Top 10 outrageous things about N.Y.U.

Andrew Berman of G.V.S.H.P, left, and Professor Ann Pellegrini of N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan at a rally on the City Hall steps last month before the City Council voted to approve the N.Y.U. 2031 plan. Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY ANDREW BERMAN  |    The recent approval of New York University’s massive expansion plan by the City Council, City Planning Commission and borough president was a stunning, if not entirely unexpected, decision. As we and our friends at N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan prepare our legal challenge of the approvals, we have been poring over the voluminous documents outlining the terms of the giveaway of public land, light, air and development rights to N.Y.U.

The city documents have been an eyeful. Here for your perusal is a list of the 10 most outrageous things about the city’s approval of the N.Y.U. expansion plan.

Zipper trouble: At just shy of 1 million square feet, the massive “Zipper Building” to rise on Mercer St. will be the largest building ever constructed in Greenwich Village. The 375-foot-long, 300-foot-tall edifice will be so large you could actually fit all three of the adjacent 30-story I.M. Pei-designed Silver Towers inside the new structure twice over, or almost the entire neighboring four-building Washington Square Village complex.

In fact, at just shy of 2 million square feet altogether, the N.Y.U. expansion will more than double the current square footage on the two superblocks containing the already-quite-large Washington Square Village and Silver Towers complexes. But whereas those developments were designed with ample open space and low-rise structures around them to balance out the impact of their mass, much of that will disappear to be replaced by newer, much more massive structures.

And added bonus: While the city claims it disallowed N.Y.U.’s planned hotel in the Zipper Building, there’s actually nothing to prevent the university from having sleeping accommodations and suites available on a short-term basis for visitors, functioning for all intents and purposes as a hotel.

No alternatives: Opponents of the N.Y.U. plan didn’t simply say the university shouldn’t grow; we actually offered win-win alternatives for N.Y.U.’s growth that would have been greener and more beneficial to the city as a whole. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation commissioned studies showing that locating some of N.Y.U.’s expansion just a 5-minute subway ride away in the Financial District, where community leaders were begging N.Y.U. to consider locating, would have been more economically beneficial to the city (not to mention that satellite campuses have become the way for cities to deal with university expansions, and that schools across the country spread their facilities across distances the equivalent of Washington Square to the Financial District, or greater). N.Y.U.’s faculty pointed out that most of the university’s classes don’t meet on Fridays, and that if the university simply implemented Friday classes, it could increase its classroom space by 25 percent without spending a penny. But city officials refused to ask N.Y.U. to even consider these alternatives.

What public input? The N.Y.U. plan was roundly opposed by N.Y.U.’s own faculty, staff and workers; its neighbors; the local community board; and far and away the majority of the public who contacted city officials and participated in literally dozens of public hearings about the plan. The City Planning Commission public hearing lasted 10 hours, reportedly the longest in the commission’s history, due to the volume of opposing testimony. In spite of this overwhelming outpouring against the plan, the City Council, Planning Commission and borough president all voted to approve N.Y.U.’s application with only minor modifications.

Sasaki signs and accessible atriums: The “amenities” offered to the public in exchange for the lavish approvals given to N.Y.U. would be funny if they weren’t so sad. Two stand out. First, N.Y.U. will have to install better signs announcing that Washington Square Village’s award-winning Sasaki Garden is open to the public — that is, before it demolishes the garden to make way for massive new buildings and an underground labyrinth of labs and classroom. Second, in exchange for the loss of public parks, playgrounds, gardens and dog runs, N.Y.U. will have to allow public access to an atrium inside the massive, million-square-foot Zipper Building.

Bulldozers Yes, preservation No: While the city moved ahead with this massive upzoning and development project for N.Y.U. despite community objections, it continues to refuse to move ahead with the long-promised, proposed South Village Historic District, which directly abuts the N.Y.U. expansion. Groups have been clamoring for this designation for a decade. Meanwhile, N.Y.U. got its approvals from the Council, Planning Commission and borough president in just under six months.

