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After A Long War, Can NYU and the Village Ever Make Peace?

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The most recent rendering of NYU's plan for its superblocks.

Greenwich Village was up in arms. New York University was seeking to expand again, this time on the south side of Washington Square Park, and the plan was not going over well in the historically low-rise neighborhood. Residents formed protest groups, pledging to "Save Washington Square," warning that NYU was on the verge of taking over the park. They framed the conflict as a battle for territory. "What we want to know is when NYU is going to put a stop to its expansion along Washington Square," a leader of a local group told the New York Times. "It has been known for years as a residential section, and we're going to see that it stays that way." A quarter-century before, the school's chancellor had admitted that he hoped the school would eventually surround the square, taking the park for its campus. It was 1948.

Of course, the tug-of-war between the university and the neighborhood did not end there. The current conflagration between NYU and the denizens of the Village, over the university's plan to situate an additional 2 million square feet in a handful of new buildings on two superblocks it maxed out during a previous development struggle in the 1960s, is merely the latest feud in what has turned into a never-ending war.

While tussles between universities and the localities they call home are nothing new—historians date these town-versus-gown struggles to the first time someone ever donned a collegiate robe—NYU's relationship with the Village has been particularly contentious. The school, with its ambitious growth, has been chewing off sections of the quirky, history-rich neighborhood slowly but steadily since the 1830s, causing an uproar at just about every step along the way. But NYU 2031, the current plan to rezone the superblocks and change their deed restrictions to add four more buildings over the next 17 years, has been a particularly bitter fight. NYU has grown to be one of the largest landowners in the city—by many accounts, it vies with the Catholic Church and Columbia as one of the top three—and years of expansion have turned many of the blocks surrounding the south and east sides of the park into a de facto campus for the school, with a ripple effect extending far beyond. The Village and NYU have grown strong in part because of their relationship to each other, but as vitriol over NYU's moves increases, have they finally outgrown each other?

[Map via the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.]

The backlash against NYU 2031 began soon after the school articulated its desire for growth in the Village during a town hall meeting with the community in 2007. Dozens of local groups began aligning in opposition, urging the university to reconsider situating a substantial amount of an overall 6 million square feet of space in the area. "As it started to become clear that NYU was not thinking about diverting their growth from the Village to other locations, and shoehorning more in where there was already such a concentration of NYU facilities, the dynamic became more oppositional," says Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. When the specific plans eventually made it to the local community board, CB2, they were widely denounced and voted down unanimously. "I have not met a single neighborhood resident who supports the neighborhood plan," says State Senator Brad Hoylman, who has been an opponent since he was the vice chair of CB2.

But even though it has generated significant opposition from the area's politicians, including Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, the plan did receive the endorsement of the leader it perhaps needed most: Councilwoman Margaret Chin, whose eventual support paved the way for a nearly unanimous city council ruling in its favor.

More strikingly, much of the university's own faculty have lined up squarely with the neighborhood to oppose the plan. Thirty-nine departments and schools out of 175 within NYU passed resolutions against it in 2012, most with nearly unanimous votes. The Stern School of Business, not exactly a hotbed of anti-development beatniks, voted 52 to 3 against the plan, citing concerns over the university's financing and the possibility of a default. With deeper reverberations, NYU President John Sexton, who in nearly 12 years in his current office has presided over an ambitious expansion of the school in places like Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, was the recipient of an unprecedented series of no-confidence votes by five of the school's various colleges in 2013, including its largest, the College of Arts and Science.

All of this on top of the bad publicity—and scrutiny in the U.S. Senate—NYU received over its nonprofit status, as the school spent lavishly on bonuses, multi-million dollar apartments, and vacation home loans for a few academic stars while student debts increased. Under Sexton, tuition and fees have gone up from $27,000 to more than $43,000 (more than $60,000 including room and board) in ten years, making NYU one of the most expensive universities in the country. In spite of the tuition hikes, the school's own debt has ballooned, from $1.2 billion in 2002 to $2.8 billion in 2011, according to data compiled by the Times.

