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.
By 2031, NYU plans to add 6 million square feet to its campus, in parcels spread out around Manhattan, Brooklyn, and possibly the heretofore public space of Governor’s Island. Of that, about 2.45 million square feet of expansion was imagined in the form of four new buildings penciled into an area that encompasses roughly six square blocks. That was slimmed down today to three high-rises and one four-story building, plus a swath of below-ground development, totally around 1.6 million square feet.
Nestled just south of Washington Square, these two combined superblocks are owned mostly by NYU and are currently the sites of residential towers, where many university faculty, their families, and graduate students live. To build the new high-rises on them requires the removal of deed restrictions and an array of zoning law changes, to turn residential areas into ones zoned for mixed use that allow for higher intensity development. It also requires that NYU obtain ownership of strips of green space currently owned by the Department of Transportation. If the plan is approved, NYU will begin building as soon as 2013, and continue construction in the immediate area for 19 consecutive years.
The blocks are monuments to early 1960s urban renewal–the brainchild of controversial city planner Robert Moses–and the tall towers centered around courtyards feel wholly out of context with the the quirky low-rise hodgepodge typical of the rest of the Village.
But since the 2031 plan was unveiled in 2008, the superblocks have become the latest icon of a familiar scene: the feverish local protest that has accompanied NYU’s expansion in Greenwich Village since the 1960s. Local groups have assembled, demonstrations have been organized, and a campaign to prevent approval of a “pinwheel tower,” the would-be tallest building in the Village, ultimately led to its removal from NYU’s original plans after famed architect I.M. Pei sent a prickly letter defending the complex he designed.
The most recent bout of outrage–what has shown up in the papers these past months–is coming largely from the university’s own kin. Public hearings have been filled with testimony from professors who live on the blocks. The most vocal have formed a group, calling themselves NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan. The group, along with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, plan to contest the plan in court, now that City Council approval seems certain.
The opposition is not just about the superblocks. The economics department at NYU, home to three Nobel prize-winning economists, wrote a resolution opposing 2031, citing the "financial risks and the possibility of default" of what the professors have estimated will be a $6 billion project. The university has refused to disclose how much it thinks the plan will cost or where, exactly, the money will come from, beyond a vague nod towards bank loans and private donations. But NYU is an icon of astronomical student debt, owing to its comparatively tiny endowment, which currently sits at $2.5 billion. To put that into perspective, Columbia University’s endowment is $7.8 billion. Harvard’s is a whopping $32 billion. And yet, in a letter announcing 2031, university president John Sexton pointed aspirationally to both those schools’ physical footprints: "NYU has approximately half the square footage per student of Columbia, one-quarter of Harvard’s—the university has reached a tipping point."
In NYU’s view, the 2031 plan is already a major departure from the way it formerly did business with the community. Twenty years ago, when many of the dorms were opened, NYU typically “looked for a space on the market, bought it, and developed it as-of-right,” building to the maximum allowable dimensions, explained John Beckman, the university’s vice president for public affairs. No public hearings took place, and no approval by the city council was necessary. Often, neighbors felt they were given very little notice about major changes to their immediate landscape, and resentment was profound.
The 2031 plans in the Village, in contrast, propose building on property NYU already owns, increasing density on those parcels but preventing sprawl elsewhere. The plans hinge on winning major changes to the area’s zoning laws, which requires months of public review, but NYU is quick to point out that submitting to public scrutiny was a deliberate part of its new, neighborly plan.
“We’ve now voluntarily engaged a process that allows the community to criticize us more. We made a choice to do this,” said Alicia Hurley, the university’s vice president for governmental affairs, who is effectively the face of NYU 2031 at public meetings. “There’s nothing to prevent the university from buying property around the neighborhood and building as-of-right,” she said, a fact she expected to be–to NYU’s benefit–on the minds of elected officials when it came time to decide the fate of the plan. “You’re always going to have a reaction by the very local, affected community. It would be no different if we went back into the ‘as-of-right’ world,” said Hurley, referring to massive opposition she faced at every Community Board meeting. “You’re going to get it wherever you put it.”
