News
03.05.2008
Silver Lining for Pei Towers
NYU space crunch clouds future of superblock

silver pei silver pei
COURTESY LANDMARKS PRESERVATION COMMISSION 

Cover your ears, Jane Jacobs. On February 12, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted unanimously to calendar a public hearing on a Robert Moses–era slum clearance project known as the Silver Towers. The vote is a step toward victory for efforts to save one of New York’s precious postwar landscapes. But neighbors fear this tower-in-the-park could be sorely cramped by New York University (NYU), which is scouring the area for millions of square feet to accommodate planned campus expansion.

With a central courtyard dominated by the 36-foot-high sculpture Portrait of Sylvette, executed from a Picasso design, the Silver Towers are an unusually urbane case of urban renewal. Designed by I. M. Pei & Partners and completed in 1966, three concrete towers sit on a five-and-a-half-acre superblock between Bleecker and Houston streets. NYU acquired the property in 1963 and hired Pei to design two towers to house university faculty and a third tower that is ground-leased to residents of a Mitchell-Lama cooperative housing project. Built of cast-in-place concrete with deeply set windows, the towers pinwheel in plan, shifting on axis to break up what could have been a fortresslike slab into slender shafts that are deferential to the landscape—despite a Houston Street frontage that turns a cold shoulder to Soho.

“In spite of its flaws, there is so much about this design that is thoughtful and sensitive and innovative in a way that too few of its peers were,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which has been pressing for designation since 2003. “In some ways this is the exception that proves the rule.” Admirers cite stylish architecture under budget constraints (all three buildings met city cost-per-square-foot mandates) and particularly welcome designation since an earlier New York project by Pei, Kips Bay Plaza, has been marred by a cinema shoehorned onto the site.

Alas, that fate could befall Silver Towers, where two adjacent buildings (neither Pei-designed) house the Coles Sports and Recreation Center and a Morton Williams supermarket—both of which NYU owns and has considered for development. Preservationists had called for designation of those low-slung structures as “non-contributing” elements, but that seems unlikely, said Berman. Still, he added, “this gives us greater leverage to say to NYU, ‘You must be respectful and restrained in terms of what you do on those sites.’” (Through a spokesperson, the landmarks commission had no further comment.)

The Silver Towers debate unfolds against the university’s Brobdingnagian plans to add 6,000,000 square feet over the next 25 years. At a January 30 open house, NYU released the first concepts from a team led by design firm SMWM with Grimshaw, Toshiko Mori Architect, and Olin Partnership, who must orchestrate a high-stakes urban chess game to allocate new space among NYU’s core campus and outposts elsewhere in the city.

With few parcels left in the West Village, designers have targeted the Silver Towers block and, to the north, the apartment slabs known as Washington Square Village. With their generous open spaces, those blocks could add 2,500,000 square feet above and below grade, inviting scenarios such as razing Washington Square Village and restoring the street grid to that superblock. Near the Silver Towers, concepts include building at the Coles gym and supermarket sites, and even atop Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape, a quirky miniforest evoking Manhattan’s precolonial flora.

Such audacious ideas have stirred little alarm, perhaps because last month NYU President John Sexton announced a pact with community groups affirming principles such as making development sensitive to building heights and densities. NYU also pledged to relocate displaced public uses nearby. And the university has backed the Silver Towers designation as “consistent with two of the agreed upon planning principles—employing a publicly oriented review process on an NYU project and sustaining the neighborhood’s character.”

With a landmarks hearing expected in the coming months, designers have a delicate task ahead. “The question remains: What is the best way to take advantage of the available square footage on that block in a way that’s respectful of those towers and their potential landmark status?” said Jack Robbins, studio director in SMWM’s New York office, who added that the team is studying options to one of the community’s least-liked scenarios, a tall building at the supermarket site. “I think we all believe there are potentially better solutions in terms of the design and the politics of the community relations,” he said.

That’s good news for Pei’s cooperative tower, where residents overwhelmingly support landmark designation. “We’re going to have to be negotiating with NYU very shortly,” said Paul Rackow, the co-op’s community relations chairperson. “There are alternatives right here on the site. The Coles gym takes up an entire block from Bleecker to Houston. That would be our first suggestion: Build there.” 

JEFF BYLES

Jeff Byles