Currently, the fate of NYU 2031 is hung up in state courts. In January, a judge invalidated much of the expansion by ruling that the Bloomberg administration had wrongfully turned over three parks to the university—the alienation of public parkland must be authorized by the state legislature—a decision that both NYU and its opponents claimed as partial victories. The plaintiffs, a consortium of 11 local groups lead by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, and the Historic Districts Council, charge that the judge ruled incorrectly on the nature of a fourth park. The city joined the university in appealing the ruling, arguing that the parkland, as defined by the judge, was not in fact parkland.

The rezonings and other permits necessary for the plan had been approved under the strongly pro-development administration of Michael Bloomberg and shepherded through the council by Christine Quinn to the curiously one-sided vote of 44-1 in July 2012. Chin had decided to support the plan in exchange for some design concessions from NYU—a 17 percent reduction of the buildout's square footage above ground—and some kickbacks for the community, including a new preschool. (NYU's most recent newsletter featured a photo of the councilwoman at the new school, sitting on the floor with a toddler). But with the legal tangle underway—the plaintiffs secured the pro-bono counsel of Randy M. Mastro of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a renowned litigator in the city who is currently representing Chris Christie in the fallout from Bridgegate—NYU 2031 is no longer guaranteed to move forward, at least in its current iteration. All of which raises the question of why, after more than six years of struggle, NYU never came up with a plan to build anywhere else.

Ironically, NYU and the Village owe a significant part of their respective successes to each other. The neighborhood was just beginning to emerge from its period as a suburban backwater—a settlement outside of the dense city grid clustered below Wall Street that early New Yorkers used to escape from yellow fever outbreaks—when NYU situated one of its first buildings on the east side of Washington Square Park in 1835. The city had only recently converted the square, previously a potters field and a public gallows, into a parade ground and commons, and with new residents and a new park, the area began to develop quickly. Though the university did pursue the move to a more traditional campus in the Bronx around the turn of the 19th century, it found itself returning to the Village. Over the last 30 years, NYU has transformed itself from a second-thought commuter school into a global institution, gaining much prestige due to its roots in the cultural center that is the Village—and the school probably understood as much when it finally sold its Bronx campus in the 1970s.

In the past few decades, its developments have galvanized significant neighborhood opposition. The construction of Bobst Library, the block-long sandstone building of 12 stories on the southeast corner of the park, was greeted by years of protests and a lawsuit from then councilman Ed Koch and legendary activist Jane Jacobs, after the city gave the school a zoning exception that allowed the building to rise more than twice its allowable height. (For anyone who doubts that history repeats itself, arguments against that plan were remarkably similar to those today, as critics argued the building was to "serve the trustees and not the people," lambasted its design, and denounced the university's "expansionist" bent.) The school completed the library in 1973, and it has been casting a shadow over much of the square ever since.

More recently, other NYU projects have drawn the neighborhood's ire: a 13-story law school building that required the destruction of two historic houses, one a former home of Edgar Allen Poe, in 2003 (NYU agreed to recreate the Poe building's facade a few doors down); a new student building, the Kimmel Center, constructed in 2004; the reviled 26-story dorm on East 12th Street — the tallest building in the East Village — built in 2008. It's a long history of these type of developments that caused the Times to wonder if NYU was the "Villain of the Village" in 2001.

These days, NYU almost wears the Village and its history, from the lifeless facade of the old St. Ann's church left standing in front of the 12th street dorm that replaced it, to the Poe house's drab reconstruction, to the historic Provincetown Playhouse. The playhouse, largely gutted on the inside, sits wedged in the middle of new construction, as NYU sought unsuccessfully to appease neighborhood preservationists when the school demolished most of the building that housed the theater in 2010.

"What I find most maddening is they trade on their identification with Greenwich Village while negatively affecting the area," says Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council.

Compared to other neighborhoods, development in the Village has proven to be a tough sell for the university, due in no small part to a nonconformist bent that has attracted radicals, artists, and intellectuals for some 150 years, though the area has skewed more toward affluence of late. It's an offbeat identity that seems embedded in the fabric of the neighborhood, with the winding, off-grid streets that have swallowed many a tourist's afternoon. And no one has forgotten that it was the battleground of Jane Jacobs' infamous fight against Robert Moses in the 1960s, which defeated his ill-advised plans for the LOMEX (Lower Manhattan Expressway), a ten-lane highway that would have cut through 14 city blocks and the heart of the Village. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the judge's ruling hinges on the three strips of parkland, areas originally set aside as access ramps for Moses' highway, that were converted to greenspaces after the project flopped. The ghost of Jane Jacobs looms large in the Village.

