Too Little in the Middle: NYU Faculty Propose Last Minute Alternative to Greenwich Village Expansion

A towering challenge. (Docomomo)

Later today, within the next hour or two, the City Council’s zoning subcommittee is expected to unveil a compromise that it has reached with New York University on its ambitious and controversial plan to build 2.2 million square feet of facilities on two blocks the school owns south of Washington Square Park. Whatever form that takes, be it shorter buildings, fewer buildings, maybe even though almost certainly not no buildings, it will be the final deal for NYU’s 2031 expansion plan.

The faculty of NYU know this full well, and a good many of them dread it. Already 36 departments or divisions at the university have come out against the plan, and even as they realized there was little likelihood of stopping the project in the short-term, a faculty coalition came up with its own plan anyway, releasing it on the same day as the university collects its prize.

“No one knows NYU’s space needs better than we do,” said Mark Crispin Miller, a media and culture professor who is one of the leading faculty opponents of the expansion plan.

He helped found NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan to write reports and stage protests against the expansion, which the group credits to the university’s president, John Sexton, and not themselves.

If the group’s counter-proposal (in full below) seems a little late, it is because Mr. Miller said it was only a recent idea, prompted at a City Council hearing for the plan last month. Queens Councilman Leroy Comrie, who chairs the powerful land-use committee overseeing the expansion, asked the faculty “Where was our alternative,” Mr. Miller said.

“We decided it was not a bad idea to have something on the record,” he said, “even if it might be too late.”

While NYU has drafted dozens of flashy renderings, and the zoning documents associated with its plan stretch into the hundreds of pages, the counter-proposal is but five pages long and under-girded by eight simple ideas. The argument goes that NYU only needs a fraction of the space it is proposing because little of what is being initially built—only 18 percent in the first of four towers—is for academic uses.

The balance will be made up from renovations and rehabilitation of existing space, something the opponents argue could be expanded into other buildings not currently under consideration, identifying at least 250,000 additional square feet in the short term. They call for any new construction in the core to be strictly academic, arguing that even they themselves (many of whom happen to live in the superblocks NYU is developing) could stand to commute in from elsewhere in the city.

The plan also calls for prior land covenants to be respected on the superblocks, which would strictly limit development therein, nor should the school attempt to overtake the adjacent park blocks on Mercer Street. Also, no up-zoning of properties or commercial overlay to add stores to the ground floors of the towers that are there now. Basically, very little should be built where NYU wants it right now.

“The NYU2031 Plan reads like a request for a blank check,” the counter-proposal declares. “This is an unfair request, because many of its costs will be borne by students (especially in student debt), by faculty, and the surrounding community.” So the plan will not just overwhelm the Village, but also the university’s balance sheet.

Mr. Miller said this is not how it has to be. “They’re either going to live with the Village or crush it,” he said. “It’s not Columbia, it’s not a land grant university. If the place looks like Oklahoma City, what’s the appeal? What’s the charm?”

He also insisted that even though NYU is likely to get most of what it asked for at the City Council today, his group’s plan is not moot. “The Council is not the end,” he said. “It’s just the beginning.” The group hopes to continue hammering on the university’s plan, and believes this may have been a turning point for President Sexton’s tenure. It has also retained a law firm to consider challenges to the plan once it is approved.

An NYU spokesman dismissed the plan as too little, too late. “The City Council’s Land Use Committee will be voting today on a plan that emerged from a five-year planning process, widespread community consultation, and the extensive review required by the ULURP process,” John  Beckman said in a statement. “That’s the key issue today, and we look forward to the Committee’s vote, and the full City
Council vote on July 25.”

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Too Little in the Middle: NYU Faculty Propose Last Minute Alternative to Greenwich Village Expansion