NYU Expansion Plan Hits a Roadblock: Judge Rules Legislative Approval Is Needed for Some Aspects of Project

Could Tuesday's ruling stall NYU's expansion plan?

Could Tuesday’s ruling stall NYU’s expansion plan?

NYU’s expansion plan suffered a setback on Tuesday when Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Donna Mills ruled that some aspects of the plan—which would add 2 million square feet to the university’s Greenwich Village campus—involve the alienation of public parkland and therefore require approval from the state legislature. The question is just how much of a setback the ruling will prove to be.

Both sides in the legal battle—which began in fall 2013 when a group of opponents including NYU faculty, preservationists and community groups filed a lawsuit to block the plan, citing a number of technical land use issues—have claimed victory following Judge Mills’ decision. While opponents heralded the ruling as saving the Village, NYU contended that it does not prevent the university from moving forward with the largest part of its plan—the construction of the “Zipper Building,” which is slated to span an entire block on a the site of a current NYU gym.

NYU was quick to point out that five of the six claims brought by the plaintiffs were dismissed by the judge, including their claims that the city’s approval of the plan violated prior deed restrictions, would lead to the destruction of historic buildings, and had not been properly vetted environmentally or through the city’s public review land use process, known as ULURP.

“The judge reaffirmed the City’s approval of the project, and most importantly the judge’s ruling allows us to move forward with our first planned project—the facility to provide new academic space on the site of our current gym,” wrote NYU spokesman John Beckman in a valedictory statement following the decision. He later dismissed opponents’ claims that the decision had dealt the entire plan a major blow, writing that “the petitioners and their lawyers are wrong and over-reaching in the claims they are now making that this ruling would stop us from building on the gym site, or that the proposals must be resubmitted to the City Council through another ULURP.”

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in the case have claimed that the ruling effectively brings the project to a standstill.

“We’re thrilled with this decision, which saves NYU’s neighborhood, and NYU itself, from a reckless and unnecessary plan that NYU’s administration hatched entirely on its own, with no involvement by the faculty,” Mark Crispin Miller, head of the NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, wrote The Observer in a statement, adding that the faculty was “delighted that Judge Mills has ruled against that mammoth project, and call on NYU’s administration to start over, and include NYU’s faculty and neighbors in all future planning for our forward course.”

Sylvia Rackow, the chair of the Committee to Preserve Our Neighborhood, one of the plaintiffs, wrote that the group was “blessed by Judge Mills’ decision defending  our public land strips on Laguardia and Mercer. We have so little green space in our area. It was presumptuous of Mayor Bloomberg, Speaker Quinn and the Council to give away our public lands.”

As for the specifics of the ruling, Judge Mills found that three plots of land NYU had planned to use during construction were indeed parks, and therefore require legislative approval to be alienated—converted to non-parks purposes indefinitely or for an extended period of time. The gym site where the Zipper Building is slated to rise is not among them.

Mercer Playground, LaGuardia Park, and LaGuardia Corner Gardens, while mapped as streets by the Department of Transportation, are effectively parkland, according to the ruling, having been used and informally designated as such for years. (And in fact, there have been several attempts to turn the land over to the Department of Parks, ultimately abandoned in the face of opposition from NYU, with the city deciding that it wasn’t worth waging a battle over the formal designation of what was likely to remain de facto parkland.)

“It is the view of this court that long-continued use of the land for park purposes may be sufficient to establish dedication by implication, despite the fact that the property is still mapped for long-abandoned street use,” the ruling reads.

However, the ruling explicitly stated that the decision does not mean that “NYU will ultimately be prevented from going forward with its Project, as approved by the City Council. Rather, it means that NYU must obtain the approval of the New York State Legislature if it intends to substantially interfere with the parcels of land which are now used as parks, either by using them as construction staging areas, or by altering them by incorporating them into larger areas of public spaces.”