For now, there are the excavation holes. There’s one on the south side of Washington Square Park, one on 14th Street and Third Avenue, and there will be another, eventually, at Thompson and West 3rd Street. They belong to New York University, and each hole signals the impending arrival of a large building. The one on Washington Square, where the Loeb Student Center stood until one month ago, is the repository of a bitter local battle involving aesthetics, public relations, and finally, legal wranglings that reach into dusty city archives from the ’50s and ’60s. It is these documents, in part, that residents of Greenwich Village are hoping will alter the university’s plans to erect the $70 million, 12-story Kimmel student center—and check NYU’s ambitions of turning the public park into its private campus.
On January 21, Villagers and local political clubs filed a lawsuit against NYU, the city, and the state’s Dormitory Authority “to forestall the redevelopment” of the Loeb site. Many consider the proposed Kimmel Center to be monstrous—as big as Bobst Library next door—and a bad fit with the neighborhood. Residents feel that the building design is a fait accompli (although NYU, under pressure, has hinted that it will build Kimmel with limestone and brick rather than granite), and that the university has ignored their requests for an environmental impact study to measure the effects of increased traffic, pollution, and noise.
The lawsuit, filed by lawyers Lawrence Goldberg and Stuart Klein, contends that NYU is skirting laws of the past and regulations of the present. Specifically, the brief has two major charges: that a building on the Loeb site is subject to restrictions of height and bulk placed on lands included in the Washington Square Southeast Urban Redevelopment Plan (URP) of the 1950s; and that because NYU may have used Dormitory Authority money indirectly or directly in planning Kimmel, construction must halt until the Dormitory Authority conducts an environmental impact study.
NYU disputes these grievances. “This is factually inaccurate,” says Lynne Brown, NYU’s associate vice president for government and community relations. “The Loeb site was never part of the URP, and we have a letter from the Dormitory Authority that states unequivocally that it does not consider this project under its authority.” Meanwhile, the request for a temporary restraining order against NYU has been denied. A hearing is set for March 10.
As for whether Loeb was once part of the Urban Redevelopment Plan, the plaintiffs’ account goes something like this: At the request of Machiavellian city planner Robert Moses, NYU became a sponsor of the URP, which was created to eliminate slum dwellings. NYU was permitted to buy land from the city in the park area at a below-market price. To offset lost income, the city asked NYU to add several other plots it owned to the URP territory, so that federal tax credits would go to the city. The plaintiffs charge that one of these plots was the Loeb site (on which a factory once stood).
If this account is borne out in court, the New York City Council will have to review NYU’s plans for Kimmel before construction can proceed. To build Kimmel as planned, NYU would then need the city to waive height and bulk restrictions placed on the site half a century ago (“for the purpose of keeping the buildings from encroaching upon Washington Square Park”). When Bobst Library was built, it was indisputably within the URP, and NYU requested and received such a variance—after a protracted battle, legal and otherwise, with the community. NYU believes the plaintiffs have confused the URP with the Washington Square Development plan of the late ’60s, and that no linkage between the two will be found.
“This case says NYU is trying to avoid and evade the restrictions on the property,” says Goldberg. “The community, the city, trusted them to behave honorably, and they got benefits—lands in the urban development area—and now, effectively, they’re saying, ‘Ha-ha.’ ”
Aubrey Lees, Democratic district leader and secretary of the Committee to Save Washington Square, one of the plaintiffs in the case, adds, “An NYU representative that I spoke to called the lawsuit bogus, but it will be decided on its merits and the arguments are good. A lot of people are intimidated by NYU, so if you depend on them for jobs, money, or votes you don’t want to challenge them.”
Community Board 2 and the Greenwich Village Historical Society have opposed Kimmel, although both declined to join the lawsuit, citing a lack of resources. Martin Tessler, chair of the Business and Institutions Committee at CB2, says, “The lawsuit validates the concerns of a lot of people who came out and expressed displeasure at the plan. If it begins to ferret out some of the issues, then I think we’d get involved.” Both groups are still waiting to see new drawings of the building promised by NYU some months ago.
Luther Harris, a plaintiff and the author of a forthcoming book, The Republic of Washington Square, was driven into advocacy while doing his research. “I had just finished my chapter on the ’60s, at the end of which NYU built Bobst, and I thought they’d never do something like that again. Then I read about Kimmel in the real estate pages. It looked like an L. Jay Oliva [president of NYU] ego trip, trying to best his contemporaries.”
The Village Reform Democratic Club and the Village Independent Democrats are also plaintiffs. Raymond Cline, president of the VRDC, says, “Our membership is fearful that NYU has become something of a Fortune 500 company in its own way, and is taking over step by step.”
Their fear is not ungrounded. NYU Law School recently bought the deteriorating Judson House (which it plans to demolish) and the empty lot alongside it at West 3rd Street, both owned since the 19th century by the landmarked Judson Memorial Church. NYU Law School also owns the house next door at 85 West 3rd Street, where Edgar Allan Poe briefly lived. Together these plots make for a prize lot. Call NYU voracious or shrewd, but it nabbed this land at a bargain-basement price—$3.6 million. (It cost twice that just to demolish the Loeb Center.)
Why did the church sell? According to Peter Laarman, senior minister of Judson Memorial Church, the 175-member congregation needs money to continue its ministry. After looking into numerous options, and then negotiating for three and a half years with NYU Law School, it agreed to sell, provided that NYU respects the integrity of the cityscape, doesn’t block the rose window at the back of the church, and provides community space for the church. The church has been promised input into the new building’s design, which will have classrooms and faculty housing. “I told the dean [John Sexton] to look at the book on Kimmel,” says Laarman. “That process has been a disgrace, and I don’t think that building belongs on the park. It takes time to reconcile a building that is both functional and graceful.”
According to Laarman, NYU Law School can build quite a hunky building on the lots it has just bought, so the questions of size and environmental and aesthetic impact have already come up. The Judson conversation might progress more positively than the Kimmel one, because it began early, and because the sale contractually calls for discussion. Meanwhile, the Kimmel lawsuit goes forth, a lightning rod, hope NYU’s critics, that may galvanize the community into advocacy and dispel the fear that NYU is too big to box.
A public forum to discuss the lawsuit and plans for future actions will be held on Monday, February 7, at 7 p.m. at Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South. NYU representatives will attend.