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As NYU plans towering dorm for 12th Street, East Village neighbors cry foul

Elizabeth Langwith used to love the view from her East Village apartment window. Every day for 11 years she took in the scene from her 10th-floor one-room loft on Fourth Avenue—the old carriage house next door, the old brownstones along East 12th Street.

And then there was St. Ann's Church, a beautiful, rusticated-stone structure dating back to 1847. Its Romanesque tower dominated the scene. And every weekend, she'd see adults filing into services, or children playing in its backyard. She'd hear bells clanging and parishioners praying. Every weekend, that is, until last winter, when she noticed St. Ann's had shuttered its doors. Within weeks, she was watching the scaffolding go up and the church, piece by piece, come down.

Today, her beloved view has all but disappeared. What remains is the church's facade, a shell wrapped in black netting.

Two historic buildings, one giant dorm: The Peter Cooper Station Post Office (above) is to remain standing; except for its facade, St. Ann’s Church (below) has already been torn down.
photo: Holly Northrop/
Two historic buildings, one giant dorm: The Peter Cooper Station Post Office (above) is to remain standing; except for its facade, St. Ann’s Church (below) has already been torn down.

"The whole vista was like you were going back in time. Now it's gone," says Langwith, the chair of St. Ann's Committee, an 80-strong residents group born out of the church's demolition. "There's such a sense of loss."

That loss has only been made worse by news of what will replace St. Ann's—namely, a 26-story New York University dorm. In November, officials announced they'd signed a deal with the owner of the church property to develop an undergraduate student residence. Hudson Companies, the Brooklyn developer, is expected to break ground this year, with the dorm to open in May 2009. The plan calls for housing 700 students in a rectangular building that neighbors describe as hulking, nondescript, and utterly out of keeping with the rest of the block.

For Langwith, as for so many other people in the East Village, NYU's plan means a building that obstructs her view, blocks light and air, and looms over her street. As she says, "It would irreversibly change the skyline."

NYU is trying to convince Langwith and her neighbors otherwise. Officials from the school, based in Greenwich Village, have fanned out into the area in recent months, meeting with community groups and highlighting the project's merits. Lynne Brown, vice president of university relations and public affairs at NYU, says the dormitory will meet institutional needs because it'll enable hundreds of students to relocate from residences in Lower Manhattan, down by the South Street Seaport. "This is a relocation effort," she says. "We want our students closer to campus."

It's a legitimate goal perhaps, one that doesn't seem so wrong in and of itself. But the dormitory project has provoked a simmering anger among residents over what they regard as NYU's unrelenting expansion. Since the early 1980s, as the 12,000-student university has grown in prestige, it has expanded more and more into the Village, acquiring 25 buildings and raising another 13. To date, residents argue, NYU has gobbled up the West Village, constructing a compound on Washington Square and leveling a historic Edgar Allan Poe residence in the process. It has encroached upon the East Village, too, building a half-dozen dorms from Union Square to East 9th Street, up and down Third Avenue.

Now residents may have to contend with another dorm that, at 26 stories, could become the tallest building there yet. Nancy Cosie, a 20-year resident who worshipped at St. Ann's Church and who opposes the project, says, "Little by little, the university is chipping away at everything—the churches, the mom-and-pop stores." Until today, she says, the neighborhood has welcomed the university. No more.

"Enough is enough," Cosie exclaims.

"This is not a campus. This is a neighborhood, and this is my home."

Two historic buildings, one giant dorm: The Peter Cooper Station Post Office (top of page) is to remain standing; except for its facade, St. Ann’s Church (above) has already been torn down.
photo: Holly Northrop/
To hear NYU tell it, this supposedly big, bad university is trying to do right by the Village. Brown likes to remind people that the university has been as much a part of the neighborhood's history as St. Ann's Church had been. The school was founded on Washington Square in 1831. And over the years, as it has expanded from the blocks around West 4th Street to streets a few blocks north of 14th, it has brought along plenty of good things. Like students with money to burn, or professors with families who make homes near their work.

"There are larger changes going on here," Brown says. "I fear this tendency to blame any trend residents don't like happening at the doorstep of NYU."

David Kramer, a principal at Hudson Companies, believes NYU has behaved like a good neighbor. He is constructing what's known as an "as-of-right" development, meaning all his company has to do is erect the dorm according to building codes. Kramer's outfit, the property's current owner, has no obligation to go through public hearings of any kind. Instead, Hudson and NYU are trying to be proactive in telling neighbors what's happening. "We're making an effort to present this project to the neighborhood," Kramer says.

And they're billing it as a win-win for everybody. After all, as Kramer notes, NYU will preserve the church facade, building its high-rise some 50 feet behind the street. So, he says, "It's less imposing all around."

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