(Not) Promise keepers: It’s one thing when elected officials do things you don’t like. It’s another when they publicly state they are going to do one thing, but then do another. Both Councilmember Chin and Borough President Stringer stood with community groups for a press conference announcing they absolutely would not, under any circumstances, support giving away any public green space to N.Y.U. as part of its expansion plan. And yet that’s exactly what they did: The plans approved by the borough president and the City Council both sold off what are now public playgrounds, park space, gardens and dog runs to N.Y.U.

Beyond that, Borough President Stringer convened a “Community Task Force on N.Y.U. Expansion” for four years prior to the university submitting its expansion plans, a task force in which Councilmember Chin, Speaker Quinn and Councilmember Mendez all participated. A broad range of community groups and stakeholders participated as well, and were charged with issuing recommendations regarding N.Y.U.’s expansion and how it could be compatible with community concerns. While the elected officials did not pledge to be bound by the task force’s recommendations, they did pledge to be guided by them in considering N.Y.U.’s application. The recommendations included that N.Y.U. first look outside the Village for locations for new facilities, as well as provide a rationale for why any new facilities must be located within the already oversaturated “core” of the Village. Neither recommendation was ever raised by either the Council or the borough president in their approvals.

Window dressing: With approval of the N.Y.U. plan, literally thousands of New Yorkers will be living directly adjacent to 20 years of demolition, multistory, underground excavation, and massive new construction. The mitigation? The City Council is requiring N.Y.U. to provide new windows for neighbors.

Lack of commitment: Throughout the process, N.Y.U. repeatedly claimed that its requested expansion was not prompted by any planned expansion of its student enrollment, and that enrollment over the course of the two decades of this plan would only grow 0.5 percent annually. (That’s even cited by the City Planning Commission in its approvals.) Instead, the university claimed the expansion was needed to provide adequate space to accommodate growth that had already occurred over the past several decades. But opponents pointed out that there was absolutely nothing in the approvals N.Y.U. sought from the city that kept the university from, in spite of this claim, continuing to grow its student population at a breakneck speed, and coming back in 20 years to ask for more new facilities, more public land, and more neighborhood zoning protections to be overturned to accommodate additional growth.

In fact, mere days before the Council voted to approve its plans, N.Y.U. admitted that in the coming year the number of freshman entering the university would increase by 10 to 15 percent over the prior year, or roughly the entire increase in student enrollment N.Y.U. predicted would take place over 20 years!

Before the ink was even dry…: Speaking of breaking commitments, before the ink was even dry on its approvals from the City Council, N.Y.U. broke one of its cardinal commitments connected to its expansion plan. Throughout the process, the N.Y.U. administration claimed the entire rationale behind its proposal was to make its planning “transparent,” and that, unlike in the past, it was letting the public, especially the Greenwich Village community, know everything it was planning to build in advance.

But just days after the City Council voted to approve the N.Y.U. 2031 plan, the university announced its intention to construct new physics labs at 726 Broadway — a never-before disclosed plan that requires adding a three-story mechanical addition atop a building in the Noho Historic District. This means Landmarks Preservation Commission approvals are required, and — because physics labs are prohibited by the area’s zoning — also a zoning variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals. So much for transparency! The reaction from city officials that approved the N.Y.U. plan? Not a peep.

It could be worse: As bad as the terms are under which N.Y.U.’s massive expansion plan was approved, they could actually worsen in the future. A provision in the City Council approval allows N.Y.U. to go back at any time and apply for changes to certain aspects of the plan that would only need to be approved by the City Planning Commission, an unelected body, rather than go through the full public review and approval process that includes the City Council, an elected body. Supposed “amenities” being offered to the community as “givebacks” in the plan could all be eliminated, such as the community space N.Y.U. is supposed to provide and the public access to certain areas. Requirements to try to preserve existing gardens, plus mitigation requirements on noise and construction and environmental impact, could also simply be changed or eliminated at the request of N.Y.U. by a mere vote of the commission.

One thing that became painfully clear with the review process for this plan is that this was a done deal from the start. In spite of vigorous public participation in the process, the only thing the university and city officials were willing to consider was fiddling with the margins.

G.V.S.H.P. and N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan will announce the filing of our legal challenge of the N.Y.U. plan soon.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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17 Responses to Top 10 outrageous things about N.Y.U.

  1. Come election time let's show them what it means to vote your conscience.

  2. This entire “public” process was nothing more than theater. We know that now. The City Planning Commission, with seven of its thirteen members appointed by Mayor Bloomburg (including the socialite-turned-city planning expert chairing the entire charade), and the City Council, its members capitulating to Quinn and Chin without a peep, behaved disgracefully, making a sham out the entire ULURP. We know this too, just as anyone who has been paying attention knows that this was no compromise. Certainly not one that benefits the community in any way. As things stand after the City Council’s cosmetic manicure to the plan’s scale and density, the overall square footage of the expansion has gone from being the size of the Empire State Building to the size of … what? 1.9 million sq. ft. = the size of the Chrysler Building (1.195 million sq. ft.) + both Silver Towers (100 and 110 Bleecker Str., 426,000 sq. ft.) + NYU’s Bobst Library (470,000 sq. ft.)!

    What some observers not entirely realize, however, (including, or especially, the “Let ’em eat dust!” crowd) is that NYU 2031 threatens to do untold harm not only to the surrounding neighborhood from without but the University itself from within. NYU has – or had – two really fantastic things going for it. First and foremost, its locational endowment (a term that Pres. Sexton himself loves to use, yet seemingly without knowing its true meaning); that is, NYU’s home in the Village, which it’s now threatening to decimate in the decades to come. Second is the faculty, which the NYU administration is now threatening to drive away in droves. The Economics Dept., which voted unanimously against this expansion, boasts no fewer than 3 Nobel Prize winners. No, these people are not easy to replace.

    But it’s not faculty, like myself, that will suffer the most within the University community once the heavy machinery of NYU 2031 begins to churn. It’s our students. About two years ago, at Alumni Day, President Sexton told an audience of alumni and guests assembled at the Skirball Center, “NYU isn’t for everyone.” This was said in response to a question by an alumnus regarding NYU’s climbing tuition costs. Little did Mr. Sexton realize how right he was. NYU sure isn’t for everyone. Not anymore. Under the current leadership, NYU is no longer just tuition dependent. It has become debt dependent, with graduates owing, on average, over $41,000. With student debt now climbing beyond $1 trillion and outstripping credit card, the debt bubble is on the verge of bursting. What will become of NYU when it does? What will become of the building craters, once construction stalls?

    Just to put things into broader context: Harvard’s endowment is currently an astronomical $32 billion, still not quite up to its pre-recession value of $36.9 billion in 2008. Yale’s endowment? An impressive $19.4 billion. Even these two academic and financial giants, among the very few elite schools that rely on their endowments for about a third of their operating budgets, are tightening their belts. See, for example, Jennifer Levitz’s “Economy Tests Harvard” (WSJ, July 30, 2012). And what path has NYU’s administration and Board of Trustees decided to pursue, with its university’s relatively modest $2.8 billion endowment? They are about to embark on a $4-6 billion expansion plan – its financial details never demanded by the City Council and unknown to anyone, not even the Stern Business School (which voted 52-3 against the plan) – that is to be used largely to finance dorms, offices, a new gym and even commercial property. Wall Street’s “Too Big to Fail” model … the housing mortgage crisis … now the student debt bubble (this crisis, by the way, is already here: http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-11-09/news/debt-… )… For those who still remember, precisely 40 years ago, NYU found itself on the brink of insolvency.

    As the saying goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

  3. Finally, if the NYU Trustees really believe that the University can afford its massive expansion, shouldn’t an equal amount, if not more, go directly toward instruction and student aid, rather than dorms for the ever-growing student body (or for upgrading two of our already-existing dorms that, to this day, do not have air conditioning) – or a new gym? That is to say, should the University focus most, if not all, of its attention on the retention and hiring of exceptional faculty; a fair but rigorous admissions policy; much better student-to-faculty ratios; smaller classes; and, perhaps most important of all, more generous financial aid packages. Surely, these are the things — rather than square footage or relentless branding campaigns — that make a university great?

