West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 8 | July 25 - 31, 2007

Talking Point

N.Y.U.’s number-one growth need is a second campus

By Andrew Berman

On June 28, New York University invited the community to view its new, long-awaited strategic planning process. Having hired a team of architects and planners, N.Y.U. says it is taking a long-promised look at its expectations for growth and change over the next 25 years, and sharing with us what they find. The doors to Hemmerdinger Hall were opened, and the public was given an opportunity to hear and be heard by N.Y.U.

But while listening and sharing are an important part of a good process, it’s the results that ultimately will matter. And the result that I believe most in the Village, East Village and Noho seek is to maintain the character of their neighborhoods that they care so deeply about. 

However, a simple look at the facts shows the huge challenge we will all face with N.Y.U. The university says it needs to grow by 6 million square feet, or one-third its current size, and by 5,500 students over the next 25 years. To give some perspective, the new 26-story N.Y.U. “megadorm” rising on E. 12th St. is about 175,000 square feet. Thus, we are talking about adding the equivalent of 34 more such structures — a breathtaking amount of new construction. And in terms of number of additional students, we are talking about adding five times the student population of Cooper Union. 

As overwhelming as those numbers are, the real question is: where does all this growth go? It’s hard to imagine how our neighborhoods will not be completely overwhelmed and utterly changed in character by such development, and that’s assuming N.Y.U. only grows as much as it has “estimated.” (These numbers are not binding commitments, simply the projections N.Y.U. is sharing with us.)

Some of that 6 million square feet will no doubt go elsewhere, such as to N.Y.U.’s East Midtown campus, where its medical school and facilities are. However, even if only half of that space is added Downtown — the equivalent of 17 new 12th St. megadorms — it still presents the very real danger of turning our neighborhoods into the equivalent of a company town, where a single entity is the defining presence in its entire look, feel and functioning. 

Through its “strategic planning process,” N.Y.U. is looking at and talking to the community about a variety of means to address concerns about its planned growth. Improved design, mixed-use buildings, active ground floors and better use of existing space are all tools the university and its planning team say they are considering — and seeking feedback on — to make their growth more palatable to the surrounding community. 

I’m strongly for good design and planning principles, and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has been among the most vocal critics of N.Y.U.’s lack of these principles in their developments. But the equivalent of 34 or even 17 more 12th St. megadorms — no matter how well designed — will still have an overwhelming, and I believe ultimately negative, impact upon our neighborhoods. And this could make some of these decisions about “good design” the equivalent of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Even the alternative of acquiring existing buildings, rather than undertaking new construction — an alternative N.Y.U. has promised to consider — might help preserve our neighborhoods’ architectural character, but would not prevent our neighborhoods from otherwise reaching a tipping point in the overwhelming presence of N.Y.U. 

That is why G.V.S.H.P. and a coalition of community groups believe it is imperative that any plan for N.Y.U.’s growth involve finding locations outside of our neighborhoods to absorb its future growth. We believe this is the only way N.Y.U. can continue to remain in harmony and balance with — and not overwhelm — its neighbors and its surroundings.

I remember what N.Y.U. and the Village were like 25 years ago. The differences between then and now are breathtaking, and the expansion of N.Y.U. and its palpable presence within these communities is tremendous to behold. Another 25 years of such dramatic transformation would turn N.Y.U. from an ingredient in the wonderful mix of our neighborhoods to an overwhelming and defining presence, certainly at least in the areas between Second and Sixth Aves. And once that wonderful balance is lost, it will likely never be regained.

Getting N.Y.U. to commit to finding such locations now is critical for several other reasons, as well. Whatever commitments N.Y.U. makes now through its strategic planning process about what it will or won’t build in our neighborhoods will never be legally binding; at some point in the future, the university could decide circumstances have changed and that it must change its plans, as it has many times in the past. However, if the university has locations in other parts of the city with built-in room to grow — and especially if this is land that the city helps N.Y.U. acquire specifically for educational purposes — then the university is much more likely to site new facilities there than try to acquire new locations in our neighborhood for its expansion.

Establishing secondary campuses for future growth is something both Harvard and Yale have recently undertaken, and which Columbia is pursuing right now. N.Y.U. of course used to have a second campus in the Bronx, which it abandoned and sold off in the early 1970s.

The good news is N.Y.U. is now finally at least claiming to explore such options, featuring it as part of their recent planning presentation. The real question now is how serious are they about this effort, and what will come of it?

In addition, the university has stated it will be vastly increasing the time its undergraduates spend abroad as a way the university can grow its student body without actually impacting the Village. I am skeptical that N.Y.U. can really know that 25 years down the road so many of its students will be spending time overseas that we won’t be able to see and feel any difference here at home. 

As N.Y.U. moves forward with its “strategic plan,” we need to insist that siting and establishing locations outside of the Village to absorb its future growth is an essential part of any blueprint for the future. Otherwise, 25 years from now, with the exception of the ever-present purple N.Y.U. flag, our neighborhoods may be unrecognizable from what they are today.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

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