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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Taking their fight to new heights, N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan held a fundraiser Tuesday evening in the swank 21st-story penthouse of The Standard, East Village on Cooper Square.
Chic hotelier André Balazs donated the space — which features awesome, unobstructed views in every direction — for free.
FASP is battling in court against New York University’s 2031 mega-expansion plan that would add nearly 2 million square feet of space to its two South Village superblocks.
Balazs himself couldn’t make the event because he was traveling. The same went for Susan Sarandon and Padma Lakshmi, who initially had been expected to be there.
But humorist Fran Lebowitz attended and did not disappoint with her remarks.
“I’m not connected to N.Y.U. in any way,” Lebowitz, who lives in the Village, told the crowd. “I’m not a former student. I’m not a teacher. … I don’t like N.Y.U.”
She then went on to explain the cause of her dislike: that the university has been a blunt force for development, sapping away and smothering Downtown’s affordability and character.
“Look at where we are. We’re in a hotel — that belongs in an airport. N.Y.U. has basically been a suburbanizing influence on New York City. The south side of Washington Square Park is basically suburban junk.
“It’s not necessary to have a university in the city,” Lebowitz continued. “There are many more universities than there are New Yorks.
“The people who got here in the 1960s, we can’t live here because N.Y.U. buys up all the real estate.
“This election and Bill de Blasio,” she went on, “it was about real estate — people have no place to live. Every place that N.Y.U. buys is a place where people — adults — can’t live.”
Semester breaks come as a relief, she said.
“It’s not such a wonderful presence,” she said of N.Y.U. “I wait for December because finally the conversations I’m hearing on the street are less annoying.”
Noting she recently spoke to a group that she described as several hundred N.Y.U. undergraduates who were aspiring film directors, she accused the university of basically playing on the students’ unrealistic dreams. She said she wanted to tell them, “ ‘Don’t you know there aren’t 300 directors in the world?’ Yes, Martin Scorsese went to N.Y.U., but billions of other people went to N.Y.U. and didn’t become directors. Someone needs to tell them the truth.”
Like the members of FASP are saying, Lebowitz said it’s time for the university simply to stop its expansion in the Village area.
“You know what?” she said. “We’re full. We’re full — no vacancies.”
Media studies professor Mark Crispin Miller, a leader of N.Y.U. FASP, said, “We are confident we will win this — both in court, and in the court of public opinion — because we represent the community, and we won’t let N.Y.U. crush the community with its own dead weight.
“There is no academic rationale for the university’s plan,” he added, “other than, ‘We have to grow to maintain excellence.’ ”
Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said, “This struggle has really brought out people from all walks of life, from all over the city. This was an unbelievable land grab and abuse of the public trust by N.Y.U.
“The administration of N.Y.U. is definitely feeling the heat. You can tell that they know they are under the gun, that the court of public opinion is against them.”
Alex Manevitz, an N.Y.U. graduate student teaching assistant in the history department, noted that the university’s students — even before this costly $6 billion expansion project has started — are struggling with enormous debt.
“We are the leader in the average debt, the median debt and the cost of tuition,” he stated. Even to conceive of doing the 2031 project in this context, he said, “It’s a slap in the face, really unfair to a lot of students who will leave here with crushing debt.”
Assemblymember Deborah Glick agreed, saying, “The issue of student debt, this is really the epicenter. To cripple young people economically for most of their adult lives is really a crime — it’s stupidity.
“I think we can get them on RICO,” she quipped, referring to charging the university with racketeering.
Glick said she’s glad to see the N.Y.U. faculty and the community coming together on this struggle.
“We’ve had other fights with N.Y.U. in the past — pretty much all of my life,” she noted. “So it’s great to have the faculty with us.”
Letitia James, the Democratic nominee for public advocate, also showed up and gave remarks. She noted that part of the platform she ran on was “responsible development,” adding that she opposed the Atlantic Yards project. Despite an agreement with the Atlantic Yards developer, not a single unit of affordable housing has been built there yet, she said.
FASP has consciously tried to tie together its battle with N.Y.U. in the Village with other anti-development struggles around the city. Former Councilmember Sal Albanese, who ran for mayor in the recent Democratic primary, and who came out against N.Y.U. 2031 during his campaign, also spoke. In his run for office, he took a principled stand of not accepting any campaign contributions from real estate developers.
“We didn’t do very well in the race,” he noted. “Obviously, it’s hard to project out [a message] without taking money from real estate developers and lobbyists.”
Real estate developers spend millions of dollars on New York City’s elections, he said.
Albanese said he viewed the N.Y.U. project “as a microcosm of what’s happening around the city, and around the country.
“I think the real estate industry is running amok,” he said.
The N.Y.U. FASP lawsuit — which includes G.V.S.H.P. and an array of local community organizations as co-plaintiffs — currently awaits a decision by State Supreme Court Judge Donna Mills. The plaintiffs expect she may issue a ruling by January. The suit argues, among other things, that strips of city-owned land along the superblocks’ eastern and western edges — on Mercer St. and LaGuardia Place — have always been used as parks, and have even been recognized as parkland by the city’s Parks Department.
However, as part of the city’s approval of the project last year, N.Y.U. has been granted a 20-year easement on two of the strips to allow its construction project. In addition, the university also has been given the O.K. to acquire another one of the strips — where the Mercer-Houston Dog Run is now — to allow it to build its planned “Zipper Building” on part of it, since the new building would have a larger footprint than the current Coles Gym.
N.Y.U. spokesperson John Beckman issued the following statement in response to the FASP fundraiser: “FASP is unalterably opposed to any practical plan to expand N.Y.U.’s available space. However, new academic space is vital for N.Y.U. to maintain its academic trajectory. There is a faculty group — the University Space Priorities Working Group, which is composed of representatives from each school — that has been considering space issues thoroughly, objectively and based on facts. The conclusions in the Working Group’s interim report are delivered calmly and dispassionately, andthey speak for themselves.” N.Y.U. did not immediately respond to the speakers’ comments about the issue of its students’ debt.