For all the drama, higher education institutions do bring innumerable benefits to the areas they call home; they can create thousands of jobs, help drive economic growth, and increase an area's cultural and intellectual capital. But they tend to piss off those living around them. "Where there are tensions, those tensions are often with immediate neighbors—they are often quite local," explains Henry S. Webber, a public policy professor and administrator at Washington University in St. Louis who has studied the role that colleges play in cities. "What universities and medical centers do is of great value to world, region, and city, but not entirely in the interest of their immediate neighbors."

Like any big development project, at least some of the complaints directed at NYU inevitably derive from these more NIMBY-esque concerns. As a testament to how intertwined the Village and NYU have become over the years, the demographic most incensed by the project may be its faculty, roughly 40 percent of whom live on the two superblocks. If the university wanted to pick a fight with its professors, situating such an ambitious construction project outside their windows was a great way to do it.

But most critics of NYU's plan can point to a deep history to ground their objections. The focus of the project's development is a three-by-three grid of nine square blocks that the city converted into three "superblocks" by eliminating two north-south streets—Wooster and Greene between Houston and West Fourth streets—at the behest of NYU as well as Robert Moses, after a bitter fight in 1954. Within 20 years, the school had acquired all three parcels. In 1967, the university constructed three 30-story towers on the southernmost superblock bound by Houston Street, and though they were designed by I.M Pei, the high-rises were extremely controversial in the neighborhood. Opponents of the 2031 plan contend that NYU is now violating the agreements it made in order to build those high-rises in the first place.

"The plan of course is basically a way of saying that we're going to fill in the park between the towers," says Andrew Ross, a sociology professor at the school who does not live in the immediate area (he resides in Tribeca). As Ross points out, critics of the current plan find themselves in the curious position of triumphing Moses' designs for the area, which ultimately lead to the creation of the parkland in exchange for the towers. "People who were embittered about what Moses did would say now that they feel he'd be turning over in his grave at the prospect of the park being filled in."

As Bankoff says: "Towers in the park don't work however if you get rid of a park. Then you just have towers upon towers."

For all the controversy in the Village, there are signs that if the school had decided to build elsewhere, it would have been welcomed with open arms. Leaders in lower Manhattan, struggling to renew development after the financial crisis, contacted NYU in 2010, urging it to consider expanding into the Financial District. "It could have been a win-win for everyone," says Catherine McVay Hughes, currently the chair of Community Board 1, who says she and her predecessor, Julie Menin, met with NYU administrators about the possibility.

"People who were embittered about what Moses did would say now that they feel he'd be turning over in his grave at the prospect of the park being filled in."—Andrew Ross, NYU sociology professor

Leaders in other boroughs, too, say they have sought out the school. "With the troubles they've had in Manhattan with expansion in the Village, I've offered them, urged them to say, why not consider Brooklyn?" says Marty Markowitz, who as Brooklyn's borough president until 2014, saw the number of college students in Downtown jump from 35,000 in 2006 to more than 57,000. "We're only—how many subway stops away? 2, 3, 4? It's around the corner practically from NYU."

Markowitz says he pitched John Sexton and other NYU officials about relocating its Tisch School of the Arts. "I really do think it should be in Brooklyn," he says. "It may not be tomorrow, but they're going to need that space for something else in Manhattan. Look what Tisch does—acting, musical theater writing, film, television, photography, dramatic writing. Come on! That's Brooklyn! More than the Village, you bet!"

NYU has made some moves into Brooklyn, merging with an engineering school, Polytechnic University, in 2008, and later purchasing a derelict MTA building on Jay Street to convert into a school of urban science. But though it plans to locate some of the new 6 million square feet in Brooklyn, critics contend it hasn't committed to moving enough of its core functions there.

