Just south of Washington Square Park, on the border between the Village and Soho, lie two apartment blocks, much larger than the now-tony townhouses that typify the neighborhood of Dylan, Ginsberg and Magnolia Bakery but not especially big by New York City standards.
The Silver Towers are three concrete, crenellated sentinels looming over Houston Street. Washington Square Village, the neighbor to the north, is two humongous slabs of balconies and windows, twice as long as a football field. Greenscapes of varying quality—a Picasso sculpture here, a viewing garden there, a beloved playground and dog run—encircle the modernist giants.
It is on these blocks that New York University’s future lies, the school insists. And so it has proposed adding five more buildings, a total of 2.5 million square feet, rivaling the Empire State Building in size.
By midnight Wednesday, Borough President Scott Stringer will release his recommendations for the NYU rezoning, part of the city’s uniform land-use review process. His vote, though advisory, will shape not only the Village for a generation but also the contours of the next mayoral race. The borough president has proved himself over the past six years to be remarkably canny at taking an office often seen to be powerless and using it to shape some of the most consequential developments in decades. Along the way, he has created a platform that could be a springboard to City Hall.
NYU is but the latest major rezoning that Scott Stringer has taken charge of, but by no means the first.
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.
Meds and eds, with a healthy dose of tech, have come to typify the post-bust, who-needs-Wall-Street economy flogged endlessly by the Bloomberg administration. And so the political perils of voting against NYU can be quite high, even if neighborhood opposition is equally pressing.
The borough president would prefer to anger neither. “I’m hoping NYU will live up to the planning principles we developed with the community in the last five years and come to the table with an expansion plan that balances the needs of the university with that of the community,” Mr. Stringer told The Times two weeks ago. His office declined interview requests, citing the ongoing discussions about the plan.
Still, NYU has shown a certain intransigence, and given the huge well of support for the project outside the neighborhood, it seems at times like there is no need to budge. Many locals, preservationists and nostalgists wholly reject the plan, but support from neighborhood businesses, the real estate lobby, construction unions and, most formidably, editorial boards has been overwhelming. Just two days after The Times reported late last month that Mr. Stringer was leaning on NYU to reduce the size of its project, the Gray Lady, one of the most important gets in all of city politics, published a strongly worded editorial condemning NYU’s critics and urging Mr. Stringer to support the plan. “If he wants the Times’s endorsement next year, which he very much does, I don’t see any way he can vote against this now,” one political insider said.
And yet it also bespeaks a certain anxiety on NYU’s part. The university had hoped, according to sources, to wait out for a supportive Times editorial until closer to the decisive vote at the City Council. To get the editorial now—alongside ones from the Daily News, the Post and this newspaper calling on Mr. Stringer to support the plan—shows the very real fear that the borough president could vote against the project. The university also hired former council members Ed Wallace and Melinda Katz, now high-powered attorneys, to help lobby for the project. Mr. Wallace was instrumental in shaping the Columbia and Fordham deals with Mr. Stringer, and the two are friendly.
The question is how far Mr. Stringer is willing to go. An avowed land-use wonk, he likes to roll up his sleeves and work out a deal all sides can congratulate themselves on. “I really think he wants to support the university, and he’s trying to figure out how he can do that while addressing the concerns of the community,” Kathyrn Wilde, president of the pro-business Partnership for New York, said.
A vote against NYU’s plan could have benefits beyond the neighborhood going into next year’s mayoral election. One of Mr. Stringer’s chief rivals, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, is seen in some quarters as the candidate of big business and real estate, Bloomberg Lite. Should Mr. Stringer vote against the project, he might cast himself as the little guy going up against her. “There’s no real difference between him and Quinn, so if he can cast her in that light, it may work to his favor,” Hank Sheinkopf, the long-time Democratic consultant, said. Coming off three terms of the development-at-any-cost Bloomberg administration, voters may well be ready for a little restraint.
Whether he could successfully pin this project on the speaker remains to be seen. While it is squarely in the backyard of her Village district, the project is technically in Councilwoman Margaret Chin’s district (to whom the speaker has been deferring comment on the story). But political insiders all agree, when it comes time to steer the project to a final vote, it will almost certainly be Speaker Quinn calling the shots, wielding backroom power while maintaing public political cover.
That is why a strong compromise, with the borough president’s full backing, is all the more tantalizing. It would allow Mr. Stringer to claim a victory for the community, the university and the city as a whole without risking much ire from any of those institutions, particularly the construction and real estate industries, which have given generously to the Stringer campaign in both funds and support.
There is still a portion of the Village community that has looked down on NYU, some as far back as when Robert Moses built the two superblocks, and even this kind of negotiation will probably not win them over. There is the risk, if Mr. Stringer’s consent is seen as too favorable to the university, it could anger community groups citywide. “There are certainly elements on the Upper East and Upper West sides, in Scott’s traditional territory, that could side with the Village on this,” Mr. Arzt said. “If he is seen as promoting the wrong kind of development, they could fear for their own neighborhoods.”
While the editorial boards may not support tampering with the project, Mr. Stringer has cover to come out against it, or at least to leverage NYU into a strong agreement. The Villager newspaper, Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman and the Municipal Art Society are among those in favor of removing the two towers on the Washington Square Village block—essentially give the university half of what it wants and call it a day, a position the Times’s pre-editorial report indicates Mr. Stringer had been hoping for.
He also has the tacit support of Councilwoman Chin. “The public review process has several steps to go before it comes to the City Council, however, the Council Member has communicated her concerns to NYU and she will continue to do so,” Kelly Magee, her spokeswoman, said in a statement. A compromise would make her job easier, but a no vote could also strengthen her hand in the negotiations, providing a stronger bargaining position.
By the end of the week, this chapter in the saga will have played out, but it will be at least a year until its full repercussions are felt on the political landscape. At least one person thinks no one should get in the way. “It could destroy NYU,” Mayor Bloomberg said at a press conference on Monday, when The Observer asked him if it was possible to reduce the size and scope of the plan.
“Playing politics with it is not good for anybody,” he concluded.