    Any time that Pres. Sexton has been asked exactly why NYU has to grow – and do so this aggressively – he says things like “Space translates into talent” (a direct quote from the City Council public hearing). Does it, really? Every faculty member in the council chamber nearly fell out of their seat. 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 (such as Columbia or Princeton, which admit about 10% of its applicant pools to NYU’s roughly 30%) that invest their resources in their academic missions, rather than their footprints? There’s a reason why schools consistently ranked top 10 or 20 in the nation are where they are. Believe me, it has VERY little to do with the scale and height of their buildings.

    As to some people’s doubts as to whether or not NYU 2031 will do irrevocable harm to the Village … In terms of framing this expansion debate more broadly, one should remember that we are not dealing here with a retail company that is somehow seeking to revitalize an economically-dead or dying neighborhood with much-needed commercial revenue. We are talking about an educational institution behaving as if it's a real estate corporation in a historic, low-rise neighborhood, already surrounded by countless commercial properties. Broadway is one block to the east! Bleecker, with all of its restaurants and bars, cuts straight through the two residential blocks. And again: less than a fifth of the NYU expansion plan is earmarked for instructional space in the first decade of construction. And therein lies the root of the conflict not only for the Village residents — lest one keeps hearing the same tired label of "NIMBY" for any concerned member of a community who dares to speak out about over-development in any way — but also NYU's own faculty.

    And speaking as faculty … In all my years of teaching at NYU and living in the immediate neighborhood, not once have I overheard a prospective student on a college tour turn to his or her parents and say, “You know, I think I’m gonna pass on this school. Man, there just aren’t enough Pinkberrys and Starbucks around, sorry.” What so many students do cross oceans to join is a university located in a historic yet culturally and economically vibrant neighborhood that John Guare perfectly captures in his essay featured in the just-published collection While We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York. Now, if more Dunkin’ Donuts in and around two residential blocks – where one currently finds publicly-accessible gardens and playgrounds — is anyone’s idea of “progress,” then NYU 2031 is certain to be a big hit. If one values what precious little green space remains in this community and if one does believe that a neighborhood has a character – and, yes, even a soul – then NYU 2031 is indeed destined to destroy precisely the very things that have drawn so many New Yorkers, small businesses, faculty and students to the Village in the first place.

  4. This plan cannot be financially supported without raising tuition and increasing the student body. Why else would NYU's administration refuse to release the business plan of this multibillion dollar plan? It already costs upward of $40K in annual tuition alone to attend NYU. There are starting to be tons of articles about how parents and students are evaluating cost more closely in choosing colleges. This is combined with student debt default rates rapidly increasing. This plan cannot be sustainable in the long-run.

    If anything, NYU has grown too big for the Village. As a former student and NYU resident, NYU would be a BETTER school if it would shrink its student body and focus on attracting top students and providing quality, (relatively) affordable education in one of the most unique settings in the world. Instead, NYU's administration is focused on becoming a massive state like school except that its tuition will be $50K (or who knows how much). If I had a choice of a quality state school at $8K per year (or even cheaper) or NYU that has diminished in the rankings and costs $50K per year, which one do you think is the logical choice for most students and parents????

  5. please show quinn and city council what it means to not listen to the people, vote them OUT!!!

  6. Ms. Chin is a disgrace. I would have more respect for her if she had just said she was for NYU2031 all along. Acting like she was for the community and negotiating reducations a 5-year old could have gotten out of NYU is a mockery of the process. NYU put a plan that out there that was much larger than they expected. President Sexton must have had a big party when he got ALL of his buildings approved.

