BY ANDREW BERMAN | I was reminded of two old adages when reading The Villager’s editorial last week regarding the City Council’s approval of New York University’s expansion plan (“Margaret Chin and N.Y.U.”). The first: We are all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts.
One can believe that it is O.K. to sell off precious public parkland in a neighborhood starved for open space, or to upzone and subject a residential neighborhood to 20 years of construction, in violation of longstanding agreements. One can believe that it is O.K. to further oversaturate the Village with N.Y.U. facilities, without requiring the university to explore reasonable alternatives or justify the need for those facilities in the first place — which is what the plan approved by the City Council’s Land Use Committee, at the direction of Councilmember Chin and with the support of Speaker Quinn, does.
But to say that the opposition to the N.Y.U. plan “did not provide a reasonable road map,” which prevented Councilmember Chin from “making more headway,” simply ignores the facts.
The opposition regularly pointed to potential win-win alternatives, which were ignored. These included locating N.Y.U. facilities in the Financial District where they are wanted and needed, and making better use of existing N.Y.U. space by holding Friday classes or moving administrative facilities out of the Village where they are not needed to open up more room for classrooms and labs.
But the opposition also pointed to several key changes that could have been made to the plan that the Council also failed to include in any way in the plan it approved. One of these was ensuring that no public green space was sold off to N.Y.U., as both Councilmember Chin and Borough President Stringer publicly promised on multiple occasions they would not allow, and yet both ultimately approved this in the N.Y.U. plan. Other proposed changes included turning the supermarket site into a public park if no school is built there to offset the loss of public space under the university’s plan; delaying the approval of construction on the northern superblock; and removing at least one of the “Boomerang Buildings” from the plan so the supposed public amenity of green space within Washington Square Village would feel in any way open to the public.
With the exception of the removal of the commercial overlay on the blocks east of Washington Square Park from the N.Y.U. plan, which was done by the City Planning Commission, virtually none of the major objections to the plan and potential solutions presented by the affected public were reflected in what Chin, Stringer and the Council’s Land Use Committee approved.
The editorial frames the meager changes to the N.Y.U. plan that were made by the City Council as “compromises” that Chin “secured” from the university. But this also ignores the facts regarding how this land use approval process works. None of what N.Y.U. wanted to build is legal or allowable under current zoning and urban renewal agreements. The only way N.Y.U. could build is by getting the City Council (among others) to approve changes to these rules. The Council was not obligated to approve any part of the N.Y.U. plan. Unless they were operating from the supposition that N.Y.U. was entitled to get whatever it wanted — which would be a shocking revelation — there was no need for the City Council to “negotiate” or extract any concessions from NYU.
Upon reviewing the totality of the plan and the public feedback regarding it, the Council simply needed to approve those parts, if any, of the plan that it thought appropriate, and disapprove those it thought inappropriate. There was no need to extract concessions from N.Y.U. In fact, it should have been exactly the other way around — N.Y.U. should have had to extract any changes or approvals from the public, whose interests should have been protected in this process.
If the university’s plan as approved does move ahead, it will lead to a further oversaturation of the Village with N.Y.U. facilities, tipping the balance of neighborhood character and violating a sacred public trust under which the formerly public land N.Y.U. now owns and wants to build upon was given to it.
Approval will also provide the university with many more opportunities to violate agreements it has made supposedly to provide public amenities in exchange for ridiculously generous giveaways on the part of government officials. Particularly surprising about the deal Chin, Quinn and the Council’s Land Use Committee agreed to was that the few additional changes mostly involved promises of community amenities, such as public access to an atrium inside the nearly 1-million-square-foot, 300-foot-tall “Zipper Building” on Mercer St. and space for a “community facility” in Washington Square Village and also in the new building on the supermarket site.
At no point in the four-year process leading up to this point did the public clamor for “public atriums” or even “community facilities” from N.Y.U., and most are aware that N.Y.U. has made these exact same promises of such “public amenities” on prior land use deals and has never fulfilled them. For example, the Bobst Library was built partly on public land and allowed to be much larger than any development on that site was supposed to be. The university’s promise in return? This would be their last building on Washington Square South, and the extra-large library building would include a grand, open, light well in the center that would be accessible to the public. The light well is there, but the public access has never been, and N.Y.U. has continued to destroy buildings and build on Washington Square South.
The other old adage I was reminded of when reading The Villager’s editorial: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation