11 groups file suit against N.Y.U. plan for its superblocks

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  | A broad coalition of groups — including both local community associations and citywide organizations — filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court Tuesday to stop N.Y.U.’s massive 2031 development plan.

The suit alleges violations of the public trust doctrine; illegal manipulation of restrictive deeds; destruction of parkland, playgrounds and historic preservation sites; failure to adequately consider environmental impacts; and failure to adhere to an open and transparent process.

The 11 groups include N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, Historic Districts Council, Washington Square Village Tenants’ Association, East Village Community Coalition, Friends of Petrosino Square, LaGuardia Corner Gardens, Inc., Lower Manhattan Neighbors Organization, Soho Alliance, Bowery Alliance of Neighbors and Noho Neighborhood Association.

In addition, 11 individuals also signed onto the Article 78 lawsuit, which is filed against multiple city and state commissioners and agencies for their approval of New York University’s expansion plan, which the plaintiffs charge is unlawful.

Among those named in the Article 78 filing are City Council Speaker Christine Quinn; Amanda Burden, chairperson of the city’s City Planning Commission; Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation; the City Council; and the City of New York.

The suit challenges decisions by the city and the state to approve the nearly 2-million-square-foot construction plan on the university’s two South Village superblocks.

Among other things, the petition alleges that the plan illegally alienates parkland, illegally ignores deed restrictions, and will have a significant impact on N.Y.U.’s Village neighbors, including the several thousand who reside at the site and “would be forced to live in a construction zone for the next two decades.”

The lawsuit argues that government decision-makers, including both the City Planning Commission and the City Council, largely deferred to N.Y.U.’s wishes and illegally turned over public land to facilitate N.Y.U.’s project, despite less intrusive alternatives. The suit also claims that government decision-makers conducted a process with a preordained outcome that lacked the transparency required by law under ULURP and effectively denied the public meaningful input.

The suit alleges that government decision-makers refused to consider the adverse impacts on the most affected group — N.Y.U.’s faculty, 40 percent of whom reside at the site — “rendering their ultimate decisions irrational, and arbitrary and capricious, as a matter of law.”

Thirty-seven N.Y.U. departments and three N.Y.U. schools, including the Stern School of Business, have passed resolutions opposing the project.

“The C.P.C. and the City Council bought N.Y.U.’s premise that they needed to expand in its core in the Village community in order to become a so-called world class university,” said Mark Crispin Miller, N.Y.U. professor of media and culture and a member of N.Y.U. FASP. “But the fact is that N.Y.U. uses buildings all over New York City. N.Y.U. was never required by the city to prove that the expansion was really needed in the Village. We, the faculty, know that this bloated expansion isn’t necessary and that’s why so many of us have voted to oppose it. The Sexton Plan has nothing to do with education; it’s a land grab and nothing more, and the city failed to hold N.Y.U. accountable.”

The suit notes that about half of the planned development project would be dedicated to nonacademic purposes, such as a performing arts center, a gym, student housing and retail  uses.

“The city and state made a series of erroneous and irrational decisions to overhaul local zoning…and green-light N.Y.U.’s project, despite the unanimous objection of the local community board, the affected communities, historic preservationists and much of N.Y.U.’s own faculty,” said Randy Mastro, a partner in the international law firm Gibson Dunn and Crutcher, who are representing the petitioners pro bono. “Indeed, in bending over backward to accommodate N.Y.U.’s wishes, these government decision-makers have abrogated their legal responsibility to protect communities from the very harms being inflicted here. We hope that the court will agree with us and put a stop to this project.”

The suit asks the court to reverse the city’s approval by enjoining the city from removing parkland or making any other changes asked for under the university plan and by also enjoining N.Y.U. from starting any construction.

The approved plan would destroy the Key Park, a treasured children’s playground, would remove 300 mature trees, and would take over part of a city-owned green strip along Mercer St., according to the suit. Under the law, public parkland cannot be “alienated” without prior approval by the state Legislature.

“In approving the N.Y.U. 2031 plan, the city failed to follow the law, consider public input, and serve the best interests of the people of New York City,” stated Andrew Berman, executive director of G.V.S.H.P. “Dire negative potential environmental and financial impacts of the plan were ignored, as were feasible alternatives which would have been greener and more beneficial long term to the Village, the city as a whole, and even the university.”

Added Bo Riccobono, vice president of the Soho Alliance, “The N.YU. plan will alter the ambiance of Soho in the small streets that are the heart of the cast-iron historic district. Dignified and stylish furniture and clothing stores will give way to the mass-market drugstores and food shops that serve college communities. As the neighborhood becomes homogenized, more of the unique character of the city will suffer.”