As they point out, the economic benefits brought by a school like NYU diminish in already thriving areas like Greenwich Village. A study commissioned by the plan's opponents in April 2012 found that the plan could serve as a "potent economic development tool" wherever it was situated, but that this upswing in sales would be significantly smaller scale in the Village—an increase of $23 million that would only account for a growth of about 2.5 percent, in contrast to 10 percent in a place like Downtown Brooklyn. In other words, NYU could potentially do for another neighborhood now what it did for the Village long ago.

NYU maintains that it simply needs more space in the Village to meet its academic needs. "This is where it's hard for people who just do real estate," says Alicia Hurley, a vice president in the university's public affairs department. "You can't just create a whole second campus for things that are already happening at the square." The university's own studies, like those released last week by a 26-member working group of faculty, students, and administrators, have found that the school has an "urgent" need for additional space in its core, and that financially, NYU 2031 is "reasonable, prudent, and within the university's means."

But some of the university's most stringent critics allege that NYU's plan amounts to little more than a real estate deal, a power play to increase its square footage in one of the more desirable areas in town, and therefore the value of its real estate holdings. The school's board of trustees includes some of the biggest real estate developers in the city (and, some professors claim, not a single educator). "We're talking about New York City, where real estate deals make the place run," says Mark Crispin Miller, a tenured Media Studies professor at the school. "Even though they keep saying it's for academic space, it's mostly not for academic space, but it's a very effective cover for what is actually an extremely radical construction." The zoning change for the area, which was approved by the rezoning-friendly City Planning Commission under Amanda Burden with only one "no" vote in June 2012, most likely increased the value of land by some hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The plan is so clearly oversize that it's hard not to see it as a stalking horse for what school officials figure they can get permission from the city to build," wrote the Times' architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, in a scathing review of a version of the plan.

The school vigorously disputes these accusations. "It's not real estate, it's our academic mission that drives this," says Hurley.

[Approved square footages for the buildings of NYU 2031.]

Of course, opponents disagree with the school's claims that so much of its expansion must happen in the Village. "NYU has always claimed to be a university for the whole city. Well if that's true, why on earth do they need to cram 2 million square feet of towering real estate into a famously low-rise neighborhood?" says Miller. "One of the things they keep saying to justify building in the neighborhood is that students can't possibly walk more than ten minutes between their dorm and their classes. That doesn't sound like New York City to me. My son is 12 and takes the subway uptown to go to school every day."

Most observers acknowledge that the new court ruling probably will not force NYU back to the drawing board, though it could mandate a few more compromises. De Blasio, for all his community spirit, has indicated that the city will not drop its appeal of the ruling.

"What universities and medical centers do is of great value to world, region, and city, but not entirely in the interest of their immediate neighbors."—Henry S. Webber

"The original plan, as public advocate I was opposed to because I thought it was too expansive. The city council passed a much smaller plan which I felt much better about," de Blasio told Curbed at a recent press conference. "The lawsuit is a different matter; the lawsuit involves issues that go far beyond the issue of NYU, and from the city's perspective sets precedents that actually are very problematic." A spokeswoman from City Hall confirmed that the administration has no intention of dropping the appeal.

The nine-block grid at the center of the conflict represents one of the fundamental tensions in the city, between developers seeking leniency from the city's regulations to build higher and denser, and average residents, who are right to complain that it is often much easier for well-connected (and deep-pocketed) institutions to get around the rules than it would be for them. The more jaded among us would say that's just how the city runs. But it's worth wondering why the city makes bargains and restrictions—like those to create the tower-in-the-park design on the two superblocks—if only to revisit them at the behest of the same developers a few decades later.

Many other schools around the country have begun expanding their reach outside their immediate campuses as they have grown, and NYU has made some movements to do the same. Perhaps future conflicts could be avoided if it pursued these options more aggressively. In the meantime, it seems the school may eke out more space in the Village yet again. If that's the case, the current plan will recede from the spotlight, becoming just one of many development projects in a busy metropolis with a short memory, a few more headlines about a bitter battle between the Village and the school gathering dust in the archives. Both sides may take comfort that regardless of the outcome in the courts, the current struggle will soon draw to a close. It promises not to be the last.
· NYU 2031 coverage [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]