Shadow of the Ivory Tower

NYU'S building frenzy blocks the sun and burns the community

The Palladium Residence, for which the gargantuan foundation has just been laid, will house 1000 students and open in fall 2001. The architect: once again, Kevin Roche. Local residents who have seen plans for it "were appalled at how ugly it was," says Martha Danziger, Community Board 3 district manager. "We asked NYU, 'Can't you do anything, add a statue or something?' "

"What I want to know is, where will it end?" asked Lisa Ramaci, who was chair of Economic Development for Community Board 3 when University Hall was proposed. "This thing literally looks like a bunker. I refuse to believe that Kevin Roche, the world-famous architect, can't build something sympathetic to the neighborhood. It looks like an us-against-them kind of building."

Henry James said of his beloved Washington Square: "It has repose in this shrill city . . . the look of having had something of a history." The Kimmel Center is, of course, expressly about activity, not repose, and the coveted parkside location is why the Kimmel Center, more than the new dorms, has sparked a voluble cross- community conversation. "It's a precious site," says Kim Stahlman Kearns, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, "and it's a wonderful opportunity for NYU to demonstrate that they care and contribute to the built environment of a harmonious villagescape." The Washington Square arch has been looked upon by countless denizens: the gentry who settled there in 1793 after the yellow fever epidemic downtown drove them north, the domestic maids who served them, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, Prohibition-era bohemians, 1960s folk revivalists, 1990s street performers, and millennial students. The arch appears on NYU's promotional materials, and "historic" Greenwich Village is touted as a significant draw for out-of-town students. It's difficult, then, to understand how the university can justify plunking down its "campus" center like a Monopoly piece, and altering the park dramatically. It's a bit like whoring in the cathedral. "By diminishing the openness of Washington Square Park they diminish themselves," says Lawrence Goldberg. "NYU sometimes has to be saved from itself."

NYU bulldozes its way to a new campus.
photo: Jay Muhlin
NYU bulldozes its way to a new campus.

Monotony is the enemy of a functioning neighborhood, as Jane Jacobs famously wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and NYU is perilously close to monotonizing sections of downtown Manhattan. It's too early for a eulogy, and NYU claims to be listening to concerned residents and preservationists with respect to the Kimmel Center, but the loss of sunlight, the erasure of small buildings by large, and the idea that New York City is a place to be tamed for prospective students all cry out for immediate attention. Perhaps NYU's decision to try to become a national university might also include building a top-tier campus that integrates itself into the city successfully, in ways that Columbia and Yale and others have failed to do. With its prime real estate sites and burgeoning student population, it has the wherewithal to make an indelible mark upon the Manhattan streetscape. Why would a university want to build a Bobst or a Kimmel when it can build one of tomorrow's classics— an image it might emblazon on its stationery 100 years from now?

The proposed designs are available at www.nyu.edu/planning.construction.

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