The Local: Elderly Villagers Bemoan NYU Expansion

“I personally think this will destroy N.Y.U. and the Greenwich Village community—and I’m being nice,” said Ruth Rennert.

A handful of seniors clustered around her shook their heads in agreement.

Ms. Rennert, a resident of Greenwich Village for the past four decades, was speaking to a conservatively dressed young woman wearing an N.Y.U. name tag during the university’s fifth Expansion Open House on Wednesday evening.

She was standing above a wooden rendering of what Greenwich Village could look like after the university’s expansion is complete in 2031. Next to the scaled-down model, the elderly woman cut an almost diminutive figure were it not for her overpowering voice.

The young woman nodded sympathetically as Ms. Rennert went through a laundry list of criticisms about the university’s plan to expand its Greenwich Village campus by 3.6 million square feet over the next 25 years, periodically interrupting to assure the elderly woman that “the community’s input is very important to us.”

“I want to voice this to someone. Who do I talk to?” Ms. Rennert asked.

“We have several venues for your feedback,” the girl offered. “Have you visited our Web site?”

“But I want to tell someone who’s going to vote on this,” Ms. Rennert said as one might conclude a frustrating phone call with a customer service operator.

Hemmerdinger Hall at 100 Washington Square Park was packed with N.Y.U. administrators, residents of the nearby Washington Square Village apartment complex and neighboring buildings, and probably a few passersby’s drawn by the free cookies—or Nutri-Grain bars spread on a small table marked "kosher."

Almost all of the attendees were over 60 and resentful of N.Y.U. for ruining the neighborhood as they remember it in its grittier, artistic, rose-colored heyday.

Whether providing special snacks in observance of Passover or politely (appearing) to listen to the same litany of complaints for hours on end, the university has set out to present itself as a good neighbor since it announced NYU Plans 2031 over a year ago.

On January 31, 2007, N.Y.U. agreed to a set of "Planning Principles" with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, community boards and local preservation groups to guide its future development—they need an additional six million square feet total by 2031.

In signing the accord, the university pledged to limit expansion in the neighborhood’s core to between three million and 3.6 million square feet and accelerate the search for potential satellite campus locations; to focus on modifying existing buildings rather than re-development when possible; and to sustain local retailers.

N.Y.U. believes building an additional three million square feet in the Village is a modest goal since it is only half of the total area the university estimates it is will need by 2031. But the area is equivalent to all of the buildings N.Y.U. has constructed in the neighborhood since 1966, or at least 20 of the 26-story dorms they are building on East 12th Street, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

N.Y.U. is careful to point out that it has yet to outline a master plan and will decide on a “preferred strategy” in October, said senior VP Lynne Browne, emphasizing the word preferred.

“This is a carefully considered phrase,” she said. “Nothing has been decided. (The designs) are just a start, a way of getting heads around the different concepts. … There is going to be constant outreach. … It’s not just about what N.Y.U. wants. … It’s going to be a give and take.”

Despite the bland language, Ms. Browne was upfront about the community’s preferred strategy for N.Y.U.: “Their message is that they’d like us to stay within our footprint in favor of remote locations.”

If Wednesday’s open house is a barometer of public opinion, N.Y.U.’s commitment to dialogue might be difficult to maintain, considering most people don’t like that the university has taken over the Village in the first place.

“In terms of community consensus, my reading is that they don’t want them to do anything at all,” said Alan Horland, co-president of the Washington Square Village Tenants Association.

“Even the N.Y.U. faculty in the buildings don’t want to see any changes to the neighborhood but they don’t speak up. …"

“Because they are intimidated,” co-president Anne Hearn chimed in.

Most of the 11,000 units in Washington Square Village are occupied by N.Y.U. administrators, graduate students and faculty, apart from the 4,000 that are still rent-stabilized, she said.

“We don’t want to live with construction and we don’t want to live with the destruction of our community, period,” she said.

Some seem intent on dismissing anything N.Y.U. does in the name of community involvement as token outreach.

One elderly woman who did not want her name used said she had just attended the private meeting N.Y.U. hosted for tenants of the Washington Square Village Apartments and the IM-Pei-designed Silver Towers before the open house, where finalized designs for various expansion scenarios were outlined.

“It was a diplomatic ploy to silence angry tenants,” she said of the meeting.

“They told us they were not going to raze our apartment block, but build around it, and there is nothing we can do about it,” she said.

Though the different plans on the table are all conceptual, it is possible that N.Y.U. has already singled out some of them, said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

“I think there are probably a few cases that they’ve made up their minds to do and others that they’ve made up their mind not to do, but left them up as sort of a bogeyman.”

The proposed demolition of Washington Square Village was most likely a bogeyman. Mr. Berman’s initial reaction was: “That’s not going to happen.”

Mr. Berman’s organization is opposed to a proposal to build a fourth tower on city-owned land in the Silver Tower Complex while it is on track to gain landmark status and also opposed to N.Y.U.’s plans to demolish the Provincetown Playhouse.

The organization, like most attendees, favors the so-called “remote plan,” but Mr. Berman is already questioning whether N.Y.U. will follow through with it.

They have eliminated Long Island City, leaving downtown Brooklyn, Governor’s Island and a few locations on the health corridor as possible locations, he said.

“Basically, the only feasible location is downtown Brooklyn. If they are putting all their eggs in one basket and moving ahead with plans for massive new development in our neighborhood, I don’t have much confidence in (the satellite campus option)."

If the expansion plan goes forward, the neighborhood will be "unrecognizably transformed," Mr. Berman said. "Places that are not N.Y.U. will be the exception and places that belong to NYU will be the rule.” The Local: Elderly Villagers Bemoan NYU Expansion