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ICYMI: NYU’s History of Expansion Around Washington Square and the Village

In light of the recent court victory preserving dedicated parkland that New York University planned to massively build upon via its mega “NYU 2031” expansion plans — and to which the Bloomberg Administration’s City Council and Planning Commission gave the green light — last week’s terrific piece, After a Long war, Can NYU and the Village Ever Make Peace,? written by Eli Rosenberg at Curbed is worth reading.

A few notes and highlights:

Council Member Margaret Chin Never Had Anyone’s “Back” – but her own

Rosenberg details the history of NYU in the Village as well as the history of the NYU 2031 Expansion Plan including local Council Member Margaret Chin’s support of the plan. Rosenberg writes, “… even though it [NYU 2031 Plan] has generated significant opposition from the area’s politicians, including Assemblywoman Deborah Glick [and State Senator Brad Hoylman], 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.”

A few years back, Margaret Chin came before the public at a meeting called by community groups to discuss response to NYU’s expansion plans at the Center for Architecture; Chin was notably noncommittal – the most she said at the time was “If you [the community] have my back, I have your back.” But as we know, she did not have anyone’s back – except her own.

When NYU’s expansion plan came before the City Council two years ago, Council Member Charles Barron was the only “no” vote. The other Council Members chose to support their ‘own,’ as in Chin, following along because that was the precedent set by Speaker Christine Quinn.

Letitia James, now Public Advocate, was asked by The Villager at the “Victory” Rally last week about her “yes” vote to approve the plan when she was a member of the City Council. (She now says she is not in support and will talk to Mayor De Blasio about it.) She responded, “The circumstances were different. We had a Council speaker back then who ruled with an iron fist. Your support was linked to projects that needed to go forward. I had a district with a lot of needs. I was conflicted. But projects had to move forward.”

NYU and Washington Square Park conservancy (not in the Curbed piece but related)

As we now know, the Washington Square Park conservancy held many meetings with NYU higher ups although they are now denying any involvement with NYU’s $500,000 “Gift to the Park” and in fact fables are being made up about it. (That post is coming next!)

NYU and Washington Square

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.

Why has NYU not seriously considered the Financial District or Brooklyn?

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.

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.

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Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

* Victory for Parks Party & Rally March 15th (More on Recent Court Ruling in Favor of Preserving Parkland from NYU) March 14, 2014

* NYU’s “Marketing of Washington Square” Equals $$  February 28, 2011

Map at Top via Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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