Noho and Soho’s firewall against N.Y.U. is at risk

BY ANDREW BERMAN  |  The mantra from the New York University administration throughout the public approval process for the school’s massive expansion proposal was “We’re making our plans transparent and predictable.” Even if you didn’t like the university’s overwhelming proposal, its argument went, at least you knew exactly what it was planning.

Apparently, the N.Y.U. administration defines “transparent” and “predictable” a little differently than most of the rest of us.

Literally within days of getting its final approval from the City Council to build more than 2 million square feet in the heart of Greenwich Village, N.Y.U. filed plans for an additional project it had never previously disclosed, with open-ended and deeply troubling implications for Noho and Soho.

N.Y.U. is seeking a zoning variance to allow it to place physics labs, classrooms and other facilities in 726 Broadway, located at Waverly Place in the Noho Historic District. N.Y.U. has long had a presence in the building, and it was well known it had future plans for the building. But what the university never revealed was that these plans would violate the special zoning restrictions for Noho and Soho, require a precedent-setting zoning variance, and involve the addition of a highly intrusive, four-story mechanical penthouse atop the building.

Now, just to be clear, no one is surprised that the N.Y.U. administration lied during the public review process — it’s certainly not the first time N.Y.U. has done so to help get a plan approved. What is more surprising is how brazen it has been about it, as well as the lack of response from public officials to whom the university administration (at least ostensibly) lied, and who approved N.Y.U.’s plans.

N.Y.U.’s application for a variance from the zoning restrictions for the site is now before New York City’s Board of Standards and Appeals, which will ultimately decide if it is granted. And while the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Noho Neighborhood Association, the Soho Alliance, Community Board 2, Assemblymember Deborah Glick and several N.Y.U. professors have spoken out against the variance, there has been no word from any of the entities who approved N.Y.U.’s massive expansion plan. These include the City Planning Commission, Borough President Scott Stringer and the City Council (among whom only Charles Barron voted against the plan) — all of whom routinely weigh in on variance applications. By contrast, at the Community Board 2 hearing on the variance proposal, several N.Y.U. professors showed up to oppose the plan, saying the facilities N.Y.U. claimed it needed at 726 Broadway were exactly the same facilities the university told city officials it needed a few blocks away as part of the massive, 2 million-square-foot expansion plan which the officials had already approved.

There is more than just deceit involved here. In spite of their proximity to N.Y.U., Noho and Soho have relatively few N.Y.U. facilities. Given the university’s seemingly boundless appetite for expansion and the ease with which it could seemingly gobble up much of these neighborhoods, this — the lack of N.Y.U.’s presence — may seem like inexplicable good fortune for the community. But it’s no coincidence. There is, in fact, a very good reason behind the conditions as they exist today.

The special zoning created for Noho and Soho in the 1970s prohibits most types of university uses, including dormitories and classrooms. For this reason, N.Y.U. has never been able to expand much within these small but very distinctive neighborhoods located at its doorstep.

That may all change soon. In seeking the variance from the B.S.A. for 726 Broadway, N.Y.U. is asking that this excluded class of university uses be allowed into the neighborhood. The university’s argument? It has no other place it can put these uses, and — to hear the university tell it — they absolutely have to be right next to N.Y.U.’s other existing facilities.

If the B.S.A. accepts this argument, the firewall that has kept Noho and Soho relatively free from the N.Y.U. expansion onslaught will be destroyed. You can guess what the future will then hold for these neighborhoods.

But the concerns about N.Y.U.’s proposed variance for 726 Broadway extend beyond just these issues of precedent.  Neighbors have expressed very real worries about the health effects of allowing the university’s physics labs into the middle of an area with many residents, as well as the fact that the plan requires N.Y.U. to build a mechanical penthouse with ventilation equipment equal in size to a four-story building atop the existing structure. In addition to health concerns, this rooftop addition would have a jarring and very visible negative impact upon the hard-fought-for Noho Historic District.

So the N.Y.U. administration is up to its old games again, with only the mayor’s appointees on the B.S.A. standing between N.Y.U. and the floodgates protecting Noho and Soho. The outlook? Perhaps not as rosy as one would hope. At the hearing on the application, the B.S.A. chairperson openly complained that she could not understand why so many people were opposed to this variance (the B.S.A. had received scores of letters opposing the application via e-mail); why we thought it would change the character of the neighborhood; and why we felt N.Y.U. had been dishonest.

And the B.S.A. vice chairperson questioned why we thought the board could ask N.Y.U. to prove its claim that the variance it was requesting was necessary, or that reasonable alternatives did not exist, saying that the law did not explicitly authorize the B.S.A. to do so.

