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BY ANDREW BERMAN | The April 25th City Planning Commission hearing on New York University’s proposed Village expansion plan has been called the longest in the commission’s history. Hundreds of Villagers, N.Y.U. faculty and students, and average New Yorkers showed up to urge the commission to reject the plan.
The commission is now examining the N.Y.U. proposal and the testimony and comments submitted about it, and will render its decision by in early June.
Many substantive issues were raised at the hearing questioning the very basis of N.Y.U.’s claims regarding the need for its Village expansion plan. The commission asked N.Y.U. to respond, and in early May the university did so with a long, written submission.
It’s quite telling what N.Y.U. said — and did not say — in its response. The university left almost every major question about its proposal unanswered, but may have inadvertently shed some new and even more unflattering light upon its plans.
N.Y.U. is asking to upend zoning protections, take over public land and violate urban renewal deed restrictions to allow its Village expansion. In response to questions from the commission about who would be utilizing the facilities N.Y.U. wants to build, we found out that the occupants of the large freshman dorm proposed for the Silver Towers superblock would be students moved there from N.Y.U.’s large freshman dorm located at 23rd St. and Third Ave.
Of course N.Y.U.’s acquisition of the 23rd St. building for freshman dorms was met with great fanfare in 2007, framed as part of the university’s move to think “outside the core” and stop oversaturating the Village with its facilities. Adding to the irony, N.Y.U. has tried to promote its Village expansion plan as one which locates in the core only that which “must” go there. Has the university been unable to function for the last four years with first-year students housed on 23rd St.?
This is one of the few concrete answers N.Y.U. does provide in its submissions. The university was pointedly asked by a Planning commissioner to reply to documents submitted by G.V.S.H.P. showing that, over the years, N.Y.U. has eliminated nearly 200 faculty housing units in Washington Square Village through apartment combinations subsuming two, three, or four units at a time into larger and larger “super-apartments.”
We also documented how N.Y.U. has been warehousing apartments in the same complex, with scores remaining empty for long periods of time — so much so that this census tract registered the largest population drop, largest number of empty units, and largest decrease in number of housing units in the Village between 2000 and 2010.
How can N.Y.U. ask for the aforementioned rules to be bent (broken, really) to build more faculty housing units, when it is the one that has eliminated or warehoused the units it now claims to need? The university’s response: a deafening silence — N.Y.U.’s submission doesn’t even address the issue.
This is not the only question dodged in the N.Y.U. submission. The City Planning commissioners asked N.Y.U. to elaborate upon why facilities it proposed for the core needed to be there, as opposed to elsewhere. G.V.S.H.P. has repeatedly raised this issue, submitting to the C.P.C. reports showing how other schools and other cities have used the satellite campus approach to address the type of growth N.Y.U. claims it must accommodate, and how even schools without satellite campuses routinely spread their facilities over distances considerably greater than the 10-to-15 minute walk N.Y.U. claims is essential for its facilities. We found 30-minute walks from one end of campus to another are common — the equivalent of a walk from Washington Square to the Financial District, where we have suggested N.Y.U. consider locating new facilities. (A subway ride turns this into a 5-to-10 minute commute).
N.Y.U.’s response: We need to put our facilities here because we need to put our facilities here. The university offered no other rationale for why more facilities could not be located in other areas, especially when alternative locations we have suggested are within the same distance or commuting time that other colleges all across the country spread their facilities.
It’s up to the City Planning Commission to decide what to do with N.Y.U.’s responses, or lack thereof. Since the majority of its members are appointed by Mayor Bloomberg, who has stated his absolute support for N.Y.U.’s Village expansion plan, the commission may well simply rubber-stamp this plan.
But the ultimate decision as to whether or not N.Y.U.’s plan is approved will then fall with the City Council, particularly Councilmember Margaret Chin and Speaker Christine Quinn. If the City Planning Commission does ignore N.Y.U.’s deafening silence on these issues and approve the university’s plan, then we, the public, must insist that our city councilmembers do not.
Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation