Volume 18 • Issue 7 | July 8-14, 2005

Tribecans worry over school’s building plans

By Ronda Kaysen

New York Law School is jumping back into the Tribeca real estate game, announcing plans last week to sell off a parcel of land it insists has no height restrictions. Meanwhile local residents are gearing up to protect their low-rise neighborhood from a new high rise.

A new development on the site – most likely a residential condominium – could be as large as 306,000 sq. ft., according to Woody Heller, a broker for Studley, the selling agent. The actual height of the building depends on how the developer chooses to design the space, he said, although he would not speculate how high that might be.

Tribeca is a neighborhood with many low-rise buildings and many of the properties are preserved in landmark districts.

“This is a very unusual – I hate to use the word ‘unique’ – opportunity and that’s one of the reasons it’s attracting the number of bidders and the pricing at which it’s likely to trade,” said Heller. The school accepted the first round of bids on the 12,500-sq. ft. tract last week and hopes to fetch as much as $122 million for the sale.

At least part of the property sits on the corner of Leonard and Church Sts. and is currently home to the four-story Mendik Law Library, which the school acquired in 1989. Both Heller and the school declined to confirm whether the space for sale extends beyond the library’s footprint. The school owns most of the block bounded by Church St. and West Broadway and Worth and Leonard Sts.

The law school was at the center of a zoning battle 10 years ago when the city rezoned South Tribeca for commercial and residential use. The surrounding area was capped with a 120 ft. height limit, but the school’s parking lot – which abuts the library – was carved out of the final zoning map, to the chagrin of some residents.

“It was one of those unfortunate pieces that we just couldn’t win on,” said Madelyn Wils, former chairperson of Community Board 1. Wils was chairperson of the Tribeca Committee when the new zoning was passed in 1995. The plot avoided the zoning restriction, she said, because of a provision for community facilities.

“I expect that New York Law School will be trying to maximize their square footage price and Studley – in their effort to get the highest price – they are or have been encouraging developers to think that it is possible to get around the zoning,” said Wils, adding that she has spoken with several interested buyers in the past year (she remained chairperson of C.B. 1 until last March) who were under the impression that they could “get around the zoning” of the neighborhood.

The school, which has long voiced concerns about space limitations, has repeatedly toyed with the idea of selling off its property. A deal with developer Shaya Boymelgreen to sell the entire Tribeca campus and relocate to 23 Wall St. in the Financial District collapsed last September.

With the latest real estate foray promising a substantial windfall, the school intends to stay in Tribeca and build a new five-story library and classroom space on part of the adjacent parking lot.

“This is what will make it possible for us to stay in Tribeca – the ability to build a new building,” said Altagracia Levat, school spokesperson.

Neither Levat nor Heller would confirm how much of the parking lot the new library will occupy and what the school’s plans are for the remainder of the parking lot. “There are so many different possibilities once we start looking at our holdings,” said Levat.

The new library and classroom space, designed by the architectural firm Smith Group, will be fully wired for Internet access and include tiered classrooms. “For us to be competitive we need different classrooms,” Levat explained.

Some nearby residents are already preparing for a fight if a future developer parades designs for a high-rise before the community board. “[Studley] can market what they want, but the reality here is that the Tribeca Committee of C.B. 1 is going to review the application very carefully,” said C.B. 1 Tribeca Committee Chairperson Carole DeSaram, who is also a Tribeca real estate agent. “We doubt very much that it’s going to be ‘sky is the limit’ on that land.”

Although the school is remaining in Tribeca, it is also expanding beyond its current borders. In May, N.Y.L.S. signed a 10-year lease on a new 13-story dormitory on E. 3rd St., which is at the center of contentious battle between the community and the developer over the building’s height.

Ronda@DowntownExpress.com

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