A decision on this case, and the fate of Noho and Soho, is expected soon.


Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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4 Responses to Noho and Soho’s firewall against N.Y.U. is at risk

  1. If_Truth_be_Told

    To quote from the latest open letter sent by NYUFASP (NYU Faculty against the Sexton Plan) to President Sexton and the faculty community:

    "We could solve NYU's space crunch in a few years, just by tightening our admission standards, and letting in fewer students. While Columbia, for example, still admits one in ten of its applicants, NYU now lets in 35%—a percentage that will surely grow if we take on the extra debt required to pay for your expansion plan. (You and your team have denied this, but not credibly.)

    That such lax admission is the primary cause of NYU's space problem is no mystery, as Roger Printup, University Registrar, obliquely noted in a recent email to the faculty: 'The number of students and the number of courses offered continues to increase, and this has created a number of challenges to our classroom scheduling process.'

    What this means is not that NYU owns too few buildings, but that NYU has far too many students—vastly more than any comparable university. Of the top 50 US schools, only fourteen have more than 25,000 students. Only two of them (George Washington and USC) are private; and of the twelve state schools that big, only three have more students than we do—but, unlike us, they're built for it. The University of Texas has nine campuses, Penn State has three, and the University of Illinois has a seven-square-mile campus in the rural middle of the state.

    Here in Greenwich Village, meanwhile, we have over 43,000 students—a surplus that you created, and that you now want to grow still more. Between 2002 and 2010, NYU's enrollment swelled by nearly 6,000 students, ballooning toward its current oversize; and you project a further increase of 4,800 by 2031, a boost to be enabled (or, in fact, required) by your expansion plan."

    Such growth is economically unlikely—and academically impossible. As it is, the ratio of full-time faculty to students here at NYU is 1:30, a figure comparable to large state universities. (The ratio at Yale is 1:12, at Harvard 1:14.) And it is likely to get worse, once faculty start leaving NYU to teach at schools that wouldn't house their employees on live construction sites."

    Everything that has been happening — and happening rapidly (and, as a result, recklessly) — with regard to the university's planned multi-billion dollar expansion in the Village (and, as Mr. Berman states, in the possible near future, in NoHo & SoHo) has been happening against the background of some very disturbing trends. Certainly disturbing to a faculty member like myself. These trends include a 2.5% drop in the university's already fairly modest endowment in this last year alone; a relaxed admissions policy, coupled with sky-high tuition (both due in no small part precisely to the administration's drive for expansion, both here and abroad at our 13 global sites — it's a vicious circle, to be sure); an extremely unbalanced ratio of contract/adjunct faculty to tenured faculty; and, worst of all, a crushing and quickly-worsening burden of student debt, making NYU's student body one of the 5 most indebted in the entire nation, among both private and public universities.

    All of this to say, the expansion — in its current, seemingly insatiable form — will do potentially grave harm not only to the surrounding community but to NYU's very own intellectual community as well. The faculty know this and have made our case time and time again. Will Pres. Sexton and our trustees finally listen?

  2. Our current political climate is Boss Tweed Tammany Hall redux.

  3. Andrew Berman scores again with a well-crafted, sobering editorial on the N.Y.U. expansion boondoggle. If the eminently capable, well-versed, and articulate Mr. Berman does decide on a city council campaign launch, he will receive a flood of support. As for President John Sexton, perhaps he should heed the wise words of folk philospher Will Rogers: “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”–particularly in the Soho and Noho neighborhoods.

  4. Unfortunately our belief that we live in a city if democracy is certainly not the truth under mayor bloombergs administration. We the tax paying citizens have virtual no day in our communities. The planning board the commissioners are all pawns if this administration and this city which we all live and love is simply a real estate swindle for the wealthy real estate tycoons of which NYU is part of. Margaret chin and Christine Quinn were either naive and scammed by NYU lies. Or they were part of the plan to steal public land from tax payers. Steal city parks from the children of tax payers for a meager pay off if which the financial amounts to take our parks have yet to be disclosed. I used to believe that this city cared about its citizens and that our voices matter. But I have no faith anymore. While our subway fares have increased. Tolls are now $13 and our schools are a shambles this city administration had the audacity to give NYU and the likes carte Blanche. So what does the city get in return? Not tax dollars because NYU does not pay property tax like the rest of us. It is shameful. If the city needs to financially support education they should give to our public school and public universities. But again this is nothing more than the continuation of screwing the tax paying public. And why isn’t the
    NY Times writing about this swindle you might ask? One can only presume they are as scared to stand up to mike Bloomberg as the rest of the cities elected and appointed officials. Just shameful

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