Photo credit: George Brooks
Portions of this post were adapted from earlier reports by the author on the student-run alternative daily NYU Local.
New York University professors gathered on the steps of City Hall this morning, explaining to reporters for the umpteenth time that they did not want the school where they taught to build a raft of high-rise apartments where they lived. Nor did they want NYU to take on the undisclosed debt load doing so would require.
But minutes later, the City Council’s subcommittee on zoning and land use approved a version of the university’s ambitious expansion plan, now whittled down by a not-insubstantial 26 percent in overnight negotiations. The City Council will almost certainly do the same when it votes on the plan next week, ending a review process that has kept a cluster of otherwise quiet blocks in Greenwich Village embroiled in a heated land use battle for much of the past year.
We’ve heard some version of this story before: the biggest developer in downtown Manhattan, locked in struggle with one of the most fiercely preservationist communities in the city. But what happens when the developer is NYU, and much of the community in opposition are its faculty members? You get a university fighting itself, facing a history of neighborhood neglect to one side and a row of local politicians on the other.
As the plan crawls to City Council for a final vote, a quarter of its square feet reluctantly lobbed off, one playground passed over temporarily untouched, a look at what led to the presupposed outcome will do much to measure the worth of a public hearing process.
On an evening in early January, roughly one hundred Village residents watched an NYU representative flick through slides of architectural renderings, images of glassy buildings couched in digitally rendered greenery, until the pounding on the windows became impossible to ignore. Another one hundred people stood outside the overflowing Community Board meeting where NYU was presenting its Village expansion plans. They made it absolutely clear they would not be leaving. “I apologize greatly for this incredible inconvenience,” then-Community Board 2 Chairperson Brad Hoylman told the audience. “We completely underestimated the crowd tonight.”
After the meeting moved to a larger venue down the street, the audience swelled to something closer to 500. In the coming months, a veritable standing NIMBY army emerged that showed up repeatedly as NYU’s massive expansion plan slogged through various city government reviews, to hiss and wave signs and give hours of fiery testimony as the glassy slides flicked by for the umpteenth time.
Village residents have long found an impervious foe in the university. Campaigns to stop the construction of the school library, a student center, a gymnasium and even the buildings that currently stand on the superblocks were all ultimately unsuccessful. But the difference this time around is that “NYU 2031″ represents the longest-term development plan yet brought to the community forum, and the most extensive review process to which NYU has ever needed to subject itself. For both the university and the Village residents, there is a lot more at stake than in the past.