By Jared Chausow
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The Great Hall at Cooper Union has historically hosted controversial meetings on issues intricately bound to the welfare of the surrounding Lower East Side, from an 1879 gathering that launched a tenement reform campaign to this week's annual vote on rent hikes. But on June 12, dozens of downtown residents crammed into a Cooper classroom to complain that they have been left out of a college proposal that they say will irrevocably alter their neighborhood.
"I don't want this to be just another meeting where the community voices its concern, and Cooper Union just goes ahead and does what it wants," said East 9th Street resident Michael Smith.
What Cooper Union wants is a major redevelopment that will replace low buildings with taller ones, expand a park, encroach on two city streets, alter traffic, and, along the way, disturb a literal rat's nest. The plans have been prompted by a cash crunch and a need for a more modern campus at the famous arts, architecture, and engineering school, where all 900 students attend tuition-free.
For years, Cooper Union kept afloat primarily by leasing the land it owns under the Chrysler Building, but that revenue no longer suffices. A deficit exceeding $5 million has sent the college rummaging through its real estate portfolio for income opportunitiesand stirred community worries that upscaling Cooper will mean downsizing the neighborhood as they know it.
Those fears were piqued a few years ago when Cooper announced plans to lease its 18,000-square-foot parking lot on Astor Place to hotelier Ian Schrager. Avant-garde Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has designed a slender 20-story bifurcated tower with lots of small windows which will look, according to The New York Times, like a pair of pantsor, according to some neighbors, like a cheese grater. (The hotel will adjoin the former Carl Fisher Music Building, which is being converted into 26 lofts selling for $850,000 to $15 million.) At the same time, the city is considering revamping Astor Place, possibly removing traffic lanes to form a plaza joining the hotel to the Cube sculpture. The hotel plans require no special zoning, and that deal is largely out of Cooper's hands. Still in play, however, are the college's other development schemes.
The school hopes to replace its six-story engineering building on Astor Place with a 15-story structure that would in large part be leased to stores and private offices, and to raze its two-story Hewitt Building on Fourth Avenue for a nine-story academic facilities structure. To accommodate the latter, Cooper Union has asked the city to "demap" Taras Shevchenko Place, a 50-foot-wide stretch between 6th and 7th streets named for a Ukrainian poet, so it can use five feet of the roadbed. (Cooper would likely pay the city for the land.) The remaining 45 feet would become a pedestrian mall, possibly named for Shevchenko.
Cooper community relations manager Camilla Brooks told the crowd at last week's meeting that the school intends to lure design and technology offices, but was less specific about what kind of retail would be sought. Some worried about the possibility of a big-box store.
"Even small retail and office space brings commercial development that caters to people who are here 9 to 5," said Community Board 3 housing chair Harvey Epstein, "not people who live here." Robert Hawks, vice president for business affairs at Cooper, notes that Cooper's original landmark brownstone foundation building leased ground-floor space to businesses when it opened.
The plan would expand triangular, city-owned Peter Cooper Park, which fronts the foundation building, by extending its eastern border into Fourth Avenue, making that portion of the street into a northbound-only artery. While few criticize park expansion, state senator Tom Duane warned in a letter to Cooper officials that renovation could disturb "a large rat population in the ruins of an old comfort station below the grounds" of the park, and insisted that the college design an effective rat abatement program.
While the plans have been kicking around for nearly two years, neighbors have complained that the college has only recently invited broad public participation. Two local community boards have formed a joint task force on the project, which met for the first time last week. Cooper officials attended the meeting. "At first I was quite frustrated because they hadn't been willing to include a lot of people," said Community Board 3 chair Lisa Kaplan. "The early meetings were nothing more than pronouncements about what they were going to do."
Cooper spokesperson Claire McCarthy says the college has been meeting with local associations for well over a year. "This is still all just a proposal," she stressed, "and it's a long time before we even get to the public process."
Indeed, the plans face at least a year of complicated reviews and likely rewrites. It must be approved by the city's planning department, the City Council, the borough president, and the mayor. Since both the mayoralty and the bulk of the City Council are up for grabs, many of those who will ultimately decide the development's fate aren't even in office yet, heightening the chance that the proposal will change.