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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/hnorthrop.com
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."


image
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/hnorthrop.com
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."

But this offers little consolation to Village residents. Sure, they cringe at the thought of 700 college students living next door, under one roof. They tick off a litany of potential hassles—traffic, noise, garbage, and so on. But the complaints come back to one thing: the structure's sheer size.

"It's so damn big," observes Tony McAndrew, who heads the co-op board at 111 Fourth Avenue, across the street. An architect by profession, McAndrew finds fault with the designs he's seen to date. "It looks like a building that was ordered over the phone," he argues. Even if it were an architectural delight, he says, a 26-story structure doesn't fit with the feel of the neighborhood.

To make matters worse, he and other critics cannot forget the lingering question over how this dorm got to be so tall in the first place. Hudson acquired St. Ann's Church from the New York archdiocese in December 2004. The next month, the company bought additional air rights for the Peter Cooper Station Post Office, on East 11th Street, from the United States Postal Service. The transfer of those air rights allows Hudson to erect a far larger building—with another 61,000 square feet, by neighbors' calculation an extra 62 percent of room—than the developer otherwise could.

Critics claim the air-rights sale was improper, possibly illegal, because the USPS skirted its obligations under the National Historic Preservation Act. Among other provisions, Section 106 requires federal agencies to consider the effects of their actions on historic properties, and sets forth procedures for consulting with the state and the public to avoid or limit any harmful effects.

"Here was a federal agency involved in an action that had an impact on historic resources," says Andrew Berman, of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, referring both to St. Ann's Church and to Cooper Station. The 1936 post office is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; the church had been deemed eligible for listing but was demolished before state preservation officers could make the designation official. When Berman found out about the transfer last spring, he did some sleuthing and discovered the postal service had sold the air rights without studying the impact on immediate historic buildings. He filed a complaint with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which oversees the Section 106 review.

The Advisory Council sent the USPS a letter in July, saying the transfer appeared to warrant a review. The post office at first argued that it had no obligation to review the matter because it was only selling development rights, not putting forward a development. By August, USPS officials had admitted the mistake. "We have recognized that the postal service should undertake a Section 106 review before selling air rights," says Robert Anderson, a spokesperson.

Martha Catlin, of the Advisory Council, won't go so far as to say whether the postal service improperly sold the air rights, as critics claim. Beginning this month, she says, she expects to meet with postal officials to discuss the matter. "Right now," she explains, "the postal service is willing to undertake a Section 106 review so I cannot draw a conclusion like that."


Review or no, all sides agree the deal is probably done.

Who knows what would have happened if the postal service had studied the impact before selling the Cooper Station air rights? Maybe St. Ann's Church would have been spared. Maybe the dorm's size would have been reduced. Or maybe the project would be rolling along just as it is now.

"It's all conjecture," Berman concedes. Yet at least the review would have forced the transfer into the open. Residents, preservationists, parishioners: All would have had some say.

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Sanctum no more: NYU wants to put a 26-story dorm on the former site of St. Ann's Church.
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com

Now all they can do is appeal to the university's sense of responsibility. Those Cooper Station air rights, they argue, amount to stolen goods. Should the university benefit from that wrongdoing?

The neighbors' tactic isn't working. Asked if NYU should use the rights, VP Brown chuckles and says, "The developer was going to build this size anyway. What he showed the community was always a building of this scale and there has been no proof from the post office that the sale was improper."

That message has only incensed people. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has revived a three-year-old proposal calling on the city to help NYU find alternative campuses. A half-dozen community groups—from St. Ann's Committee to the Coalition to Save the East Village—have written letters to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials. Already, the idea has gained backing from local community boards and elected officials.


"People are pissed," says Scott Sumperstein, a Village resident who recently found out about the planned dorm from a flyer stuffed in his elevator bank. "The university wants to transform the East Village into its own private campus."

Whether he and his fellow underdogs can stop NYU remains to be seen. NYU says it will continue to meet to discuss the dorm, but things seem at a stalemate. Just last Monday, Kramer and university officials presented residents with several designs. Each featured 26 floors.

Residents are now weighing a possible lawsuit over the air-rights sale. They have consulted an attorney, and believe they have a case. What they don't have, they say, is the deep pockets they'd need to litigate in federal court.

Meanwhile, NYU is moving ahead. "If people think they have a case with the air rights," Brown says, "they should pursue it. But I haven't seen any indication that this sale was handled incorrectly."

Kramer, for his part, is calling the residents' bluff. "Even without the air rights," he says, "these people would still find reason to oppose the project."

Berman stands across from the St. Ann's site, pointing to the hole in the streetscape where the church once stood. "It's such a shame," he says. He used to walk past this spot on his way to and from work just to take in its beauty.

A white-haired woman approaches him and asks what is being built on the lot. An NYU dorm, he explains.

"NYU is taking over the area," she says, pursing her lips. She then shrugs and wonders, "But what are you gonna do?"

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