LOCAL STREETSCAPES: NYU’s Mercer Street ‘Zipper” Building

THIS VIEW OF THE NEW NYU BUILDING COMPLEX at Houston and Mercer Streets shows how several types of façade treatments can help differentiate the pedestrian experience, from the beveled corner at a busy intersection, to the mid-block entry points, to the segmented towers above the podium. Photo credit: Brian J. Pape.

By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

First came the 20-year New York University (NYU) plan, then came the lawsuits. By the summer of 2015, NYU got court approval to proceed with the planned 1.9 million square-foot expansion in Greenwich Village. From 2015-17, NYU demolished their reinforced concrete Coles Sports Center, an aging, two-story gym, displacing the student and varsity athletic facilities. 

When new construction started, “Final” design renderings from the architecture firms KieranTimberlake and Davis Brody Bond revealed a 23-story mixed-use 914,064 square-foot building of 275 feet in height.

By the time all approvals were final, the academic facility, labeled 181 Mercer on city records, was down to a 735,000 square-foot complex, with towers rising from a full-block five-story podium between Houston, Mercer, and Bleecker Streets, and I.M. Pei’s University Village complex on the west side. It was nicknamed “the Zipper building” when early renderings showed towers staggered in a zipper pattern, equally spaced above the podium.

“The enormous NYU 20-year expansion plan was broadly opposed by NYU’s own faculty, staff, and student body, as well as the surrounding community,” wrote Andrew Berman, the Executive Director of Village Preservation. “Nevertheless, the board and administration charged full steam ahead with a plan that most would argue is not in the university’s long-term best interests.” It was eroding the confidence levels of the NYU and Greenwich Village communities at the time. “[The 181 Mercer construction] requires highly disruptive, large scale construction in close proximity to thousands of residents, will exacerbate the problem of the overconcentration of NYU facilities in the Central Village, and will result in more massive, entirely out of scale new construction,” Berman said. NYU responded that the project is being built on property NYU has “owned for a long time”. Their spokesperson also noted that zoning would have allowed an even larger building.

Now that the exterior cladding is nearly complete, we can see the full extent of effort to break up the facades of the complex. Despite being nearly totally glass clad, series of metal fins create shaded areas, and a profuse use of oriel windows break up the otherwise flat planes. Coupled with staggering depths of setbacks and varying heights of roofs, the functional elements of internal uses are well defined.

Recently, the community board reviewed plans for the public/private plaza along Bleecker Street, which means it will be mostly in the building’s shadow, and will accommodate seating, landscaping, and room for vendors.

According to recent reports from YIMBY, the complex will replace indoor athletic facilities including a six-lane swimming pool, a running track, four basketball courts, squash courts, a wrestling room, and multiple fitness rooms. Forty percent of the interiors will be dedicated to academic space with 58 new classrooms. A centralized space for students, called the Commons, will span two floors with a cafe, large seating areas, and close access to a theater. There will also be dozens of new music instruction and practice rooms and NYU’s first orchestral ensemble room, plus new dormitories for students and faculty members, additional office space and dining areas, and landscaped terraces on the podium rooftop.

Still to come, the community board has been promised by NYU to build a new public elementary school and supermarket on the master plan site.

Brian J. Pape is a citizen architect in private practice, serving on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee (but speaking solely in a personal, and not an official capacity).

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