The first, glaring fact about New York University’s new John A. Paulson Center on Mercer Street, which opened in late January, is that, well, it’s simply enormous — 735,000 square feet.
There’s a lot packed into it. It includes a block-long gym and a six-lane pool. Spanning these are three huge trusses that support the building above, which contains classrooms, three theaters, an orchestra room in which you can hear a pin drop, two large, open gathering spaces and green roofs, all topped by three residential towers, two for student housing and one for faculty housing. No doubt, we probably left a few things out.
The architects actually left some of the available buildable square footage on the table, so that there would be more light and air between the towers. As a result, the lofty views from every single residential room — whether for students or faculty — are amazing; they all offer vistas in at least two, even three directions, looking out over the mostly low-scale surrounding area. Basically, Airbnb would love to get these rooms on its list.
As for community benefits, the Paulson Center’s ground-floor entry plaza on Bleecker Street is open to the public. Also, a large, second-floor interior plaza will be open to the public at certain times for specific events. We’re trying to find out if the gym and pool facilities will be open to nearby community members, as they were with the former Coles Gym that this building replaced, but have not hear back from the university on that count.
Those dismayed by N.Y.U.’s now-familiar, juggernaut-like, ever-increasing presence in the Village area — which includes most locals — won’t care about all these things. Their basic reaction is: It’s simply too big, inappropriate for here.
During the building’s planning process, Andrew Berman, the executive director of Village Preservation, slammed the structure, then known as “The Zipper,” as being better suited for Midtown Manhattan. Yet, thanks to a rezoning by City Hall, the Behemoth project got the go-ahead for Greenwich Village.
And, in terms of what is and isn’t in Paulson, there’s a stark omission: no supermarket. During the rezoning negotiations a decade ago, the university pledged that, if the Morton Williams supermarket, at Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place, was displaced due to new development, then the store would be guaranteed space in the “Zipper” / Paulson. Yet, this proviso somehow was absent from the final rezoning. Surprising, right?
Now, N.Y.U. is claiming that because the School Construction Authority dragged its feet on whether to build a new public school at the market site, the Paulson Center’s design process, and then its construction, simply moved forward amid this lack of clarity.
In short, John Beckman, the university’s president for public affairs, recently told The Village Sun that the absence of a supermarket in the Paulson plan was due to the city’s indecisiveness.
“As part of the 2012 city approvals to build the 181 Mercer St. building, the School Construction Authority was given until the end of 2014 to declare its intention to build a public school at the Morton Williams supermarket site or forgo the site,” Beckman said. “The S.C.A. did not declare such an intent by the end of 2014. However, local elected officials and community representatives asked that the deadline be extended, twice, and N.Y.U. agreed, ultimately pushing the deadline back a total of seven years to the end of 2021.
“During that period, N.Y.U. began the design and then, in 2016, the construction of the Paulson Center building. Originally, providing space for a supermarket in the building, though not required under the approvals process, was a prime option; however, in the absence of any indication from S.C.A. during those many years of design and construction about proceeding with a public school on the Morton Williams site, the building was completed without a supermarket because there was no reason to believe that Morton Williams would not or could not continue at its current location. Given that, it made no sense for the university, which has many pressing academic space needs for the Paulson Center — a building that was reduced in size through the approvals process — to leave an unoccupied commercial space in the building. In fact, because there was no word from S.C.A., the university assumed Morton Williams could stay in place where it has been, and N.Y.U. renewed its lease in good faith in early 2021.
“The first word that S.C.A. had an interest in building on the supermarket site finally came late in 2021, in November — seven years after the original due date, long after the design phase of the Paulson Center was over, and indeed after the building’s structure was completed,” Beckman noted. “The Paulson Center is now open, with student residences occupied and classes going on. It is wholly committed and fitted out for needed academic facilities.
“We remain committed to working with local elected officials, as we have previously indicated, on addressing the supermarket issue.”
However, the Morton Williams market is only 14,500 square feet in size — just 2 percent of the new N.Y.U. center’s total area. Despite Beckman’s saying “an unoccupied commercial space” absolutely could not be left in the building during the confusing limbo period, couldn’t a “flex space” simply have been incorporated into the project to accommodate the market, in case the city approved the school? And then, if the school were not approved, that space could simply have a different use, a Plan B, as it were.
As for the idea for a 100,000-square-foot, citywide, special-needs school, which is strongly advocated for by Community Board 2, the city has a deadline of the end of this year to reach a decision. Meanwhile, the university and local politicians say they’re working to find a space for the market at or near its current location. The fact remains, the market’s spot is likely a prime spot for development of some sort. By one estimate, it’s worth $65 million. Potentially getting a new school on the block was one of the big community givebacks of the rezoning negotiations. Yet, it turns out the local school district itself does not have a need for more school seats — hence the pivoting of the effort to a citywide school for special-needs students.
However, the 24-hour store’s value to the community is immeasurable, as seen during its vital role during the pandemic and as continues today. The Morton Williams is that area’s only centrally located, full-service supermarket. Had N.Y.U. really made its pledge to the community in good faith, such a contingency space surely could have been included in the project.
Showing how essential the store is to the surrounding community, a petition effort to keep it at or near its current location has gathered an eye-opening 8,200 signatures, according to Ray Cline of the group Save Our Supermarket (S.O.S.). The ad hoc group, we’re told, is mulling a major protest in the spring that will see local seniors — who heavily rely on the Morton Williams — turn out in numbers and march around with walkers and shopping carts.
So, yes, perhaps N.Y.U. could conceivably win some design awards for this huge building. But the university breaking its promise on including space for the supermarket means it’s going to have to solve this dilemma to win any honors from the community for being a good neighbor.