Taras Shevchenko Place in jeopardy as Cooper Union seeks to expand

by Andrew Nynka

NEW YORK - In conjunction with a renovation of its academic facilities, The Cooper Union has asked the city of New York to de-map Taras Shevchenko Place adjacent to St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church. The action has angered and shocked the community of the East Village.

The local community has rallied around the issue of Taras Shevchenko Place and fears that this is only the starting point of The Cooper Union's extensive plan to overhaul the area extending from Fifth to Ninth streets and from Lafayette Street to Taras Shevchenko Place. The school's latest action has many East Villagers questioning The Cooper Union's overall plans.

Established by Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union's original goal was "to provide a free education to gifted students from the working class." Cooper's dream was to create an academic facility for those who needed it most, and this The Cooper Union does by offering full academic scholarships to all of its students.

Clair McCarthy, director of communication at The Cooper Union's office of external affairs, stated: "Technology and science and art are all converging at an amazing speed. You have to take into consideration the tools that are now available to help people perfect their craft. Keeping this in mind, it's time for Cooper Union to renovate its facilities. We need to continue offering our students the best possible resources we can." Addressing the community, Ms. McCarthy added, "We want to look at opportunities for improving the streetscape and the traffic flow."

The Cooper Union's application, filed in accordance with the City's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), has proposed the "de-mapping" - not the renaming as some had originally thought - of Taras Shevchenko Place. The process of de-mapping would remove the street from existence in all official matters, and from all official documents. In its place, The Cooper Union has planned to build a park and pedestrian walkway.

In a recently released statement The Cooper Union says it is "committed to: find a way to keep the name Taras Shevchenko Place on the City of New York map, commemorate Taras Shevchenko in an appropriate manner in a new pedestrian space, and work with neighborhood residents to plan the space and commemoration of Taras Shevchenko."

Local Ukrainian residents are angered by the possibility of losing the name of a historically significant icon who gave voice to the Ukrainian nation's aspirations for freedom. In an attempt at compromise, many individual Ukrainian residents say they are willing to look into possibilities of renaming the section of Seventh Street between Second and Third avenues in honor of Taras Shevchenko. But local community groups and associations are arguing that there's more at stake than the issue of de-mapping Taras Shevchenko Place.

Jaroslaw Kurowyckyj, president of the Shevchenko Preservation Committee, said he believes that the issue is preserving a community from commercial expansion. "Cooper Union's plans are centered around the de-mapping of Taras Shevchenko Place, but they're not limited to that. With the expansion of three buildings and retail located on the bottom floor of several buildings, the tripling of Peter Cooper Park, the construction of a new hotel located at the current site of a parking facility at the convergence of Fourth Avenue, Eighth Street and Lafayette, along with corporate space, we are seeing this area changing into a more commercial zone," Mr. Kurowyckyj explained.

"We will not move from this issue. We will not compromise on the de-mapping of Taras Shevchenko Place," Mr. Kurowyckyj stated.

In a letter to Housing Committee Community Board No. 3, Carol Joyce, president of the East Sixth Street and Seventh Street block associations argued, "We are aware that Cooper Union needs to renovate and modernize their facilities. We say to Cooper Union, replace the Hewitt Building if you must, but do it on the present site and leave Taras Shevchenko Place alone."

Although a major threat to Ukrainians who feel strongly for Taras Shevchenko Place, the issue has spawned questions from many local organizations and activist groups who contend that, not only is the idea of Cooper Union's expansion detrimental to the neighborhood, but that the school has not been open and honest about its motivations.

The Coalition to Save the East Village, along with the Shevchenko Scientific Society, Save Avenue A Society, Sixth and Seventh street block associations, the Shevchenko Preservation Committee and others have all recently written letters or issued pamphlets urging the local community to get involved.

Camilla Brooks, manager of community relations for The Cooper Union, stated that "Cooper Union, well before the official start of the city's seven-month ULURP, has held meetings with various community members and groups to discuss the plan."

"The formal review process is just a beginning and we're working to keep the community informed as to this process," continued Ms. McCarthy.

The Cooper Union's plans have many local residents questioning just how extensive its development is to be, while many Ukrainians, residents and non-residents alike, are angry at what they see as an affront to the bard of Ukraine.

With the next public meeting scheduled for May 29 at 6:30 p.m. in The Cooper Union's Great Hall, activists are urging the public to attend and become involved." No matter whom you support, it's important to know the issue," added Mr. Kurowyckyj.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 13, 2001, No. 19, Vol. LXIX

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