By Kamelia Kilawan
Does one closed street constitute a campus? Baruch’s president said he thinks so.
Before the opening ceremony for the East 25th Street plaza, President Mitchel B. Wallerstein said he had been able to “give the college a campus for the first time,” adding, “The street is closed and it never will be re-opened.”
Where once cars and trucks clogged the street between Lexington and Third avenues, the corridor is now covered with sandy gravel and dotted with some rocks and small potted plants. No-smoking signs hang in campus windows, and each day about 20 blue tables and chairs are brought into the plaza, which separates the college’s library and its Vertical Campus building, creating a new space for students, faculty, workers and local residents to congregate. Within a few years, grass, trees and benches will replace the street curbs, Wallerstein said.
Students, discouraged from smoking outside the school are shooed away by security guards, and school officials are discussing the possibility of hiring of more of them. Baruch spokesman Eric Lugo describes the new outdoor center as a “public-private partnership” with the city’s Department of Transportation, and funding from private donors including Baruch alumni. College officials have promised to take responsibility for the costs, which include maintenance and security.
“It is bringing to fruition something we’ve been working on for two years,” said Wallerstein after cutting the ribbon of the new plaza on Feb. 20, 2013. “It is going to be a huge game-changer.”
According to Baruch’s Office of College Advancement, approximately $3 million in funding from Baruch alumni, the Baruch College Fund, the student government and the City University of New York will be allotted to the development of the new pedestrian plaza.
“There is an immense push in Baruch’s administration to get this to happen,” said M. Anas Uddin, a senior at Baruch and former senator in Baruch’s undergraduate student government.
Uddin, who organized students to attend Community Board hearings in 2011, noted that some members of the student government had doubts about the use of funds for the plaza. “There was some concern that we could use this money to hire teachers because we have a staggering amount of adjuncts—but the money we came up with was for this cause,” he said, adding that the funds were often donated by alumni and “earmarked for a public plaza.”
Wallerstein said, “There was an opportunity and a political opening to get it done. This was the time to do it.”
According to Lugo, local officials including City Council members Rosie Mendez and James Vacca and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, State Senator Liz Krueger, Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and organizations such as the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership Business Improvement District, support the 25th street pedestrian plaza.
“It made it smoother, it wasn’t like we were trailblazing to get this,” said Mark Thompson, the former chairman of Community Board 6. He said the mayor’s New York City plaza program gave local residents a sense that the plaza would be similar to others throughout the city.
Rob Pihl, a Kips Bay resident of four years, said he sat in the plaza one day for lunch and felt it was a nice break from the street. Pihl said the closed street seemed to be safer for students walking to and from each building. “Anything they had before didn’t seem to make a lot of sense,” he said.
Community Board 6 approved the project, despite initial pushback from some members concerned about limited parking, an increase of noise from students and more garbage.
Robert Dress, who lives six blocks away from the plaza, noted the appearance of many new plazas throughout the city. “The city is becoming increasingly harder to cross town; this makes it harder,” he said.
Dress also mentioned that he was concerned whether school officials would listen to residents who question the impact of the new space on the surrounding community. “I think it looks safer for the students but it doesn’t look like there is a real plan,” he said, adding that the plaza looks “haphazard and temporary.”
Thompson said the community board has been in support of giving Baruch a campus, even though the first proposal was turned down by the city’s Department of Transportation.
Thompson said Baruch hired the engineering firm Philip Habib & Associates to conduct a traffic assessment of the neighborhood, which concluded that traffic issues in the neighborhood were minimal because 25th Street leads to Madison Square Park, not a major intersection.
Thompson said nearby restaurants would not face many changes with deliveries because the shops were located close to avenues. However, Karen Liang, the manager of Jimmy’s House of Vietnamese Cuisine, a small restaurant adjacent to the Vertical Campus, said she regretted signing the statement of approval for the plaza because it has made her daily delivery of fresh pork, beef, and chili “very difficult.”
“I have to go around and around,” she said explaining that she cannot park in front of her shop anymore. Now, she needs to have someone sit in her minivan on the busy avenue while she unpacks her goods and wheels them down the street into the shop. “It’s nice for the school,” she said. She then added, “I have lots of problems, but the school is not helping me.” She noted her restaurant has been located next to the college for 10 years.
Thompson said he believed the plaza to be an “asset to Baruch” and the surrounding community. He explained that he overheard local residents saying, “We can’t believe we have this.”
He did disclose, “Baruch will have to expand a little more,” explaining that it may need to accommodate for the new space in its budget.
Steven Bartashev, a senior at Baruch, said he was curious as to how the school planned to keep the plaza clean with many students still smoking within the area. “It’s finally a campus whereas before it was a cloud of smoke and some chairs,” he said, mentioning his only concern for the new plaza is that Baruch students “don’t make it dirty.”
Debbie Mazzia, who has worked at Baruch for 29 years, said she was happy with the new “mini-campus” because it was something different for the school, but she also expressed concerns about cleanliness. “It’s going to take a lot of manpower to maintain, between the cigarette butts and normal litter,” she said. Though she added, “It will be gorgeous in the summer.”
According to Lugo, school officials may consider generating revenue to help fund the maintenance of the plaza by holding public events on the space.
Before then, school officials need to concentrate on the design of the plaza’s infrastructure in an effort to get it approved by the Department of Transportation and other city agencies.
Wallerstein said “significant construction issues” remain, noting the presence of an old sewer line under 25th street. He said although the budget for the construction of the plaza is estimated at $3 million, that amount is dependent on the specifics of the plaza’s design.
“I think it will be a part of my legacy,” he said of the campus and plaza. He also pointed out that he still needs approval from city agencies to make sure his final vision does not get turned down.