Scott Stringer’s College Try: Can the Borough President Thread the NYU Needle and Win City Hall Along the Way?

Only a year into office, Mr. Stringer began negotiating with Columbia over its divisive plans for a new 17-acre campus in the Manhattanville section of Harlem. As a fight over eminent domain raged in the courts, Mr. Stringer got the university to agree to spend $20 million on an affordable housing fund, to spend millions more on new parks, to create a job training program to hire locals for the campus and to use sustainable building practices. The Bloomberg administration, long a champion of development in general and university development in particular, threw in promises to rezone the west side of Washington Heights, between 135th and 155th streeta, as a stanch against university-driven gentrification.

Next came Fordham, where the borough president convinced the university to reduce a proposed three-million-square-foot campus expansion near Lincoln Center by 206,000 square feet, eliminate a number of parking spaces and reconfigure the plan so the buildings would be further from the curb.

These grand bargains were not simply limited to educational institutions. In 2008, Mr. Stringer opposed Sheldon Solow’s plan to redevelop the old Con Edison site near the UN and he did the same thing two years later, when Gary Barnett proposed a similarly massive set of towers on the southern end of the Riverside South development. These no votes gave the City Council members with oversight of the projects the support they needed to win concessions from the developers—a path opponents of the NYU plan hope Mr. Stringer will repeat.

“That segment of lower Manhattan has the highest voter turnout in the whole state,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for History Preservation. “The community has made its voice known.”

Given these past successes, it would seem Mr. Stringer is particularly motivated to broker an NYU deal. “The borough president and his staff have worked tirelessly on this issue since 2006,” said Brad Hoylman, chair of Community Board 2, which voted unanimously against the project earlier this year. To give in now would be seen as defeat.

It has been a long process. In 2006, a year before the university unveiled its first plan, the borough president convened a community task force to make recommendations about the depth and breadth of the rezoning. The task force met more than 50 times until it was disbanded.

The reason was that NYU did not seem to care much for the influence of those outside its ranks. In March 2010, the university released a new proposal for the two superblocks. It looked almost exactly like the one that proceeded it: the same boomerang buildings walling off Washington Square Village, the same 40-story tower on the Silver Towers site, the same “zipper building” replacing the university’s athletic center along Mercer Street, the same one-million-square-foot underground warren of classrooms.

The community was livid, and the borough president expressed his own frustrations with the process. The one concession since made was that the new Silver Towers tower was to be relocated to the corner of the block—not because of concerns from the community but due to the objections of I.M. Pei, the original architect.

Since then, Mr. Stringer has been waging a quiet campaign against the project, while the university has promoted a very public one.