  7. Truisms:
    1- New York City is owned lock, stock and barrel by real estate interests.
    2- Our elected officials are not leaders; they follow the money the real estate interests use to fuel their re-election campaigns.
    3- If you can destroy the building where Edgar Allen Poe wrote "The Raven" and Eugene O'Neill's and e.e. cummings's Provincetown Playhouse, you can do anything, with impunity.
    And what about the added strain on our aging infrastructure — water, sewerage, electricity, gas, phone, cable. Will NYU pick up the tab if any of these interstitial necessities collapse? Or is this just another burden we taxpayers/consumers will have to bear? New windows? Hah! (Any mention of whether NYU will install these windows, or merely leave them on the stoops?)
    Finally, when is the City going to cede Washington Square Park to NYU — privatize it — so that our elected officials can continue to claim that they're not increasing our taxes? That's surely the next step,

  8. Christopher, an even more disturbing figure: $58,000+. This is the current annual cost of an NYU education, when factoring in tuition, room and board. Little surprise, then, that NYU is currently the nation’s 4th "Least Affordable College," according to Newsweek. It has the most indebted student body of any private university in the nation. It also happens to be the largest, in student numbers.

    I have personally witnessed a number of students being forced to drop out of school, their families no longer unable to pay the tuition bills. The conversations are heartbreaking. This administration’s response, it seems, is to go on with business as usual: That is, to continue admitting as many students as possible (banking on the University's popularity and, yes, its location in Greenwich Village!), at some of the highest tuition rates in the country. A student body twice the size of Columbia’s somehow still isn’t big enough. No wonder the administration pleads for more and more dorms. Sadly, Mayor Bloomberg, the City Planning Commission, and, most troubling of all, the publicly-elected City Council clearly cared about as much about student debt and NYU's self-created hardships with regard to space (given its admissions policies) as they did about the community's last remaining strips of green space and the health of its residents for the next two decades of ceaseless construction.

    That is to say, not one bit.

  9. Andrew Berman is this generation's Jane Jacobs and I am so grateful that he fights for the village. Thank you Andrew. Even if we lose this battle you will always be remembered for your effort in doing what was right.

  10. Laura, I agree with you. Andrew Berman did a great job fighting this plan even though the fate of this plan was already decided five years ago. When NYU has financial issues and there are half constructed buildings, we must remind everyone thtat Ms. Chin, Ms. Quinn and most importantly (former) NYU President Sexton were responsible for this plan and IGNORED the community's concerns and never provided any financial details even after the wake of the financial crisis…….

  11. Marilyn Stults

    Well before the very disappointing announcement of the City Council Committee’s approval of the NYU Expansion Plan, I discovered the publication of a new book called “While We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York” published by McNally Jackson Books and containing articles by more than 40 contributors, so I immediately called the store to reserve a copy. First, hats off to both the writers and McNally Jackson for bringing out this important work so quickly.

    After picking up my copy, I started thumbing through the book looking for any mention of the fight for the Poe House in 2000-2001, in which I was intensely involved. And sure enough, there it was, in NYU Professor and famed novelist E.L. Doctorow’s article. According to Professor Doctorow, as recently as June, 2012, NYU’s President John Sexton was asserting that the house NYU demolished, for which we fought so fervently, was not even the one in which Poe lived. And this, despite all the research (some of which was mine) and the opinions of Poe scholars from all over the country. This not only made me raving (or raven, depending on how you want to spell it) MAD, but it exemplifies NYU’s approach to everything.

    Truth is what John Sexton and his zombie-like minions want it to be, and history, scholarship and archeology be damned! Therefore, whatever modifications NYU has promised to their original expansion proposal don’t mean much in light of the fact that NYU has a consistent record of not keeping their promises. When a settlement was reached with the Historic Districts Council in the Poe House lawsuit, NYU promised to maintain and restore the façade as “a house Poe would recognize” and then they back-pedaled, one bit at a time. First, they said they couldn’t have a stoop because the entrance had to be wheelchair accessible (funny, because it’s a door that isn’t used), and then they said that there were too few of the original façade bricks to recreate the front of the house. So what we have there now is only a slight approximation of a 19th Century house. NYU also promised to preserve the Provincetown Playhouse, and instead they knocked a huge hole in the side of the building. NYU will promise anything to get their way – including this new “scaled-back” plan, but promises, integrity and the future of one of America’s most beautiful neighborhoods mean nothing to NYU.

