The Real Deal New York

Village restaurateur sues NYU for $7M

MacDougal Street owner says university construction cost him business, damaged property

September 14, 2012 05:30PM
By Guelda Voien

From left: Antonini’s two MacDougal Street buildings and Wilf Hall in the background, and a rendering of the new Wilf Hall

The owner of two MacDougal Street restaurants filed a lawsuit yesterday in New York State Supreme Court alleging that New York University construction has brought with it blocked streets, broken buildings, slumping commerce and foul smells.

Vittorio Antonini, the developer and owner at 129-131 MacDougal Street, alleges in the complaint that NYU’s law school expansion at 139 MacDougal— a preamble to the larger, controversial “NYU 2031″ plan — has interfered with his business and inflicted considerable damage to his property. Antonini owns two eateries, La Lanterna Caffe and Enoteca, and two residential rental units at his MacDougal Street property.

The Antonini suit asks for $7 million in compensation for property damage and NYU’s alleged tortious interference with business relationships. It asks for additional punitive damages in the amount of $5 million per property damage charge.

The complaint states that NYU officials assured Antonini that they would use resources at their disposal to mitigate his concerns, which included a cracked floor, doors that would no longer close, and blocked access to the property. Antonini also alleges that during construction NYU “recklessly disregarded codes, laws, rules and regulations on a regular basis,” resulting in the owner’s property being “inundated with noise, vermin, odors and other conditions.”

His attorney, David Aronstam, declined to comment.

“We have not yet had a chance to study the complaint in detail,” an NYU spokesperson told The Real Deal. “However, we believe this suit has no merit and we will defend vigorously our actions.”

Antonini, who is developing a 20-unit condominium project at 260 North 9th Street in Williamsburg, underscored that he had tried to keep his relations with the school peaceful, and in general was not a detractor of the institution. “My sister went there, and a portion of my clientele is from the university,” he said. “But how many times do you give the benefit of the doubt to people who continually abuse the privilege?”

The NYU spokesperson said that the law school construction is unrelated to the school’s 2031 expansion plans.

  • TruthToPower

    As a member of the NYU faculty, I want nothing more than to feel pride in my university. In the past decade or so, however, our administration’s actions have done nothing but inspire shame. The negative effects of its unilateral decision-making have been felt both within the university and, as this latest lawsuit demonstrates, in the neighborhood at large. Sadly, accounts of the administration “recklessly disregard[ing] codes, laws, rules and regulations on a regular basis,” in this present case resulting in Mr. Antonini’s property being “inundated with noise, vermin, odors and other conditions,” will likely soon be the norm rather than the exception … and not once in a while, but for the next twenty years. The two-decade long NYU 2031 expansion project will make the east side of the presently-vibrant, culturally, architecturally and commercially diverse Greenwich Village a mere memory. Not only will it drive away small businesses from MacDougal Street to LaGuardia Place and beyond, but it will drive away faculty like myself, all the while making faculty recruitment an exceptionally difficult task. What faculty recruit would want to move his or her family to a noisy, dust-chocked, diesel-fuel stinking twenty-year construction zone, which is what Washington Square Village and Silver Towers (not derelict empty lots, mind you, but green, towers-in-the-park residential blocks between W. 3rd St. and W. Houston) will soon become unless the outsized development is stopped. And so, while what happened to the Provincetown Playhouse and Mr. Antonini’s business and NYU 2031 are not technically connected, they may as well be. Both are part of the same larger pattern on the part of the current NYU administration – a pattern of broken promises and architectural mistakes. The former has already been well documented, throughout the neighborhood. The latter? To put it bluntly, our University’s reputation for undistinguished architecture is almost unmatched in downtown New York.

    As underwhelming as the designs for NYU’s Kimmel Center and the new neighboring Spiritual Center (which needed a variance because the design violated the area’s R7-2 zoning regulations, requiring a 20-foot setback after reaching a maximum street wall height of 60 ft or six stories) have been, they are just the most visible examples in and around Washington Square. (Kimmel, designed by Roche & Dinkeloo, undoubtedly had to be the most expensive.) As your article reminds us, NYU’s architectural teams have been responsible for the now-gutted and defaced historic Provincetown Playhouse (turned Law School offices) on MacDougal. Nor will Village residents soon forget the “interpretive reconstruction” of the destroyed Poe House on W. 3rd Street, with its now-completely characterless façade. And then, most contentious in their intrusiveness, there’s the mushrooming of the most awful dorm buildings anyone could ever imagine farther afield, from the 26-story E. 12th St. Dorm to the slightly smaller Alumni Hall on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 9th Street. Why anyone would ever think that the current incongruous plans-by-committee assembled for the NYU 2031 building campaign would be any more successful – or, I should say, any less horrific – based on the administration’s track record over the last decade alone, I just cannot imagine.

    So, it’s not merely a question of how much NYU is building or plans to build. It’s WHAT it’s building when given the green light by the City Planning Commission and, in NYU 2031’s regrettable case, the City Council. I, for one, would be very hard pressed to think of a single, large-scale example that someone could point to, objectively, as a potential reason to trust NYU to produce something intelligently-designed in the near future. The cruel irony is that, having decimated the Playhouse and the Poe House to the west, the administration now seeks to ruin its greatest housing assets to the east – WSV and Silver Towers, to say nothing of their precious green space. From what some faculty have recently heard, is seriously considering selling off one of its best recent acquisitions (i.e., the Forbes Building) to raise funds for the planned expansion … in effect, cutting off its nose to spite its face. I very much hope this rumor’s wrong. Note this excerpt from NYU’s own web page, announcing the purchase of the Forbes Building: “but this purchase is also consistent with the community-oriented planning principles that the University developed with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer two years ago, especially the emphasis on acquiring existing structures rather than resorting to new construction.” If only the administration actually followed these excellent principles.

    Unfortunately, even when the University does acquire pre-existing structures, the administration has a very strange set of ideas when it comes to their actual intended function and student use. Just a few cases in point: the nearly-always empty NYU Open House on LaGuardia Place; the Card Center on Lafayette and E. 4th St.; and the Bookstore turned overpriced Argo Tea joint on Washington Place … as if there isn’t a dozen great cafes in the immediate neighborhood.

    Why, then, does the current NYU administration demonstrate such a disregard for responsible growth, smart space-usage and repurposing of pre-existing space, good architectural design and issues of sustainability? After all, many of the university’s current space problems are self-created hardships, the result of a relaxed admissions policy (the admissions rate hovering around 30% compared to Columbia’s 10%) and squandered space. There are nearly a hundred faculty apartments standing vacant in WSV and Silver Towers alone. Sadly, what the administration and trustees care about most, however, is square footage. Real estate and bond ratings. Time and again, real estate takes all precedence over architectural planning. The results are buildings that are small-minded and homogenized at best, Frankenstein Monsters at worst. And it’s local businesses like La Lanterna and, starting in 2013 and stretching to 2031 entire residential blocks of the Village, that will pay the price.

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