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