NYU Ready to Grow
Eliot Brown March 22, 2010, 9:20 p.m.
For the past three years, New York University has been massaging Greenwich Village.
The school, with a beefed up community affairs operation, has thrown bones to preservation groups (consenting to the landmarking of a large NYU block); adjusted plans to demolish a building with a theater when faced with opposition; and held a recurring set of community forums with the goal of improving town-gown relations (the topic this month: “NYU’s Haitian Relief Efforts”).
The effort—aimed at shedding the historically strained, and at times abysmal, relationship with the pernickety Village—is all a prelude to the university’s planned major expansion over the next two decades, as it seeks to increase its holdings by 6 million square feet, a key initiative of NYU president John Sexton.
Early next month, NYU is set to publicly unveil the master plan for this expansion effort, termed “NYU 2031: NYU in NYC ” for the school’s bicentennial, plotting a route toward achieving its goals to boost the student body by 5,500, grow its housing space by 3 million square feet as it hosts more students and faculty in NYU-owned housing, and grow the academic space as well. The school has previously said it wants around 3 million square feet in or around its current Village campus.
The most contentious aspect of this plan will surely be the growth of the school in the Village itself, where there’s a set that seems ready to scream and yell the moment anyone proposes putting a shovel in the ground.
To this end, according to two people briefed on NYU’s general plans, the school intends to move ahead with an earlier circulated proposal to build a tall residential tower in its I.M. Pei-designed Silver Towers complex, among other plans. An earlier draft plan called for a 40-story tower to rise on the site, a modernist tower-in-the-park development that holds a Pablo Picasso sculpture in its central courtyard. (It was this site that NYU consented to have landmarked.)
Whatever the specifics of the plan, it is clear that the unveiling will merely be a beginning, and the most jarring elements will likely need extensive public approvals (the Silver Towers plan would seem to need approvals from the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the City Planning Commission, which can take years, and would need votes by the City Council as well).
TO SOFTEN THE INITIAL blow of the plans, NYU in 2007 began a listening tour of sorts, broadcasting its intentions and taking feedback. It held open houses for residents with large poster boards of conceptual plans; residents were encouraged to leave sticky notes indicating a preference or distaste for each board (negative, of course, outweighed the positive by a large margin).
To lead the planning effort, the school brought in a large team of respected architects, including Grimshaw, Toshiko Mori Architect and SMWM. Its community relations staffers, vice president Alicia Hurley and former Community Board 5 district manager Gary Parker, are respected by many in the community. It has brought on an array of other consultants, including the Marino Organization for public relations, and filings list Geto & deMilly as lobbyists for the school. And university officials have, since 2006, sat on a frequently-meeting task force convened by Borough President Scott Stringer, devoted entirely to talking about the expansion.
“We’ve been in a three-year planning process that deeply involved the community; we’ve listened a lot, and we’ve heard a lot,” said John Beckman, an NYU spokesman. “That’s why NYU’s strategy for the first time is looking to develop as much outside our core and neighborhood as inside it.”
The question for NYU is whether or not its mollification campaign will do anything to change the reaction to its development plans, which, generally in the Village, is a not-in-my-backyard response, particularly when the developer is NYU.
“I expect that it is going to be a very long, difficult fight, from everybody’s point of view,” said Jo Hamilton, chair of Community Board 2. “There’s a history of people down here who not only care about their community but know how to put up a fight.”
The school has said it is looking to expand in other parts of the city as well—it has highlighted downtown Brooklyn, the East Side health corridor and perhaps Governors Island, a concept that seems aspirational and years away from being a real possibility—although it owns the most open space in the Village.
In terms of well-received development, the school does not have a great record. Its new buildings are often bulky and out of context. The red rock-clad Bobst Library, which sits along the southern end of Washington Square Park, is a monstrosity, while the new Kevin Roche-designed Kimmel Center for University Life just to the west is widely criticized as too big and out of character. And a recently completed dorm in the East Village on 12th Street is a towering 26 stories high, and has drawn scorn from many in the community.
WHATEVER RESISTANCE NYU DOES meet, it is sure to find one of its biggest foes in Andrew Berman, the highly vocal executive director of the well-organized Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Mr. Berman has been a scourge of real estate developers in the West Village, waging fights against most every big or gaudy development plan that pops up. His loud resistance helped slow the LPC’s approval of a new hospital for St. Vincent’s and an associated apartment building, a process that took months more than it typically does. (That plan is now in doubt as the hospital may shut down.)
With regard to the expansion, he has taken the position of accepting olive branches to the community, but then has gone on to heavily criticize the school once it does not, in his view, follow through. He’s traded barbs with school officials in the community paper The Villager; he criticized the implementation of a plan to preserve a building that houses the Provincetown Playhouse as insufficient (it was initially eyed for demolition); and he publicly raised complaints about signs NYU placed in the Silver Towers courtyard, after it was landmarked.
With the future plans, he said he is prepared to strongly oppose them should they indeed call for large developments in the NYU-owned “superblocks” between Houston and West Third streets (the Silver Towers complex and Washington Square Village, both of which have open space that is not heavily used by the public or even residents).
“If it is as bad as we think it is going to be, the plan is to oppose it vigorously and hold elected officials and city officials accountable,” Mr. Berman said.
He said he is pushing NYU to look outside the Village for its development—which, in fairness to the school, it is doing, though not to the level Mr. Berman would prefer. “NYU has certainly oversaturated the neighborhood already, and they need to make a priority of looking outside the neighborhood,” he said.
Of course, community resistance does not necessarily mean rejection, and even a university like NYU is generally viewed in higher regard than the typical private developer. Columbia managed to push through its planned 17-acre expansion in West Harlem, which was projected to result in substantial residential displacement of the existing community, using eminent domain to boot. And Fordham recently received approval to add more than 2 million square feet to its Lincoln Center campus, also a superblock.
With regard to the public approvals, much will likely depend on just how much of a harbinger NYU’s new community relations approach is—in other words, how flexible will the school be.
“Are they really becoming an institution that is looking to have a meaningful dialogue, or was this whole process just a way to push themselves forward?” Ms. Hamilton of the community board asked. “It’s all going to be wait and see.”