The expansion of educational and medical institutions is one of the great sources of hope for US cities that have lost most of their industries.
Even in New York City, where the economy is relatively strong, the municipal government is eager to get higher education institutions to make major investments—most notably a new campus that Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have proposed constructing on Roosevelt Island in the East River.
But how can a university in a long-established, mostly human-scale neighborborhood like Greenwich Village add 2.5 million square feet of buildings without damaging the area's character? That's the question that architecture critic Michael Kimmelman takes on in a nuanced critique in the Sunday New York Times.
Kimmelman grew up in the vicinity of New York University—the institution that has released a dramatic and controversial plan for expanding over the next two decades. So he is intimately familiar with both the virtues and the problems of NYU's Village location.
In his Times piece, Kimmelman says the city should veto two crescent-shaped towers (projected to contain a total of 400,000 square feet) that NYU wants to insert between two existing slab-like modernist high-rises on a superblock.
Theoretically, increased density is an urban virtue. The Village is not as dense as some Villagers worry it is. Filling in some of the open space around tower-in-the-park housing projects with retail and street life often makes sense. The clash of different sorts of architecture, cheek by jowl, as the crescent towers would do with the ’50s slabs, is a defining virtue of great cities.
But he goes on to say that the Village already possesses plenty of retail. Street life is not lacking. What's needed in this part of Manhattan, he says, is well-designed open space.
A good way to obtain appealing open space, he argues, would be to take the NYU-controlled park space that currently exists between the modernist towers of Washington Square Villaage and "redesign and reactive it as a park for Villagers, not just for freshmen skateboarders and iPod-engrossed graduate students."
He shows how the current NYU park land—an early example of open space on top of an underground garage—fails its public function. It sits behind fences, gates, and a retail strip mall. Kimmelman advocates "a beautiful new 1.5-acre park" and other amenities that would make the area more attractive for everyone. There are other methods for adding the square footage that NYU needs, he says.
All in all, this is an intriguing vision—and much better than the proposal the university has made.
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