’s “Portrait of Sylvette” sculpture in the center, and with open space and low, deferential buildings around the periphery.

Huge turnout at the rally against NYU’s fourth tower plan in 2010.

So suddenly the NYU administration claimed to support the same landmark designation we had been told they so bitterly opposed, and of the same complex about which they had spoken so disparagingly just a few years earlier. But, they said in their testimony before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, they opposed inclusion of the gym and supermarket in the designation (which GVSHP had proposed be included as “no-style” or “non-contributing” buildings, which would mean they could be demolished, but their replacement would have to be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and should maintain the low, deferential design relationship to the rest of the complex).  And they also said they hoped to eventually propose, and get approval for, adding a fourth tower to the landmarked complex, making their case in advance for why this would be consistent with the original design based upon three 300 ft. tall towers, and with a designation meant to protect and preserve those features.

The Silver Towers complex, and Picasso’s Sylvette in the center.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that if the NYU Administration was willing to claim that adding a fourth 400 ft. tall tower to the complex was consistent with preservation, they would have no problem erecting a sign on the site implying that they always loved the design and supported its landmarking.  In the end, the Landmarks Preservation Commission did unanimously landmark the complex, though they excluded the gym and supermarket buildings from the designation.  NYU pursued their fourth tower plans, until an enormous public outcry in opposition, including from architect I.M. Pei, led them to abandon the proposal.

One final note: the signage erected by NYU also references how they were given this land by the City in 1960 on the condition that one third of the apartments they built had to be reserved for moderate-income public housing.  The tower at 505 LaGuardia Place within the complex is in fact moderate-income housing for the public, while the other two towers at 100 and 110 Bleecker Street are NYU faculty housing.

Not mentioned in the sign however is that when 505 LaGuardia’s land lease with NYU came up for renewal in 2012, NYU initially refused to renew the lease for the land at a price affordable to the moderate-income tenants.  In fact, according to several sources familiar with the negotiations, NYU played hardball with the tenants, extracting commitments regarding their willingness to drop formal opposition to NYU’s expansion plans, including on the gym and supermarket site, in exchange for renewal of the lease at a viable price for the moderate-income co-op.

Quite a sign indeed.

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