I.M. Pei Scuttles Plans for NYU Tower

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Photo: Photo Illustration: New York University / Dario Cantatore / Getty Images

New York University has withdrawn its application to build a 400-foot-tall hotel and residential complex alongside the I.M Pei–designed Silver Towers after the architect
came out against the new building.

The news was a stunning defeat for NYU and a major setback in its bid to build 3 million square feet of new developments in Greenwich Village over the next twenty years.

As reported by New York this week, NYU has conducted its development strategy with the discipline of a political campaign, trying to overcome opposition from those in the community who felt the university had steamrolled complaints in years past.

The contentious political atmosphere gave Pei, the world-famous architect who built the towers in the sixties, considerable sway as the Landmarks Commission weighed the university's proposal. In February 2008, NYU’s architects sought a meeting with Pei to present their plans. The hope then was that he would support the bid, or at a minimum, stay quiet and not inject himself in the process. The plan would be "shattered" if Pei spoke out, said David Rubin, one of NYU’s outside architects.

For a while, Pei remained quiet. But in a letter to Robert Tierney, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, written on November 10 and released on Thursday by NYU, Pei’s longtime business partner Henry Cobb described the fourth tower as “highly destructive” to Pei’s original vision. Cobb serves as the public representative of the 93-year-old architect.

“We felt we had an obligation,” Cobb said in an interview on Thursday. "We thought about it very seriously, and we didn’t react immediately, but we didn’t want to respond before the whole matter got close to some kind of public hearing.”

Now that NYU has killed plans for a fourth tower, the university is pressing ahead with a rezoning proposal so it can build on the site currently housing the Morton Williams supermarket.

Lynne Brown, NYU's senior VP for university relations and public affairs, said in a statement: "Mr. Pei has now had a change of heart. The clarity Mr. Pei has now provided — that the Morton Williams site is ‘preferable’ — is helpful to us in understanding how to proceed."

Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, was delighted by NYU's reversal but said he has no plans to let up in the fight against its plans for expansion. "This is one down, and there's many, many more to go," he said.