Lesson of the N.Y.U. vote: City Hall is unreachable

BY GEORGETTE FLEISCHER  |  The year began for many of us with Community Board 2’s hearings on the gargantuan New York University expansion plan. On Jan. 9 there was a scene uncannily prescient of the one that transpired at City Hall last Wednesday, July 25, when City Council Speaker Christine Quinn ordered gendarmes to clear the upper gallery of 100 plan opponents, of which I was one.

In January, 100 opponents had been locked out upstairs of the A.I.A. Center for Architecture because the space had been filled to capacity, and were pounding on the doors in order to be let in. Then C.B. 2 Chairperson Brad Hoylman led the unanticipated army to Our Lady of Pompei Church at Carmine St., where, testifying before C.B. 2’s Land Use and Business Development Committee, each of us gave our best two minutes against the plan. How did we get from there to here?

Hundreds of hours of painstaking research and public hearings led C.B. 2 to vote unanimously on Feb. 23 to reject the university’s plan. The uplift among board members and the community was palpable. We were engaged in a democratic process, and it was working.

Or should I say, we were working it. On March 22, led by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and N.Y.U. FASP (Faculty Against the Sexton Plan), we gathered on the steps of City Hall for a press conference and rally. I was the last of the scheduled speakers, and before I could finish my remarks, the camera was wrenched away in order to pursue the emerging Borough President Scott Stringer, whose support we were there to beseech.

“We have to be able to expand universities without overwhelming communities,” was all he would say in the drive-by. Two days after Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced on April 9 his support for the plan (surprise, surprise), the pale presence of our borough president fell in line, pending modifications, only some of which were ultimately delivered. So much for backbone in representing your constituents.

Meanwhile, Councilmember Margaret Chin, the linchpin in the ultimate outcome, because the coveted “superblocks” fall within her district, remained mum, except for repeated vague statements, many issued through her spokespersons, to the effect that she would “be there” for us. Whatever that means.

At the April 25 City Planning hearing at the Museum of the American Indian, I wondered whether the city might be willing to compensate us, with a Museum of Greenwich Village. We waited 10 hours to give the committee our best two minutes, strictly timed. In the end, all but Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s appointee, Michelle de La Uz, would vote in favor of a slightly modified plan.

Meanwhile, while reading student papers out in the hallway during my long wait to speak, I kept seeing out of the corner of my eye Councilmember Chin’s land use director, Matt Viggiano, each time in conversation with N.Y.U. representatives. Finally, after I noticed enough times, he came over to sit by me while he ate his late lunch, and chatted with me briefly about my students’ papers. I did not feel it was a good sign.

In advance of the City Planning vote on June 6, The New York Times ran a puff piece on Bloomberg-appointed City Planning Chairperson Amanda Burden. Her greatest accomplishment? By the end of her tenure, 40 percent of New York City will have been rezoned. Understand, that means upzoned. As one to-the-point, recurring protest sign put it: “No More Rezoning/Stop It!”

Still we held out hope. Bloomberg had been a no-brainer, Stringer disappointing but not entirely a surprise, City Planning a Bloomberg no-brainer again, though the 12-to-1 vote had hurt. Surely, we thought, our elected representative in the Citadel would hear thousands of constituents and either persuade the development corporation arm of N.Y.U. to scale back in a way we could live with, or she would reject the plan. Again and again we said: Councilmember Chin, reject this plan; send it back to the drawing board!

In retrospect, the City Council hearing on June 29 was the unkindest cut of all. There we were, basking in the shimmer of Matthew Broderick, who sat on a panel with an 8-year old who stole the show when she wondered into the microphone why students at least 10 years older than she were incapable of taking a subway down to the Financial District for a class or two when she takes the subway to school every day.

When Councilmember Chin spoke of the plan being “out of scale” and its intention to rob us of green park space as unacceptable, our spirits rose, though not too much, because we have been through this kind of bait-and-switch before.

Leroy Comrie, the powerful chairperson of the Land Use Committee — and not coincidentally, I think, the councilmember whose discretionary funds in Queens for 2013, allocated by Speaker Quinn, double the second highest and quadruple the lowest — grilled C.B. 2 Chairperson David Gruber, along with Tobi Bergman and Terri Cude, the chairperson and vice chairperson of C.B. 2’s Land Use Committee, about whether the board had provided an alternative design plan for N.Y.U. Cude is also co-chairperson of CAAN (Community Action Alliance on N.Y.U. 2031).

“That’s not fair,” Bergman said.

