Chin must reduce N.Y.U. 2031 project’s scale

The present context  |  The New York University public review process to add more than 2 million square feet to its two superblocks in the Village is drawing to its grand finale. The seven-month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) application has received a resounding “no” vote from Community Board 2, “approval with conditions” from Borough President Stringer, and approval with minor modifications from the City Planning Commission. Now it is in the hands of the City Council, which will vote on the application in the next few weeks.

Councilmember Margaret Chin is taking the lead on the application, since the superblocks are in her district. The City Council is very hesitant to overrule the opinion of a sitting councilmember in ULURP projects, for good reason, so how Chin negotiates and votes on this application will define, in large measure, the fate of this project and the future of our neighborhood.

The stakes are extraordinarily high for N.Y.U. and the neighborhood. N.Y.U. makes a compelling case that it needs to grow to maintain its competitiveness in a changing academic marketplace, and that some of its projected growth needs to take place in its core area. It has argued that it can best grow in a planned and predictable fashion on its own land, rather than opportunistically all over Downtown.  Reasonable people do disagree, however, on how much of N.Y.U.’s growth in its core area can fit into the two superblocks without overwhelming the “fragile ecosystem” of our urban environment, a term used by N.Y.U. President John Sexton.

The long and the short of it is that N.Y.U. has substantially overreached and is attempting to shoehorn too much square footage into too small an area. We understand that it is cheaper to build on your own land than to buy land and build on it, or to buy a building, but that cannot serve as an excuse to overwhelm your neighborhood. The proposal as it stands lacks a necessary balance that it is now incumbent on Councilmember Chin to restore. N.Y.U. should be permitted to grow on the superblocks, but its project must be substantially reduced in size.

In February, we called for a reduction in the project of roughly 50 percent. We believe that this is a reasonable balance of N.Y.U.’s need to grow in its core, and the community’s ability to accommodate this growth without the character of the area being crushed.

A six-point road map to help put this project into balance

1) Strips: The four publicly owned strips on Mercer and Laguardia Sts. must not be built on, and the strips should be transferred to the Parks Department. Limited easements may need to be granted to service existing or future N.Y.U. buildings. N.Y.U. should enter maintenance agreements with Parks for maintaining at least the Mercer St. strips. The transfer of the co-gen strip to N.Y.U. must include a restrictive declaration for perpetual open space and maintenance agreement.

2) Zipper Building: The huge Zipper Building that N.Y.U. proposes to build at Houston and Mercer Sts. extending to Bleecker St. must be set back to the west to retain the Mercer St. strip. N.Y.U.’s proposal to push the Zipper Building to the lot line would violate Mercer St.’s special open character. If N.Y.U. cannot fit its various uses into a reduced footprint, then it should come at the cost of a substantial overall reduction in the size of the above-grade size of the building.

3) Mercer Boomerang Building: This building must be eliminated from the project, not just reduced in size. Removing this building helps to reduce the size and density of N.Y.U.’s project, and opens up the interior of Washington Square Village to become real open space. In eliminating this building, there may be a need for entry and egress to N.Y.U.’s belowground facilities that requires a minimal at-grade structure.

4) Washington Square Village: N.Y.U.’s contention that it would create public open space inside of Washington Square Village by building two Boomerang Buildings and creating a university quad strains credibility. The Planning Commission has called for a management and programming oversight committee for the proposed open space.  Councilmember Chin needs to give this oversight committee legislative teeth so that it can effectively fulfill its oversight function.

5) Bleecker Building: N.Y.U. has proposed making 78,000 square feet available to the New York City School Construction Authority for a new public school in the planned Bleecker building on the south superblock. N.Y.U. should transfer the deed to the city with a strong restriction that it can only be used for a school or a community facility.

6) 505 Laguardia Place lease: This building’s existing land lease is set to expire in 2014. N.Y.U. should renew this lease for 99 years with a formula to assure affordability for this building’s residents.

Conclusion  |  We recognize N.Y.U.’s enormous contribution to our neighborhood and the importance of facilitating its growth. But its contention that it can cram more than 2 million square feet into its two superblocks without overwhelming its urban context is totally unconvincing.

It is now up to Councilmember Chin to put this proposal in balance. And to President Sexton to do the same.

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12 Responses to Chin must reduce N.Y.U. 2031 project’s scale

  1. Marie Monaco

    You say that "N.Y.U. makes a compelling case that it needs to grow to maintain its competitiveness in a changing academic marketplace." How exactly does increasing square footage address a changing academic marketplace? As a faculty member at NYU, I have yet to be convinced that the 2031 expansion proposal has any academic rationale. Considering the expansion already underway abroad (Abu Dhabi, Shanghai), in Brooklyn (purchase of the Polytechnic Institute and partnership with the city to develop 370 Jay St. as the Center for Urban Science and Progress) as well as the expansion of the NYU Langone Medical Center to include 14 floors of the Verizon building on E. 38th St,, a 23,000 square foot Woman's Center on E 84th St., several floors in the Verizon building on E 30th St (to name a few), as well as a new hospital, a new science building and a new electrical plant, one wonders when NYU will consider itself big enough. Perhaps the keyword in your editorial is not "academic" but "marketplace." Is the goal of this expansion plan to improve excellence or the bottom line?

