A victory for parks, and for the community

Like everyone else, we were simply bowled over by Judge Donna Mills’s extraordinary ruling, handed down Tuesday, on New York University’s 2031 expansion plan for its South Village superblocks.

What it all means will be sorted out in the weeks and months to come. But it’s clear that Mills’s decision throws a major monkey wrench into N.Y.U.’s development designs on the South Village.

It’s been clear from the very start that the university’s plan was a colossal overreach. Trying to wedge so much development — nearly 2 million square feet of new space — onto the two superblocks was far too much, simply an affront.

At the heart of the judge’s decision, was the assertion — as argued in the landmark community lawsuit — that the four open-space parcels along the edges of Mercer St. and LaGuardia Place have, for decades, been used — and treasured — as community parkland in an area, the Village, that is, in fact, starved for park space.

We said as much in our editorial on Feb. 28, 2013, emphatically entitled, “Not strips — but parks,” in which we detailed how N.Y.U. has blocked the transfer of these park properties to the city’s Parks Department over the years, so that it could protect its development plans. As Community Board 2, former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern and others have always maintained, Mills similarly agreed that simply because these properties were technically under Department of Transportation jurisdiction doesn’t mean they are not de facto parks. Property that is used for decades and decades as parks, that has official Parks Department signage, that is listed on Parks’ own Web site as a park — is parkland.

One of the parcels, Mercer Playground, was even formally transferred to the Parks Department.

As Randy Mastro, an attorney for the community plaintiffs, stated repeatedly, “If it walks like a park, and talks like a park and looks like a park — it’s a park.”

In short, Mills ruled, the state Legislature must formally “alienate” these parcels —decommission them as public parks — if they are to be used as staging areas for and access ways into N.Y.U.’s construction projects. And Assemblymember Deborah Glick, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, stated that, as long as she’s in the Legislature, it never will be done.

Mills’s ruling was right on target.

Again, what does it all mean for N.Y.U. 2031? It’s hard to conceive how two infill buildings can now be erected on the north superblock without the university being able to use the two parkland parcels on that block’s edge to facilitate its construction. Would the university really think to try to bring in gigantic cranes and an endless convoy of building supplies under the low entranceways of Washington Square Village? It’s not even clear if that could physically be done — and, if it could, what an incredible nightmare that would be for the W.S.V. tenants, most of whom are university faculty, graduate students and other N.Y.U.-affiliated personnel. The northern superblock plans appear — for now — to be dead in the water.

From what we hear from N.Y.U., they still think they can build on the Morton Williams supermarket site, not by coming in through the LaGuardia Corner Gardens, as previously planned (and which would have devastated that iconic garden), but now through Bleecker St. It remains to be seen how realistic that idea is.

However, Mills, in her ruling, did not find that the open-space parcel along Mercer St. between Houston and Bleecker Sts. was a park. The basis of her decision was that the dog run there doesn’t have Parks signage and has been maintained not by Parks but by N.Y.U. Yet, she failed to mention the playground and seating area just north of the dog run that N.Y.U. has allowed to become a sunken, closed-off eyesore — even though, under an agreement made decades ago, the university was obligated to maintain this as a community space. Originally, an area atop Coles Gym was earmarked for the community, but this (conveniently, perhaps) soon became inaccessible.

It remains to be seen whether the plaintiffs will challenge the “not a park” ruling on this southern Mercer St. strip. And it remains to be seen whether the city — with a new mayoral administration and a new City Council leadership — will actually appeal Mills’s ruling.

In her ruling, Mills indicates her belief that the “Zipper Building,” which would partly extend onto the southern Mercer St. strip, can be built. The community plaintiffs’ attorneys dispute this, saying the entire plan must be sent back to the drawing board and cannot now be implemented partially, in segments.

But it will truly be hard for anyone to overturn Mills’s ruling on the three strips that she declared parks. Her reasoning is rock solid.

N.Y.U. also is not even sure what exactly it would put in the “Zipper Building” — which we’re told is no longer being called that anymore. The entire justification for N.Y.U. 2031 was to increase the university’s classroom space to catch up with the school’s student population boom in the last decade-plus.

If the building formerly known as “The Zipper” is not to be used for classrooms, then N.Y.U. must justify that. In that sense, the project indeed should go back to the drawing board. N.Y.U. says it will work with its faculty on what would go in the building.

For now, at least, the community can celebrate a tremendous victory — a victory for livability, for open space and for the protection of our treasured parks.

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