Location: New York University’s president, John Sexton, told The Observer a couple of months ago that opponents of NYU’s expansion in Greenwich Village should ‘move to Sioux City’ if they don’t want to confront growth. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation isn’t against NYU expanding, just against its expanding in the Village. How is it possible for NYU, however, not to expand in the Village?
Mr. Berman: There’s two really important competing interests here. One is NYU’s need and desire to grow. The other is the need and desire for the Village and the East Village to kind of stay the dynamic, very diverse neighborhoods that they are. As we’ve always said, NYU is a key ingredient in that. If NYU becomes the sole defining characteristic of that, the Village and the East Village cease to exist as the places that they’ve been for the last 200 years.
So the way to really serve all the competing interests is for NYU to do what we’ve been calling on them to do for the last couple of years—and they’re finally recognizing that they need to be looking for locations outside of the Village and the East Village to absorb their future growth. It’s what Harvard, Yale, Columbia and basically every top-flight institution is doing now, which is looking for satellite campuses.
We’re not asking NYU to reinvent the wheel. They currently have a second campus in east midtown for all their medical school, nursing school, dental school, things like that. For about 100 years, they had a second campus in the Bronx, which in the 1970’s they closed off and sold off. So, this is not like some experimental new idea that none of us are sure could work.
The society’s opposed to the 26-story NYU dorm going up on East 12th Street. It will be the tallest building in the East Village. Why’s that a bad idea, building up, rather than out?
Two things. One thing is that scale is one of the defining characteristics of those neighborhoods. I’m not saying that there are no high-rise buildings there, but they’re really more the exception than the rule. The other thing is that I’m a lifelong New Yorker, and thinking back 25 years to when I was a teenager, the presence of NYU in these neighborhoods was palpably different than it is now.
How was it different?
It was much more limited. There were probably two or three blocks right next to Washington Square where you were like, ‘Hey, I’m in the middle of NYU.’ Now, there’s literally dozens and dozens of blocks and you’re surrounded by nothing but NYU. And NYU is currently planning for what the university will look like 25 years from now, and I don’t want the trajectory for the next 25 years to be the same trajectory of the last 25 years—because, if it is, these neighborhoods will be unrecognizable.
Have you ever met Mr. Sexton? What’d you think of him?
For me, the real test of John Sexton is whether he can walk the walk as well as talking the talk. He’s an eloquent talker; he’s said a lot of neat things about the need to preserve the fragile ecosystem of Greenwich Village, as he called it. So far, his actions have not followed his words.
We’ll see if his legacy is going to be one of perpetuating basically a huge fraud upon this neighborhood, or of following through on his commitments.
On to Donald Trump. He plans a big unveiling later this month for the Trump SoHo Hotel Condominium. What are the chances of stopping it at this point?
At this point, the chances of stopping it are only legal ones. The city has made clear that they believe somehow, through this Alice in Wonderland logic, that this fits the zoning laws—even though, I think, a 5-year-old could say, “That’s not a hotel.” But the wheels are in motion for a legal challenge. We are restrained by our own internal rules that we will not be a litigant in that case, but we are working very closely with the people who are putting together that case.
Unfortunately, what’s happened now is that the burden is on the public to shell out major bucks to take the city to court to get them to obey the law and to treat these billionaire developers the same as everyone else. I think it’s a pretty sad state of affairs that citizens have to dig deeper into their pockets in order to get the court system to force the city to do that and to protect the interests of average New Yorkers as opposed to billionaire developers.
There was a lot of opposition marshaled early on against the Trump SoHo, including from public officials like U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler and State Senator Tom Duane. And it still went forward. So, again, what are the chances of stopping it?
It’s up to the courts at this point. It’s really impossible to say; you don’t even know which judge you’re going to get. All I can say is that logic is clearly on our side, but it doesn’t always win the day when it comes to land-use issues in New York City.
Is it premature for Mr. Trump to be moving forward at this time?
Mr. Trump is probably going to do and can do whatever he wants. I do think he knows full well, especially by creating this sort of fig-leaf restrictive declaration, that he’s on very shaky legal ground. [Editor’s note: Mr. Trump’s voluntary restrictive declaration is supposed to limit the number of days a condo owner can live in the Trump SoHo.] I’m sure he thinks it’s in his best interest to get this building up as soon as possible. He’s rolling the dice; we’ll see what happens.
Have you dealt with anyone in the Trump Organization or in the Sapir Organization, the co-developer?
I’ve spoken with them at hearings. They’ve made clear that they have every intention of trying to get this building built. And they’ve also said publicly exactly what they intend it to be: a place where people live. So at this point it’s not really about our negotiating with them; it’s about getting the city, through the courts, to enforce the law.
Maybe ‘depressing’ isn’t the right word, but does it ever get frustrating that, in the last few years, the regnant philosophy in New York real estate is that development is good? How does it feel to be outside the norm right now, to be going against the tide?
We’ve been pretty good at swimming upstream. And we’ve managed to make incredible progress and to have some huge victories. It does seem we’re going against the broader tide. In my life, I don’t just care about Greenwich Village—as important as my work down there is to me—but about the city as a whole on a lot of other issues.
It bothers and concerns me that the general shift in thinking is that anything that provides a public good should be harnessed to private development—and, if you can squeeze a public good out of it, great, but otherwise, it’s not going to happen. I think that’s just awful.