  12. A little bit of googling will uncover Sexton's extensive ties to Wall Street and the big banks. He was chairman of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in the years that the financial volcano was building up to its eruption. The FRBNY is the major regulatory and oversight institution for the the big New York banks and for the Street. Sexton failed miserably in his fiduciary responsibilities to the public, while slavishly serving his banker friends. I would advise any of Chin's or Quinn's electoral opponents to hang the sign "Friend of the Bankster Sexton" around their necks.

  13. Why don't we just sell off all the public lands. What a bunch of greedy pigs!!!!

  14. Every time I think about the inexplicable decision made by City Council, City Planning Commi$sion and borough pre$ident, all I can think of is greed, power, sheer profiteering and decadence. What world am I living in? What a shame.

  15. "One thing that became painfully clear with the review process for this plan is that this was a done deal from the start. In spite of vigorous public participation in the process, the only thing the university and city officials were willing to consider was fiddling with the margins."

    I'm sure at least some of your readers are familiar with the concept of the ambit claim, which the online business dictionary defines as: "A claim that is made to an arbitration authority for higher pay or improved conditions that is deliberately exaggerated because the claimants know that they will subsequently have to compromise."

    If you think the powers that be at NYU are disappointed with the 'compromises' they have been 'forced' to make by Quinn and Chin, et al, you know nothing about modern politics – business or otherwise. It is quite possible that NYU got even more than they were expecting to get out of the 'negotiations' over their new plans. I guess we'll never know unless someone decides to reveal all, but don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

    ~ http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/ambi

  16. I received a 'form letter' email from Ms. Quinn in reply to an email I sent the day after the plan was approved. Patronizing and hollow, it reminded me of how easily these 'elected' officials follow Pied Piper Bloomberg and the various real estate magnates that have and will continue to decimate historic neighborhoods. Her (and Stringer's) bid for mayor 2013 should be a wake up call to the thousands of W. Village, S. Village, Noho, Soho residents and countless others who oppose the expansion.

  17. During this entire process it has been
    well understood that the financial community
    has been ACTIVELY soliciting the university
    relative to their investment and real estate
    development. THAT is the one community
    WITH THE MOST NEED.

    WSJ 1/2 Pg. Graphic. C1 7/25/2012

    #1 WTC 55% leased Dev. – P.A. NY& NJ
    #2 WTC. 0% leased. Dev. – Silverstein Props.
    #3 WTC. 0% leased. Dev. – Silverstein Props.
    #4 WTC. 51% leased. Dev. – Silverstein Props.

    According to this article (see last Pg. – jump
    from C1)…there is active at least 1 – (maybe
    more) …”subsidy deals w/ government agencies”.

    Chinn and Quinn are not interested in the
    plight of what MUST be an enormous
    amount of taxpayer money at risk here.

    (3 WTC will end up at 8 stories if nothing
    changes…and 2 WTC has been halted )

    The foundations of a building that is originally
    designed at 100 stories is a very, very, VERY,
    expensive foundation.

    The public is entitled to know how much
    taxpayer money is at risk.

    Chinn and Quinn seem happy to readily
    encourage real estate development in both
    A) The Historic So. Village (awaiting landmark
    status for 6 yes. ) and
    B) The massive, 20 year, $4 billion dollar
    NYU project……

    BOTH of which will destroy delicate, historic
    neighborhoods.

    When they encourage real estate development
    in Greenwich Village —they are actively
    denying money and development to the
    financial district….which…one might
    remind them…was blown to bits on 9/11.

    Those of us WHO ACTUALLY LIVE HERE …
    live one mile from where the World Trade
    Center once stood.

    WE HAVE THE SAME VISION THAT MR.
    SILVERSTEIN HAS.

    WE WANT TO SEE THOSE TOWERS RISE
    AGAIN.

    It is unfortunate that Chinn and Quinn could
    care less.

    Is it possible that the citizens of NYC actually
    voted for them once ? THAT … IN ORDER THAT THEY
    MIGHT REPRESENT THE PEOPLE!

    (….forgive my sarcasm, please – )

    at ground level already. )

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