At N.Y.U. Open House for Expansion Plans, Simmering Civility

nyutower At N.Y.U. Open House for Expansion Plans, Simmering CivilityAnother publicity salvo was exchanged on Wednesday evening between N.Y.U. and local preservation groups, as a throng of residents waved signs outside the Kimmel Center on Washington Square South, protesting the university’s expansion plans. This preempted the school’s open house inside detailing an ambitious plan that calls for up to six million square feet of additional space throughout Greenwich Village, a First Avenue corridor, downtown Brooklyn, and potentially Governor’s Island.

Although details of the plan have been public for the last few weeks, the event offered a physical setting, on the 10th floor of the Kimmel Center, overlooking Washington Square Park, for local residents, school officials and the general public to coalesce. And while such results could very well have been explosive, it’s a testament to the university’s well-oiled publicity machine that the exchanges appeared calm, perhaps even genial, especially in contrast to the anger displayed outside the building.

The room was arranged with a circular perimeter of displays that detailed the various segments of the school’s expansion plans, in the same style as the clean, bright aesthetic of its new Web site. In the center were models of proposed new development, arranged like toy blocks, as well as fruit, crackers, cheese and beverages. It was in the same style as previous open houses, which date back to 2007, more akin to a gallery opening than a community board meeting.

The results were effective. Even the most hardened opponents of expansion, wearing white stickers with maxims like, “40 Story Towers? No Way,” were hard-pressed not to indulge in free food, and the sheer magnitude of the room atomized what had been a vocal, angry mob into concerned individuals, not nearly as overpowering.

But still, the opposition’s convictions were clear. In the same tradition of, say, Stuyvesant Town residents vs. Tishman Speyer, they were the local underdog, going toe-to-toe with the powerful institution, with the strength of their neighborhood behind them. And if there is one focal point for the opposition movement, it has to be Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Mr. Berman is almost reflexively quoted whenever N.Y.U. does something controversial, much like Congressman Daniel Garodnick was the central opposition figure of Stuyvesant Town.

“We would really like NYU to preserve the balance of the community,” said Mr. Berman, who wants the school to bring new development outside the Village. He proposed moving the Stern Business School to the Financial District and the film branch of the Tisch School to Long Island City, where there is an active filmmaking industry. “They’ve taken some baby steps in the right direction,” he added, referring to the school’s more receptive approach toward the community, but he isn’t satisfied.

N.Y.U.’s position, on the other hand, is all about big ideas. Aggressive expansion has transformed what was historically a commuter-driven college into one of the country’s premier research institutions, and this, from the school’s perspective, is simply the next, natural step. It’s the same ambition that has made New York great, the school argues in one of its pamphlets.

The school is also fond of using stats to boost its image: 1.4 million hours of community service by N.Y.U. students in 2008-2009; $30 million in uncompensated dental care from the College of Dentistry each year. By contrast, the school has only 160 square feet per student as of 2006, while the Ivys have upward of 800 square feet per student. Give us enough space, N.Y.U. seems to suggest, and we can do anything.

However, John Beckman, a spokesman for N.Y.U., is a bit more pragmatic.

“This strategy recognizes that the Greenwich Village area cannot accommodate all the space N.Y.U. needs,” he said. “If we can’t develop it remotely, we’ll do without it.” He didn’t rule out the Financial District or Long Island City as possibilities, if current sites do not pan out. The school plans to borrow loans and stage another fundraising campaign to fund the expansion; it raised over $3 billion in seven years in its last effort.

Among the most controversial additions within the Village is a proposed 40-story tower in the historic district south of Washington Square Park, which would be used to house faculty and visiting academics. But as past proposals have shown, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which must approve all development in a historic district, will often trim exceptionally large buildings.

Right now, nothing is certain. As noted by the university, six million is the maximum amount of space it seeks, and the expansion plans are more of a sketch than a finished product.

“You don’t want to be in a position where you have an academic need, and you have financing, and you don’t have a plan,” said Mr. Beckman, but he added, “This framework is not an obligation.”

The Department of City Planning, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, the City Council and the mayor will all be involved in the lengthy approval process, which will take years. But the next clash will come much sooner: Community Board 2 has a meeting scheduled on April 19.

rli@observer.com