Leighton Mitchell – NYU Tisch School of The Arts
What long had served as the administrative headquarters for North America’s largest public transit operation would not be ideal for the teaching and practices of an arts institution. At least not without a major repurposing.
Which is what the big boxlike 13-story structure on Brooklyn’s Jay Street has been undergoing since 2012—the last few years with Leighton Mitchell representing New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the building—and should be ready for its new life come midsummer.
“It can still be called the MTA building,” the jovial director of facilities administration tells Blueprint in late May as the finishing touches are applied. “Only instead of Metropolitan Transportation Authority, it can mean media, technology and art.”
NYU acquired the building from the city government which allowed the university to carry out a top-to-bottom rehabilitation and repurpose 370 Jay St. Now the structure will be home to a multi-disciplinary, multi-school hybrid building encompassing students and educators from NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, the Center for Urban Science and Progress and departments within Tisch’s Institute of Emerging Media. Shared work space, four recording studios, a concert venue, a motion capture studio—those will be among the new amenities.
No sour notes here
As Mitchell will tell you, it’s taken some doing to repurpose this 500,000 square-foot structure that was built in the 1940s and in recent years has stood either underutilized or vacant.
“In many ways it’s harder to renovate than it is to build from the ground up,” says Mitchell, who’s been in his position since late 2015 and part of the university’s operations since 1989. “Especially when you’re taking a building from its former use to a much different one.”
Low floor heights, for example, never posed a problem to transit administration, but would for the new locale of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.
Recording studios need a volume of space,” explains Mitchell, who ensured it will have that space now that slabs have been cut from the floors above the recording studios.
Another floor has been lowered to better accommodate space for black box theaters and a motion capture studio. Silver status in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED] being what Mitchell and the NYU team are striving for, there will be occupancy sensors, lighting controls and the capacities for water and utilities conservation. The building will also feature a 1 kilowat turbine generator to reduce the demand for electricity.
Reason for applause
Then in the heart of NYU’s main campus in Greenwich Village, there’s another large-scale, multipurpose structure taking shape, only from the ground up. Mitchell expects it to open in 2022, and it includes a 350-seat proscenium theater with an orchestra pit and fly loft—amenities that would be near-impossible to retrofit in an existing building.
Both projects will free up space in Tisch’s existing buildings and better advance the mission of educating the school’s ambitious arts students. Mitchell, a lifelong theater aficionado, shares much in common with those students, though he expresses his creative side in a less conspicuous manner than physical performance.
“I did some acting in high school and in college, but didn’t find being on stage as interesting or compelling as the off-stage work,” he says. “I can find it very fulfilling to watch a performance and know I had a role in enabling the process. Although, when I was a fabricator building the scenery, I would sometimes worry about things breaking while I was in the audience.”
Mitchell’s ties with NYU go back to the middle 1980s when he enrolled at Tisch as a prospective theater director, then took leave after his junior year to work at Macy’s Parade Studio and contribute to its lavish Thanksgiving parade and fireworks display.
He’d come back to NYU to run the drama department’s scene shop before earning a promotion to technical director. There Mitchell would oversee the timely and on-budget construction of theatrical sets for 13 years and might still be doing so if not for unforeseen circumstances that shook the Big Apple and much of the world itself to the core.
“Post 9/11, I felt the rebuild of New York was necessary and important from an emotional standpoint,” says Mitchell, a native New Yorker fascinated with the city’s history, studying its influential urbanists from Robert Moses to Jane Jacobs. “I thought it might be a nice segue to go from building theatrical sets to building buildings at a critical time in the city’s history.”
So, he enrolled at NYU’s School of Professional Studies, earning a Master of Science in construction project management in 2006. Though his first instinct was to leverage his learning with a position at a big construction company, he’d come back to the university and acquit himself in various production and facilities roles before moving into his present position.
And it takes a creative mind to direct space planning, capital projects and facilities operations. Operating in a congested urban environment and navigating the permitting process with multiple city agencies can be challenging. Additionally, most of the contractors come from outside of Manhattan, and when one Staten Island vendor sat in gridlocked traffic for three hours, he called Mitchell to say “thanks, but no thanks.”
So, like a theater director needing a stand-in actor on short notice, Mitchell found another contractor. After all, the show must go on.
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