Cooper Union is seeking permission to construct two new large buildings around Astor Place/Cooper Square which require changes in the existing zoning and alterations to restrictive covenants with the City for the land on which they are sited (the site of the Hewitt Building is owned by the City but leased long term to Cooper Union for free with the restriction that the site be used for educational and philanthropic purposes only; a portion of the site of the Engineering Building is over the former city owned Stuyvesant Street, and its use by Cooper Union is also currently limited to educational purposes only). Cooper Union is also seeking to rezone the landmarked Foundation Building, creating 50,000 square feet of additional development potential from that site.
Community Board 2 979-2272
Community Board 3 533-5300
Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields
One Centre Street, 19th floor
New York, NY 10007
City Planning Commission
Chair, Amanda Burden
22 Reade Street
New York, NY 10007
City Council Speaker A. Gifford Miller
New York, NY 10007
City Council Land Use Committee Chair
104-01 Metropolitan Avenue
Forest Hills, NY 11375
City Council Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions Sub Committee
Chair Miguel Martinez
601 West 174th Street, 1-A
New York, NY 10033
Mayor Michael Bloomberg
New York, NY 10007
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation is an open membership organization, whose mission includes preserving the special architectural, historical and cultural character of Greenwich Village, including the East Village neighborhood in which the proposed Cooper Union large scale development plan is located. GVHSP has enjoyed a close working relationship over the years with Cooper Union, and admired their stewardship of the landmark Foundation Building. It is our belief that Cooper Union is an integral and invaluable part of the neighborhood in which they are located, that their presence benefits the neighborhood in many respects, and that their mission is a unique and noble one. We also recognize that the institution faces many pressing challenges, both in terms of its facilities and its finances.
That said, the large-scale development plan before you must be judged on its merits in terms of public policy, land use planning, and impact on the surrounding community. The area surrounding the proposed developments form a critical nexus and transition zone between three historic and unique neighborhoods Greenwich Village, Noho, and the East Village. The East Village neighborhood which would probably be most affected by the plan is in fact rich in history and unique neighborhood character, even as a lack of adequate zoning and landmark protections has allowed much non-contextual development and erosion of that physical character in recent years.
Beyond this, the Cooper Union plan includes and would clearly impact upon the landmarked Foundation Building, and by virtue of proximity would also impact upon the St. Marks and Noho historic districts. Additionally, because of the planned buildings location around Cooper Square, at the head of the Bowery, and at the convergence of several different streets, the proposed developments would be unusually visible from afar. The proximity to significant public space, such as Cooper Square, the Hecht Viewing Garden, and the plaza containing the Alamo sculpture, also increases the projects impact and the sensitivity of its surroundings. Lastly, the inclusion of the historic Stuyvesant Street roadbed in the plan area involves a unique historic and public space resource, connecting back to the earliest days of European settlement in New Amsterdam. We believe this proposal must be judged in this sensitive context.
The Engineering Building Site. The current Engineering Building is of neither significant historic nor aesthetic merit, and thus we do not object to its replacement to allow improvement of Copper Unions facilities. However, Cooper Union has proposed to change the zoning for this site from C6-1 to C6-3, allowing a building
of 10 FAR under the community facility zoning allowance, as compared to the current allowable FAR of 6 for commercial properties and 6.5 for community facilities. This is entirely too large for this area, as it would exceed the height of every surrounding building, including 770 Broadway (the Wanamaker Building), 70 East 10th Street (the Stewart House), and 115 East 9th Street, all of which were built before the current zoning code was imposed. The currently proposed building would also loom over the Foundation Building as viewed from the south, where both buildings location at the head of the Bowery make them uniquely visible from a distance of at least a half mile downtown. Regardless, it appears that the current zoning rationale for the 4th Avenue/3rd Avenue/Lafayette Street corridor was to preserve a moderately scaled area as a transition between the somewhat more densely built up area to the west and the largely low-rise area to the east. We believe this rationale is sensible and should not be changed. We have no objection, however, to waving the height, bulk, and setback requirements for the site to facilitate designing a building which better addresses issues of aesthetics, and maintenance of light, air, and view corridors, as well as Cooper Unions facility needs. We believe it is especially important that the design for any new building be encouraged to consider its relationship to the Foundation Building.
Additionally, while allowed under current zoning, we believe the community use facility allowance is much too generous, allowing enormous increases in bulk in some zoning categories. In the current C6-1 zoning for this site, the increase is moderate, from 6 to 6.5 FAR; under the proposed C6-3 zoning, however, it is an increase of more than 65%, from 6 to 10. In general, we believe that this area has been overburdened with far too many increased bulk allowances for community use facilities. Such allowances are particularly inappropriate when they are for buildings which are in fact largely commercial, as is the proposed building for this site, thus utilizing an allowance intended for facilities which provide a community service, instead of those which mere provide a source of income for institutions.
