NYU Buildings Cast Shadow on the Park — A Look Back at the building of NYU's Kimmel Center

2012 - NYU Buildings cast shadows on WSP

Updated — I came across this photo on Twitter taken by Rebecca Stern who says it is the view from the NYU Stern Building but it feels more like it’s taken from the Kimmel Center. Nonetheless, this certainly shows how the NYU buildings cast a shadow on Washington Square reaching to the middle of the fountain.

I wasn’t involved when the Greenwich Village community was dealing with New York University on the building of the Kimmel Center so I researched some of the history. This 2002 document, After the Kimmel Center: How Can we Better Plan to Protect Our Neighborhoods, Parks and View Corridors?(PDF), was prepared by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Here is an excerpt:

This report grew out of a panel discussion and forum held by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation on April 30, 2002…

The spark for the event was the capping out of New York University’s new Kimmel Student Center on Washington Square South. GVSHP and a host of local and citywide groups had opposed the plans for this building three years earlier, when NYU first announced its plans to tear down the Loeb Student, and replace it with this new, larger building.

It was clear that the new building would be too big, towering over Washington Square Park and the nearby South Village, which consists nearly exclusively of buildings of no more than 5 or 6 stories. It was also clear that the new building would cast a long shadow from the south side of the park, limiting the park’s sunlight and connection to the surrounding neighborhood.

Unfortunately, when the building reached its full height and bulk, it became clear that Kimmel
would have an even greater and unforeseen impact: the view down Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Arch, for years one of New York’s great vistas, had been nearly obliterated.

One used to be able to look down the Avenue through the arch and see downtown skyscrapers; now that is virtually impossible. In fact, from just a short distance to the north the Arch appears to be dwarfed and seemingly engulfed by the building; where arch and sky were previously dramatically framed by Lower Fifth Avenue, this view now looks more like a blind alley.

In spite of all of this, however, the proposed building, with the community facility bonus which nearly doubles the allowable floor area ratio, was considered “as of right” under existing law.

Many assumed that given the wealth of historic resources in close proximity to the proposed building (which is in fact across the street from the Greenwich Village Historic District, across the street from Washington Square Park, and less than half a block from the landmarked Judson Memorial Church) there would be some greater degree of regulation or control over such a large project. There was not.

Views, sightlines, and impacts on parks are rarely accounted for in zoning. Zoning often allows buildings of substantially greater height (sometimes with no height restrictions whatsoever) than what surrounds them, even in residential districts with a consistent built environment.

Some additional history:

From the New York Daily News, February 10, 2000: Nyu Bldg. Plan Faces Suit Group Sez Center Hurts Washington Sq. Park :

“We’re looking at a building that’s 162 feet high that’s going to cast, by their own admission, additional shadows over Washington Square Park of over 100 feet,” said Lawrence Goldberg, the other attorney. “They don’t seem to be terribly concerned about this.”

NYU’s proposed Kimmel Center for University Life would take the place of the already demolished Loeb Student Center. The 200,000-square-foot site is on LaGuardia Place.

The replacement of Loeb has been a topic of heated debate and criticism since it was announced in the fall of 1998 that the university would tear down the structure. …

Goldberg also contended that NYU broke several written commitments to the Village community to build structures that were consistent with the historic nature of the area and would not cast significant shadows over Washington Square Park.

“This lawsuit is baseless, and we expect to prevail,” said NYU spokesman John Beckman. “This building is being built out of right. The notion that this building will cast huge shadows over Washington Square Park is an exaggeration.

New York Times, March 14, 1999 12-Level, $70 Million Complex to Be Built; New Student Center for N.Y.U. (In this NY Times story, Community Board 2’s District Manager is quoted as saying that the CB doesn’t see much problem with the building after first viewing the plans.)

The Village Voice in Shadow of the Ivory Tower, NYU’S building frenzy blocks the sun and burns the community from September 7, 1999 gives a good overview and analysis:

Whereas the Loeb Center’s ground floor opened onto the street, welcoming passersby to look in and students to look out, and its second story consisted of a large terrace looking out toward the park, plans for Kimmel— with its soaring glass-and-granite facade— appear to send a different message: Keep off our lawn.

It’s possible that NYU genuinely believes this building is suitable to the neighborhood. And it’s possible, too, that the university doesn’t want to blend in but to stand out. Behold, NYU is rising from the ashes of commuter-college hell in its Windexed glass armor, waving its growing pile of applications from students with higher SAT scores, proclaiming the virtues of its steadily improving caliber of faculty.

The architect, of course, has to please his client, which in turn has to please its donor, who presumably approves of the white granite and excessive glass. The donors, Helen and Martin Kimmel, ponied up $15 million to have “meet me at Kimmel” echoing from the lips of generations of students to come.

Mrs. Kimmel is on the NYU board; Mr. Kimmel is the founder and chairman emeritus of the Kimco Realty Corporation of New Hyde Park, New York.

What grander toast to immortality for a realtor than to emblazon his name at the edge of Washington Square Park?

Likely so. And yet do most people know who Kimmel, who died in 2008, was?

I remember the Loeb Student Center and how, at the time, you could just walk in unlike the Kimmel building which is much more off-putting as well as off-limits (of course, things are different, particularly post 9/11). The previous student center, built in 1959, had a college-vibe vs. corporate vibe.

The view of Washington Square Park from the Kimmel Center is lovely and expansive for those inside but the exterior pretty much does nothing for those outside to illuminate the neighborhood or the park.

Clearly, the process of getting the building built illustrates yet again NYU higher ups historical disdain for accommodating the community within which they co-exist. There are significant shadows far reaching into the Park as well as the monumental change in view through the Arch — two things that can’t be reclaimed until the next building is erected there in, say, another thirty years? Will NYU change its ways and work with the community then? Will NYU Plan 2031 have been passed and implemented? We shall see…

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