Judge Donna Mills’s ruling this week that N.Y.U. and the Bloomberg administration must make available their correspondence relating to the open-space strips along the university’s two South Village superblocks marks a very interesting development — and is being seen as a positive sign for a community lawsuit against N.Y.U.
The four strips are about 50 feet wide and run down the eastern edge of LaGuardia Place and the western edge of Mercer St. between Houston and W. Third Sts. They’re leftover remnants from a failed Robert Moses street-widening project more than 50 years ago. Since then, these parcels have grown into treasured community amenities — and the plaintiffs contend, bona fide parkland.
Contrarily, N.Y.U. and the city say that, because the strips were never formally transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Parks Department, they are not actually mapped as parkland, and thus not parks. So, their argument goes, N.Y.U. should be allowed to purchase the strip on Mercer St. between Houston and Bleecker Sts. so that it can build its new “Zipper Building” on part of it, as planned, and as overwhelmingly approved by the City Council last July, with only Charles Barron voting no.
And, N.Y.U. and the city similarly contend, N.Y.U. should be granted an easement on the strips on Mercer and LaGuardia between Bleecker and W. Third to facilitate the university’s construction of new infill buildings on the northern superblock.
However, Community Board 2 has — going back over not just a few years, but decades — repeatedly requested that these strips be designated formally as parkland, precisely because of the fear that N.Y.U. would someday try to claim them. Making the situation more urgent is the fact that in park-starved Greenwich Village, every acre — really, every inch! — of greenery counts.
The fact is, it’s an open secret that N.Y.U. has simply stood in the way of this transfer. Even more egregious, while blocking the strips’ transfer, N.Y.U. also failed to even maintain the strip along Mercer St. north of the dog run, allowing the children’s playground there to become a condemned, unsightly sinkhole.
And yet, even though the strips are all owned by D.O.T., Parks has maintained, for example, the Mercer Playground, on Mercer St. on the northern superblock. And, above all, the parcels have been used as parks for decades. This usage, the plaintiffs maintain, makes them de facto parks.
Plus, not all parks are mapped as parkland, they note: There’s Soho Square and Father Fagan Square, for example, and even Central Park is reportedly not mapped as parkland; obviously, N.Y.U. would never try to build there.
The Villager did an in-depth report on this perplexing situation in a June 23, 2004, article, “Strip poker on the superblocks; Does N.Y.U. hold the cards?” In 1995, the article reported, D.O.T. “indicated they would be agreeable” to the transfer. But, then the process suddenly stalled.
Former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern filed a forceful affidavit on behalf of the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, asserting that the strips are, in his view, parkland.
“Those things should get protected,” he told The Villager back in 2004. “We’ve always tried to get that from D.O.T. N.Y.U. wants to make sure they have complete access to them.
“If it’s parkland, it can’t be sold,” Stern told The Villager. “If it’s [under the jurisdiction of D.O.T.], it can be purchased without any legislative review. If it’s under Parks, the state Legislature would need to approve the sale.”
So, the court must determine: Did N.Y.U. repeatedly stymie the transfer of these properties to Parks? And, what’s more, aren’t these parcels, by the very nature of their use over decades, not just open strips — but genuine parks? We think they definitely are, but it remains for the court to decide.