Fall-out from Robert Moses’ doomed Lower Manhattan Expressway plan continues to have an impact across the Village where he had cobbled together a patchwork of parcels, now belonging to the Department of Transportation. Some of those remnant lots along the edges of two superblocks just south of Washington Square are now popular green spaces. And when New York University (NYU) attempted to buy the land in order to build several stories of classrooms beneath Washington Square Village, the community protested fearing it might lead to future development above ground. The university backed off and now proposes remapping the area and designating the two northernmost strips as parkland but still building classrooms underground. This would place the strips under the control of the Parks Department, an administrative guarantee of sorts that the land will remain open space.
“There’s never been a real clarity of who owns them, what’s going on with them, and who should be responsible for taking care of these spaces,” NYU government affairs VP Alicia Hurley said of the strips. “Our plan is giving them that clarity.”
Of the five DOT strips in the area bordered by LaGuardia, Mercer, West Fourth, and Houston, NYU seeks changes to four. At the northern superblock of Washington Square Village, two proposed buildings, designed by Grimshaw Architects with Toshiko Mori and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), were moved so as not to sit on the strips, and NYU will seek park designation for them. The latest proposal also moves one building, the Mercer Building, off the strip by shifting it 15 feet to the west. The request will be folded into the overall Universal Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) application that also seeks easements for building beneath the parks.
At the southern superblock of Silver Towers, the university hopes to move the proposed Zipper Building, designed by Grimshaw with Mori, 30 feet to the east onto the DOT strip there. This would widen the courtyard walkway between the new building and the Silver Towers, expanding it from ten feet to 40. As with the rest of the project, the landscaping there would be designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.
Lastly, the university still wants to buy the DOT strip along Mercer just north of the superblocks. University representatives said they are not seeking FAR or air rights, but are looking to end leasing the 30-foot by 400-foot property that holds their mechanical rooms below grade. The strip would remain a park. The university said that community gardens along the fifth strip at the western edge of the Silver Towers block would remain unaffected.
Landscape architect Matt Urbanski of MVVA, said that the changes present significant design opportunities, particularly between the Zipper Building and Silver Towers. “By moving the new building we’re able to amplify that space, and bring the public through in a way that’s gracious, that doesn’t feel pinched,” he said. “It’s a good response to the [Silver] towers. It definitely invites people up from Soho.” Ubanski added that the additional 15 feet on the eastern edge of the northern superblock helps create a “gesture of entry” there as well.
Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation found the latest proposals to be a gesture of quite another sort. “Talk about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, this is just tinkering at the edges at best,” he said. “It’s historically a remnant of the Robert Moses plan and it would be a sad irony for [the city] to then turn around and let NYU gobble it up for development.”
NYU officials said that while shifting the strips to Parks jurisdiction would be primarily an administrative change, it would run parallel to their ULURP process which will begin in early 2012 and play out over the course of several months. Any change to a parkland designation would require a review by the city and state legislature. “One of the hardest things to get done is turn parkland into something else,” said NYU senior VP Lynne Brown. “Parkland gives more protection for land from developing in a very different way than any other classification.”