A university spokesperson sent a statement in response to the lawsuit:

“N.Y.U.’s proposal to build new academic facilities, student dormitories and faculty housing went through a five-year planning and consultation process. The City Planning Commission and City Council overwhelmingly approved N.Y.U.’s proposal after holding extensive public hearings and engaging in a thorough and rigorous public review process as required by law. We are confident that we will prevail in court against any claims that are made.”

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4 Responses to 11 groups file suit against N.Y.U. plan for its superblocks

  1. To my knowledge, the public was never informed if Mayor Bloomberg signed the NYC/NYU approved revised plan and what it is?

    What will be destroyed? What will be built? What's the environmental, ecological and human Impact? Does the plan meet public good requirements? Is it a land grab to privatize public land or land that was acquired for public use? What's the phased schedule to do what has been approved? Are there better alternatives for NYU's educational programs?

    Could The Villager enlighten us?

  2. "The suit notes that about half of the planned development project would be dedicated to nonacademic purposes, such as a performing arts center, a gym, student housing and retail uses."

    This is the heart of the matter. NYU claimed that it was in dire need of academic space. NYU brought forth proponents for their cause, most of whom made the same claim – a desperate need for academic space. Yet most of the academic space in the plan is placed in the North Block and the schedule for building on the North Block is ten years hence. This demonstrates what a charade the whole ULURP process was.

    NYU wanted the rezoning. Real estate people on NYU's Board of Trustees wanted the rezoning. And they got it.

    This is not the time for an educational institution to build. Every other university is putting its building plans on hold, both because of the economy and because the educational bubble is about to burst.

    - The price of a year at NYU currently is $68,000 including tuition, health insurance, and room and board. That is besides what students spend on their own.
    - 50% of recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. NYU claims over 90% of the class of 2010 are employed or in school. But a careful reading of the survey results shows that only 56% of the class responded to the survey. Of those, 90.5% were either working or in graduate school. Of that group 78% were working. So 78% of 90.5% of 56% of the class was confirmed to be working – a pitiful 39.5%. It is unwarranted to assume that the respondees speak for the non-respondees. It is more likely that the respondees were for the most part those who were satisfied with what life had tossed them and that the non-respondees were for the most part dissatisfied and not too proud of where they were. NYU hides this truth in order to keep the applications to the university coming.
    - Major developments are taking place in online education. Already MIT is providing excellent online education for technical courses. In a few years, online education in the social sciences will prove comparable to onsite education. When that happens, the justification for the addition of brick and mortar buildings for academic uses will be gone – and so too the need for extra dormitories. Any new building before that day of reckoning will prove to be white elephants for the school but cheap buyouts for some real estate interest.
    - Even if NYU does not build by the time the stuff hits the fan, the rezoning would still be in effect and would provide opportunities for other real estate development. Various people had requested that there be written into the ULURP penalties to NYU should any changes be made to the building plans for the two superblocks. We requested that because NYU has sought changes to every agreement it has entered into in the neighborhood, and it is to be expected that NYU would do the same here. But with the strong possibility that the entire Sexton Plan will fall through – because of the economy and the changes in the Higher Education picture – the likelihood is almost a certainty in this case.

  3. And if the NYU 2031 Plan bankrupts NYU? Then real estate developers on the NYU Board of Trustees can swoop in and buy firesale NYU properties for more luxury condos.

    I applaud the lawsuit against the reckless NYU 2031 Plan and those who betrayed the community trust.

    There are many other alternatives for NYU to explore that will better fulfill their need for more educational space and does not requiring the building on public land, open, green space or children's playgrounds.

    May justice be served.

  4. I too applaud the lawsuit against those who betrayed the community's trust. As someone who testified against the Sexton plan at both the City Planning Commission hearing and the City Council hearing, and who heard copious and reasoned testimony against the plan from neighbors, faculty, merchants, and other residents, I continue to be appalled at the charade of pretended interest on the part of our elected (and appointed) representatives. We were betrayed by people who were supposed to represent our interests (Chin, Quinn), and the depth and cynicism of the betrayal are still stunning.

    One can also only wonder whether this is part of a larger scheme for developers to acquire NYU properties at firesale prices after gutting a living, breathing community, with its small amount of public land and green space and playgrounds in favor of — empty buildings, empty promises, architectural mausoleums, and below-grade air-raid shelters purportedly to be used as classrooms.

    I can only applaud the courage of the faculty members (NYUFASP) who have chosen to speak out against this monstrous plan, and hope that the lawsuit has a just outcome.

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