To understand why NYU has to seek approval to build out the university-owned blocks, it’s necessary to understand Floor Area Ratio, or FAR, something that is closely bound to zoning regulations. FAR is essentially the number of times the entire footprint of a plot of land can be built on top of itself. If a plot of land has an FAR of 2, and the owner wished to build a building that consumed the whole area of that land, the structure would be allowed to be 2 stories high. If instead the owner wished to build a taller building, it would have to have a smaller footprint. With an FAR of 2, and a building footprint 1/2 the size of the land itself, the building could be 4 stories high.
The biggest obstacle in NYU’s way, legally, is the fact that the blocks are zoned residential (if zoning is your thing, they are zoned R7-2) and for university purposes, they would need to be zoned for mixed-use (C1-7). This isn’t just a matter of regulating how the space will be used–-zoning demarcations dictate how much of the space can be built, and FAR is the metric used to measure that. Right now, the superblocks have a residential FAR of 3.44. Should the zoning be changed to mixed-use, 6.5 FAR could be built for residential purposes, like dorm space and faculty housing, and the site would be allowed as much as 2 FAR of commercial space. This means, in short, open space would be reduced and more of the space in the superblocks could be developed at a higher intensity, making way for the four new high-rises.
NYU was also seeking height and setback waivers for a block-long “Zipper Building,” which, in places, is too tall and too close to the street, penetrating the “sky exposure plane,” a virtual sloping plane that begins fairly high above the street and rises inward over the zoning lot, designed to provide light and air at street level.
NYU plans to offer to seal off people’s air conditioners to reduce inhalation of construction dust and other matter, and will offer storm windows to mitigate the noise pollution. But despite building phasing, residents could be living amid a continuous construction site for 19 years. But for Beckman, the benefits for NYU and for the neighborhood outweigh these concerns. “Look, nobody loves construction,” he said. “Sometimes you push through that period and end up with something great. One has to keep their eye on what’s going to be there in the end.”
Washington Square Village (WSV) is the superblock just south of campus bounded by Bleecker, West 3rd, LaGuardia, and Mercer streets. It currently houses two towers, each 170 feet tall, and an inner garden courtyard designed by American modernist Hideo Saske, which few non-residents have ever stepped inside. The gate and raised platform leave an intentionally less-than-public impression, and residents want it to stay that way. NYU has framed much of their plan as promoting just the opposite.
“Something that is fences and trees around it isn’t considered public open space by the EIS,” said Alicia Hurley, NYU’s Vice President of Government Affairs who is effectively the face of NYU 2031 at public hearings. She is referring to the plan’s Environmental Impact Statement, which was commissioned by NYU from an environmental consulting firm called AKRF.
Because NYU’s EIS does not consider the garden or a playground in WSV–called Key Park because it is used by resident families who have keys to its gate–to be public open space, it counts its own plan as adding 3.1 acres of public open space to the complex, despite the addition of two new buildings on the site.
“Even though we’re asking to change the open space ratios, we’re actually going to be improving the amount of public open space,” said Hurley, back in January. ”It’s counterintuitive, but that is going to be part of what we’re trying to get people to understand at the hearings.”
But for Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media, culture and communication at NYU who has written for The Nation and who lives in the complex with his wife and 10-year old son, NYU’s claim to be adding open space is a deeply flawed PR strategy.
“This is something that would make George Orwell’s head explode. They’re not providing green space, they’re proposing to make the type of plaza found around shopping malls. Putting saplings in urns with brick walkways is no substitute for the thriving ecosystem with old trees that we have now. Once the birds go, they’re gone, and it takes saplings a long time to grow. [NYU’s message] is a bit of propaganda spin,” said Miller. “Let’s be perfectly honest about this. They’re annihilating green space to make way for huge buildings."
As with many projects of this scope, only time will tell.