Neither, if we listen to lone dissenter Councilmember Charles Barron, was throwing us out of the gallery at the vote hearing a month later. Barron was nice enough to meet with us outside, a refreshing experience for constituents who, close to three years after Chin took office, feel we do not know our local councilmember, nor do we know for certain what motivated her to betray us in this spectacular fashion.

A Republican councilmember also came out to speak with us, and expressed regret that he had not been able to register his intended vote of abstention, after receiving a personal telephone call from Christine Quinn. I later found out this was Dan Halloran.

Then we have the words still ringing or should I say stinging in my ears of Jessica Lappin’s assistant, who when I called to urge a “no” vote, stated that the councilmember would have “Margaret’s back.” Is that what Rosie Mendez was doing when she voted yes for her “sister” Margaret?

Why all this solicitude for a well-paid councilmember? Frankly, what about us?

Is it not fundamentally wrong for a governing body — whose function is to ensure, through its 51 members’ consciences, the wisdom of its decisions for the public good — to fall in line and do the bidding of a mayor whose power that separate body should balance, and of a speaker who has been called that mayor’s Mini-Me?

“Democracy is dead!” one of the opposition shouted from the Council Chambers’ balcony when we were already being hustled downstairs and out. Let’s hope not. Not yet.

Fleischer is founder, Friends of Petrosino Square

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15 Responses to Lesson of the N.Y.U. vote: City Hall is unreachable

  1. Brava, Ms.Fleischer.

    As you well know, it was never for lack of trying.

    The entire community had spoken. Asked to review the largest ULURP proposal in the history of Greenwich Village that is NYU 2031, Community Board 2 had spoken, rejecting the bloated plan unanimously. Its final report, available for all to review online, is a remarkable document in its attention to detail, outlining all of the devastating quality of life and health effects that the overreaching expansion would have on the immediate neighborhood and beyond. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) had also spoken, issuing a document no less impressive in its thoroughness, tackling everything from environmental risks to documented commute times, proving once and for all that dorms can and should be built, if absolutely necessary, in nearby neighborhoods that actually welcome new development rather than the residential blocks for which they are currently proposed. After all, has NY not always been a commuter city, and is NYU not a "local network university" (as its new CUSP initiative in Brooklyn testifies), as well as a Global Network University, stretching as far as Abu Dhabi and Shanghai? Community Action Alliance on NYU, along with the Tennants' Association, had spoken and emphatically so. The Save WSV Sasaki Garden Committee and its many constituents in and around the two towers-in-the-park residential blocks had spoken. The LaGuardia Corner Garden members have spoken. BAMRA (the Bleecker Area Merchants and Residents Association) and the Villagers for a Sustainable Neighborhood, a group comprising over 50 small local business and led by Judy Paul, C.E.O. of the Washington Square Hotel, have spoken out about the plan's aggressive scale. Local politicians (the last of a dying, brave breed), from State Senator Tom Douane and State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick to the office of Congressman Jerrold Nadler had spoken. And NYU's very own faculty – the present poster among them — had spoken, loud and clear. As many as 37 Schools, Centers and Departments (and growing) have voted against the expansion due to its unjustified academic rationale, enormous cost (to say nothing of the absence, to this day, of a business plan), tuition and student debt repercussions, and the grave health threats posed to the entire neighborhood, one that many faculty families also happen to call home. The majority voted unanimously. NYUFASP (NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan) alone has over 400 members, including a number of NYU's most prominent University Professors and Silver Professors. This show of faculty opposition to the administration's extraordinary recklessness is astonishing by any measure — in fact, it is unprecedented.

    In short, both the Village and NYU communities have gone far beyond what could ever have been expected of us to voice our opposition to the overwhelming scale plan and the imperious way that it was imposed n the community – many of us, not least of all the faculty of NYU (in standing up not only to our employer but also our landlord), doing so with great risk to our livelihoods.

    Pres. Sexton was not elected to his position. He was appointed. To a person, Margaret Chin and her colleagues on the City Council (marching in step like automatons, in “deference” to their “sister”) were elected to their positions. By us. They are – or at least so we thought, before this kabuki theater of a ULURP came to its sad yet now-predictable end — OUR chosen public representatives. We, the people, had done our part. We spoke up, offering principled solutions to NYU's academic (as opposed to real estate, commercial and gym needs) but also the community's needs, first and foremost, going forward.