    • TruthToPower

      To repeat the words of Councilmember Jessica Lappin from the Council Hearing public hearing, NYU’s expansion plan is "too dense, too big, too tall, and too much." It is most telling how NYU Pres. Sexton countered this objection, however: “Space translates into talent.” Does it, really? In other words, NYU needs to grow – absolutely must grow – so as to compete with the smaller, leaner and exceedingly more richly endowed academic institutions (like the Ivies, which admit, on average, 10-11% of its applicant pools compared to NYU’s over 30% and have but a fraction of NYU’s student body, thus providing a much better student-faculty ratio) that invest their resources in their academic missions, rather than solely their square footage. Is this truth or dangerous fallacy? Mrs. Lappin is sadly correct when she further noted that, in its unchecked growth, NYU is no longer the peer institution of the likes of Columbia, which has almost exactly half of NYU’s enrollment and yet is substantially larger in its endowment. NYU’s peer institutions are now Big Ten Schools the likes of Michigan and Wisconsin. What next, a football stadium smack dab in Washington Square? Just imagine the revenue stream.

      In terms of framing this expansion debate more broadly, one should remember that we are not dealing here with a commercial company that is somehow seeking to revitalize a derelict neighborhood with much-needed retail income. We are talking about an educational institution behaving as if it's a many-tentacled real estate corporation in a historic, low-rise neighborhood, already surrounded by numerous commercial properties. It bears noting here that a mere 18% of the NYU expansion plan is earmarked for instructional academic space – as opposed to dorm or commercial space – in the first decade of construction. What, then, are the administration’s real priorities then in asking for this outsized plan and the open line of credit that accompanies it? (Let’s not forget that the original plan also included a university hotel. Imagine!) Indeed, how can one really maintain that NYU “makes a compelling case that it needs to grow to maintain its competitiveness in a changing academic marketplace”? Again, NYU’s high student enrollment already makes it the largest private university in the nation. Yet while Pres. Sexton announced on the record at the City Planning Commission public hearing that admissions will be capped going forward, the incoming class constitutes a historic over-yield of 10-20% in the Freshman class. Needless to say, this influx of students will put further strain on university resources, extending not only to space but also to instruction. Rather than responsibly scaling back admission rates, the administration insists on doing the very opposite in 2012-13 alone – and this is after a decade of unprecedented, explosive growth in the student body.

      And therein lies the root of the conflict not only for the Village residents — lest one keeps hearing the same tired, intellectually lazy label of "NIMBY" for any concerned member of a community who dares question over-development — but also NYU's own faculty … of which, like Prof. Monaco, I am one.

      As we hope the public is now aware, as of today, as many as 35 Schools and Departments have voted in favor of individual departmental resolutions, voicing their staunch opposition to NYU 2031, its present overwhelming state. The Departments expressing their profound concern with the expansion happen to include Economics (boasting no fewer than 3 Nobel Prize winners) by a vote of 29-0 and the entire Stern Business School (by the overwhelming count of 52-3). Both votes should tell the public something about the financial feasibility of Pres. Sexton’s $4-6 billion plan – a price tag far outstripping our endowment. While the wording of every departmental resolution is different, the sentiment behind each one is the same: We, the NYU faculty, believe that the current administration is endangering the intellectual and fiscal health of the University, in light of the aggressive scale, unjustified academic purpose, threat to the recruitment and retention of our best faculty, and the lack of any transparency concerning the cost of the planned expansion.

      • Truth_To_Power

        On a separate and final point, addressing the potential damage that is about to be done not only to the University from within but our immediate community from without, I believe it’s particularly important to note that the Sasaki Garden in Washington Square Village is and, if saved, always would remain publicly accessible. Anyone today can enter this glorious space and enjoy the trees, fresh air and open sky – and everyone does, from small kids to the elderly. There are no guard dogs policing the perimeter; no "No Trespassing" signs as far as one can see! It was, however, NYU that initially gated off this green space in first place. And the administration’s Alicia Hurley can somehow manage to keep a straight face in claiming that the award-winning landscape design is, after all, just a “lovely garden but it’s forty years old and built atop an underground parking garage” at the City Council public hearing? There is also, to this day, the matter of blocked access to the Garden from LaGuardia Place — again, thanks to NYU. Why not open up these passageways, once and for all? As Tobi Bergman of CB2 explained at the hearing, in response to one of Councilmember Leroy Comrie’s questions (about possible ways to make the Garden still more welcoming to the public) — he smartly mentioned something as deceptively simple as benches. As did State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a fierce champion of the community and its precious remaining green space. “For example, the fallacy that a green space without a bench is not considered public space but a paved lot with a bench is public open space is unacceptable,” Glick said, in drawing the distinction between open or public (concrete) space and true green space. “The proposal as it stands now will create many pedestrian plazas and paved walkways but will destroy much of the green open space currently in the area,” she said. Hear hear! We can only hope that the City Council is listening.

  2. Sylvia Rackow

    Thank you Prof. Monaco for your well reasoned response. NYU’s 2031 ULURP proposal and particularly its desire to change our zoning from residential to commercial is totally “marketplace”.

  3. Judith Chazen Walsh

    THe only MUST is that NYU MUST NOT be allowed to build anywhere on the superblocks
    One shovel of dirt from anywhere on the superblocks will destroy our community
    NYU has options and we do not

    There is only one Sasaki Garden, one Kay Park Playground, one 505 LaGuardia, one Washington Square Village, one Silver Towers. and one chance for all of our small businesses

  4. Sylvia Rackow

    I'd like to praise your editorial staff for finally seeing how out of proportion NYU's grandiose 2031 ULURP proposal really is. Definitely, Councilwoman Chin should take your editorial seriously particularly as you have changed your editorial position from pro NYU 2031 building plans to opposing the over reaching proposal. Thank you also for suggesting the elimination of the Mercer St Boomerang Bldg and the downsizing of the Zipper. The so called public school site absolutely should be deeded over to the city for either a school or community facility else it will again revert to NYU and not be built. 505 Laguardia's affordability is already being effected in current negotiations in which NYU claims they can ask for an annual rental of up to $3 million. The property was "given" to NYU by the city at a very low cost and should be transferred to the 505 coop at a reasonable cost. Again, thanks to Matthew Broderick, our Village hero, for his strong support.

    Sylvia Rackow
    The Committee to Preserve Our Neighborhood

  5. “N.Y.U. makes a compelling case that it needs to grow to maintain its competitiveness in a changing academic marketplace, and that some of its projected growth needs to take place in its core area.”

    Nowhere, in a myriad of hearings and thousands of pages of documents, has N.Y.U. given a single compelling reason for the absolute necessity of further growth in the so-called “core,” as opposed to a more contextual nearby setting. All this needless destruction of parkland, ruining an iconic neighborhood, in the name of one narcissistic university president tending to his legacy. What a disgrace it would be if the implemented ends up an abandoned construction site. Americans, and particularly New Yorkers, are construction-drunk, with no heed to the inevitable carwreck ahead. NYU, get thee downtown, go!

    • Mordechai Nunez

      By NYU's logic, there is a date in the distant future when all of Manhattan will be known as the Borough of New York University. And then what? Will they seek to conquer Staten Island, in order to house all of NYU's requisite "talent"?

  6. Shino Tanikawa

    Thank you, Prof. Monaco and "Prof. TruthToPower." As a SoHo resident who associates more closely to the Village, I have wondered all along why NYU must grow physically when "growth" can be defined in a more creative way (as pointed out by TruthToPower). In this day and age when we are all focused on sustainability in every sense of the word, why is NYU still stuck in the 20th century model of growth? Does the institution not realize to where the old model of growth has led the planet and the humanity? To the edge of the cliff. I would think a university like NYU, with all its talent and creativity in the faculty and students, is able to lead the way in a new way of growth and what it means to be a truly world class institution.

  7. Concerned Citizen

    NYU needs to focus on its product (education) and not on growing. NYU has already grown enormously and I think that has enabled President Sexton's administration to get a big head. NYU is counting that future students will pay a lot more than $40K to attend NYU. Now that NYU will be a construction zone and its campus will eventually look like Midtown, why wouldn't future students choose another cheaper and traditional university?

    If there is ever push back on the tuition cost or funding of student loans from government or banks, you will see the fall out of this plan and it won't be pretty for anybody. Imagine half finished buildings stuck between all the residential buildings housing professors????

    We need to stop this plan and start over. Banks have to be transparent on their finances and so should NYU.

  8. NYU had done many things to make itself a great institution.. I was thinking about all the money NYU has spent trying to push this expansion play down the throats of the Village. I didn't say Super Blocks on purpose. Our entire community would be damaged.. The Strips are public land have been treat as if is their right to own and change. Thousands and thousands of hours have been spent making them what they are now. Isn't their effort worth something. The lives of the residents in 505 LaGuardia Place wouldn't be under a cloud with the specter of losing their ability to pay for their homes. What about those people who worked hard spent their lives income to live on Mercer Street. What will compensate them from losing their piece of the sun.
    I could repeat a score of reason why NYU should not be allowed to build their NYU2031 plan. Let us hope that the scales of justice are working in the City Council because if they aren't the courts will have their way.

  9. An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a co-worker who was doing a little research on this. And he actually ordered me dinner simply because I found it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending time to talk about this issue here on your web site.

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