We also believe that it is important that the integrity of the Stuyvesant Street roadbed be preserved. This street and view corridor mark the original boundary between Peter Stuyvesants farms as surveyed by the Dutch West India company, and is Manhattans only remaining true east-west street. We oppose the removal of the deed restriction which limits use of the roadbed to educational purposes only; and while we praise the evolution in the design away from building over that space, we believe that any usage of the roadbed for commercial construction violates the original intention of the agreement, the publics interest, and historic preservation efforts. In fact, we believe the application is an important opportunity to revisit the original terms of the transferal. Since 1995 a coffee shop has occupied a portion of that site, which was transferred to Cooper Union in 1959, prior to the enactment of New York City landmarks law and the St. Marks historic district. The roadbed terminates the vista from the historic district and the landmarked St. Marks church. We believe a more appropriate fate for the Stuyvesant Street roadbed would be for it to be preserved, demarcated, remain open, and be accessible to the public.
Hewitt Building Site. We praise the elimination of the proposal by Cooper Union to demap Taras Schevchenko Place and construct a new building on this site on what is now public sidewalk space. However, concerns remain regarding the visual impact of the proposed 9-story building (significantly taller than its neighbors) and its compatibility with the landmarked Foundation Building and Metropolitan Savings Bank Building directly across the street, as well as St. Georges Church. This speaks to the need for design elements for the proposed building to be resolved before this process can move forward, as the proposed buildings compatibility with its surrounding cannot be fully assessed until a final design proposal becomes clear.
Regarding the request to remove the lease restriction with the City (which limits the use of the site to educational and philanthropic purposes), we would be opposed to its removal for the purpose of commercial development. However, we would not oppose an allowance strictly limited to permitting ground floor retail use along Third Avenue, which might help activate the street and promote safety. Given Cooper Unions original agreement with the City, as well as concerns about secondary displacement of long-standing retail uses in the immediate vicinity, an arts or gallery space, or retail uses related to the arts or the schools activities, might be the most appropriate such ground floor retail use for this location.
Foundation Building. The proposed zoning change for the Foundation Building site appears completely unnecessary, and is opposed by GVSHP. In spite of the proposed restrictive covenant attached, the current Cooper Union proposals demonstrate that such covenants are open to alteration or re-interpretation in the future. There is no urgent need to bring the Foundation Building into conformance with current zoning. The inclusion of this element of the plan seems designed merely to meet the acreage requirements necessary for a general large scale development plan, and to avoid the appearance of spot zoning of the Engineering Building site. We urge that this element of the plan be removed.
Overall Issues/Other Recommendations. Rather than proposing any changes to the zoning for the Foundation Building site, we believe that if there is to be a large scale development plan, the parking lot site would be more logical to include. Cooper Union has expressed a desire to develop it; it is a more appropriate location for large scale development, both in terms of its surrounding context and the lack of attached restrictions upon allowable uses and types of development; and the Community Board has expressed a willingness to consider rezoning the site, which would qualify it for inclusion in the plan, and facilitate the sort of revenue generating development which Copper Union has stated it needs. However, we strongly urge that any development of the parking lot site, whether as-of-right or as part of a proposed rezoning/general large scale development plan, should recognize the sites sensitive location, and its impact upon historic areas and buildings in close proximity (including the Foundation Building and views of it from the west). Cooper Union should work with preservationists, planners, and the community to formulate a design for any development which responsibly reflects the surrounding areas unique features and historic resources.
Cooper Unions commission of the design firm of Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn to respond to some of the concerns regarding this project has been helpful, and clearly in some respects has begun to move the proposals in the right direction. However, it makes very little sense to try to review and approve the proposal while it is in the process of being redrawn. As this dialogue seems to be having an impact, we urge that the clock be stopped or restarted on the land use review and approval process. This would much more adequately allow the affected parties to evaluate proposed and potential changes, and ensure the integrity of the process.
GVSHP continues to believe that the review/approval process should be halted while revisions of the proposed plan are being made. As the revisions continue to move the plan in a positive direction on some fronts, it would be much more productive to stop the clock and allow this process to take its course rather than continue to try to review the plan while it changes.
Regarding the changes presented on June 18, we believe that the reduction in proposed bulk for the Engineering site from 10 FAR to 8.9, and the small reduction in height from 252 to 240 feet, moves it in the right direction. However, this still does not provide a rationale for the change in the zoning for the site to C6-3, other than to allow a larger commercial development for Cooper Union. Additionally, while the reconfiguration of the tower addresses some issues, such as the bulk of the building on Third Avenue, the new configuration increases the building bulk on the southeast corner of the site, reducing the views from the west into this vital intersection, and reducing its sense of openness. This should be re-examined. The tower is still too high and will be extremely visible behind the Foundation Building when viewed from the south. Fully judging the appropriateness of the buildings new configuration would be helped if a more fully fleshed out design could be presented. Again, this speaks to the desirability of allowing the design process to be completed before the review process continues.
The reconfigurations proposed for the Hewitt site are apparently aimed at mitigating the proposed buildings bulk and opening up view corridors to St. Georges Church. We are pleased that the design team is grappling with these issues. However, the success of the three proposed reconfigurations at achieving this goal is dubious at best. We strongly urge that these new plans be reconsidered. Again, it is difficult and inappropriate to ask for review and evaluation of a design scheme which is in fact still three vague alternatives; in addition to revisiting this iteration of the Hewitt design, we believe the review process should be halted or restarted until this design process is completed, and a fully fleshed out program has been produced for review.
All prior comments of GVSHP on aspects of the plan which have not changed continue to stand.