    None of this seems to have mattered in the end, the saddest indictment possible of a broken political process. The fix was in from the start. The vote? 44-1. The only independent-thinking, uncompromised leader among this sad and sorry bunch? One Charles Barron. As for Chin, Quinn, Mendez, Comrie – all we, the people, have to say to you now is, “See you at the polls.”

  2. I oppose the NYU expansion, but the line about a Museum of Greenwich Village being likened to the Museum of the American Indian is uncalled for and in poor taste. It's disgusting what the university is doing to the neighborhood; however, comparing that to the genocide of native peoples in this country is plain offensive.

    • If you feel so self-righteously judgemental about the tragedy of the American Indians, you should do what any person of honor would do: LEAVE the USA in protest.

      But, take heart, Ye-so-quick-to-judge. You can stay here without any of your liberal guilt gnawing at you.

      Your use of "genocide", the term you bandy with such fancy, is completely without merit.
      In fact, no less an authority than the U.S. Holocaust Commission has declared only three atrocities to be "genocide":
      1) the European Holocaust
      2) the Armenian Genocide
      3) the Irish Potato Famine

      So, before you throw around such terms and judge others, get your facts straight!

      (Btw, have you ever even been to the Museum of the American Indian, something you seem to be a self-styled expert on? I have, and I cannot recall a single reference to "genocide" anywhere among the manifold collections and exhibits there.)

  3. The 100 anti-NYU ers on ANY NYU development matter; and a few of NYU's privileged faculty who don't want construction in front of them, but prefer it in front of MY home — 4 blocks away….LOST. Too bad, some justice has been done.

    • Thousands were against the NYU 2031 plan, which will totally overwhelm the Village. That isn't justice–it's devastation. NYU is a developer plain and simple and is slowly consuming our community in the name of education and economic prosperity.

    • A true example of NIMBYism. So you're pro development, Mr. Guest–as long as the construction isn't in front of YOUR home? Be patient. NYU will get there, too, in time.

  4. i have no doubt that economics will stop this plan eventually. Unfortunately, it may be too late as the destruction of NYU finances will be already well away. At first, I thought President Sexton didn't want to release the business plan because it would show tuition increasing so significantly to pay for this construction. After some of his administrations comments, I'm starting to wonder if there really is a business plan after all……

  5. Economic Reality

    All the city officials that support this plan have no idea or care less about economics. They would rather have students pay thousands of more dollars to support unsustainable projects so they can say that some construction jobs are created and NYU administrators can make more money.

  6. NYU faculty member

    City Hall is certainly "reachable" by real-estate interests and 1 percenters. What the NYU vote demonstrates is that our so-called representatives don't represent us, at least not when our views run against those of the rich and powerful. Alas, what's true of the city is true of the country.

    The Quinns and Chins of this world are working hard to spin their elitist politics as wonderful "compromises," even though they don't of course rise nearly to that level. Anyway, why should the 99 percent compromise with the 1 percent at all? That's "democracy"?

    I was one of those ejected from City Hall for making a little noise. Less noise, actually, than what the opposition routinely throws at the British prime minister during "question time." But Quinn couldn't take even 30 seconds of cat calls before demanding our ouster. Some democrat. How sad that our so-called public servants treat us like children to be sent to the principle's office. Shameful.

  7. Elected officials who turn their backs on constituents must be thrown out at the next election. I hope voters remember this. Margaret Chin need to go back community organizing, she is not cut out for protecting community interests.

    We should urge the District Leader Jenifer Rajkumar to challenge Margaret Chin.

  8. Modern Politics

    I agree with Ms. Rajkumar being an excellent choice to replace the Quinn-Chin duo leading a pack of "sister" wolves devouring the people's interests.

  9. You voted for them now cry

  10. Chin was clearly bullied and is in a job she cannot handle. Even though I'm 100% against NYU 2031, I would actually have more respect for Ms. Chin if she had said she was for the plan all along. Instead, Ms. Chin stated that the plan was "unacceptable", but only negotiated "concessions" a five year-old could have gotten out of NYU.

  11. The democrats obscene tradition of not running against their own incumbents must end here. Don't make me vote republican. There must be a primary next year where M. Chin is held to account for her tragic BIDs, historic demolish, and nyu development. She must have a fare challenger. Democracy does not exist if there is only one candidate. Chin is a terrible incumbent. I look forward to voting for someone who understands their constituents, not against Chin, but because we need someone better to represent this district.

  12. Isn't Chin counting on redistricting to take the nyu area out of her district, so that she's never held to account for her unfortunate work here?

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