Volume 79, Number 23 | November 11 - 17, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Progress Report

A special Villager supplement

N.Y.U., a university looking to its future — looking at the big picture.

A university, doing its homework, charts a new path

By Alicia D. Hurley

In the first half of the 19th century — when New York University was founded — the connection between great universities and great cities was not a clear one in the United States For the next century and a half, a Jeffersonian vision of higher education largely prevailed: Colleges should be in pastoral settings, and the college experience should be removed from the hustle, bustle and temptations of urban settings. 

N.Y.U.’s origins sharply challenged those ideas, and by the 21st century, its underlying principle — that great cities and great universities belong together, that great cities need great universities, that a university’s academic enterprise leads to the ideas, the innovation and the human talent that help cities flourish — was widely embraced. Moreover, there is a growing acknowledgement that intellectual, cultural and educational institutions of all types are mainstays of cities’ futures.

In the last few years, N.Y.U. has married that idea with another idea: While maintaining that academic excellence will require growth, how N.Y.U. grows — how it respects its neighborhood’s character, how it makes its choices, how it listens to community voices — is vitally important, too. 

In 2006, N.Y.U. launched its first-ever space-planning effort which took a long-term view toward 2031, when the university will celebrate its bicentennial. The effort is rooted in the understanding that in order for the university to continue to thrive academically, a more thoughtful, sensible, sensitive and transparent approach to its future development and growth is needed.

Unlike most planning processes, in which a plan is framed and then presented fully formed to a surrounding community, N.Y.U. front-loaded the involvement and participation of its neighbors, who were invited into the process beginning in the spring of 2007.

As data emerged from the first-ever planning office of the university, it was presented in real time to the community. As ideas and visions emerged from the planning team, they were presented to the community. 

A task force of community groups, elected officials, and university leaders was convened by the borough president of Manhattan; and a set of “planning principles” were hammered out and signed off on by the participants and the university. In addition to dozens of briefings and meetings with neighborhood and university groups, there were five open-house events, where thousands of public members participated in the planning by engaging the architects, planners and university leaders. Hundreds of hours were spent preparing, analyzing and integrating community feedback and designing a comprehensive planning approach for the university. 

The last open house was held in April 2008 when N.Y.U. was presented with a set of recommendations by the outside planning firm for how to consider approaching our broader planning efforts. It was then time for N.Y.U to do its homework: to test the concepts presented by the planners; to analyze the areas recommended for growth (both those sites already owned by the university, as well as new sites that are located outside of the Washington Square core); to contemplate strategies for prioritizing uses at the core and developing academically based criteria for creating new academic hubs outside of the core; to align the planning projections with the university’s near- and longer-term academic and financial plans; and to filter the plans through the university’s sustainability goals. 

Among the most critical components of our homework and analyses were ensuring that the planning parameters will allow the university to meet its academic mandate over time; ensuring that we have thought through the plan in a way that commits to sustainability of the environment, to neighborhood livability, and to the city; and approaching the effort with the belief that we can be a model for thoughtful planning that integrates the community and city.

In terms of N.Y.U.'s academic mandate, the university is at a tipping point, particularly within some disciplines and departments that must grow now and among those which we know will grow in the future. N.Y.U. has one-quarter the square footage, per student, of Harvard and one half the square footage, per student, of Columbia University. And while we do not aspire to match those numbers (much of our greatness lies in our ability to intertwine with and utilize New York City as our campus, and much of our success lies in our efficiency), some of our academic disciplines simply will need to grow. The 2031 plan will help strategize and decide where that growth is best situated.

On a sustainable future, the university’s planning effort calls for a great commitment to the environment and city through everything from reliance on cogeneration to provide cleaner energy, to a commitment to carbon reduction and green roofs. The planning also calls for understanding what makes the neighborhoods we thrive in sustainable — everything from exploration of a new public school to enhanced vibrancy of our streetscapes and ret model for planning and community integration. Since the launch of our planning efforts, the university has made great strides to incorporate community-mindedness into our overarching planning, as well as into individual projects. We aim to incorporate the planning principles into our own decision-making and site selection, engage the community throughout the planning, and sustain a creative place where students want to learn, faculty want to teach and people want to live.

Some of the projects launched since 2006 that are particularly emblematic of this new approach include:

• On two recent projects (133-139 MacDougal St., Law School project; and 58 Washington Square South, Center for Academic and Spiritual Life), the university has proposed buildings that do not maximize available square footage on the sites and that prioritize use and contextual design in the core;

• The university purchased an existing building (730 Broadway) in the neighborhood, which is an ideal way for N.Y.U. to both add square footage and enhance a building’s presence on the street by integrating community-friendly retail into the storefront space;

• Planning for the relocation of our College of Nursing to the First Ave. health corridor in the East 20s and 30s allows us to academically align a school into an existing academic hub and reuse the space that is freed up by that move for other academic priorities that otherwise would press out into the neighborhood.

As for what’s next, the university will unveil its long-range plan in the early part of 2010. The plan will contain no major surprises that depart from where we left off in 2008, but it will show a very carefully thought-out, rigorously analyzed pathway for the university to contemplate its future in New York City. Aspects of the plan will chart guidelines and parameters for growth; aspects will outline how best to utilize our existing footprint in Greenwich Village; and, importantly, aspects will also recognize that to sustain our future we must look more broadly to the city in academic hubs that exist (First Ave. health corridor), that are emerging (Downtown Brooklyn) and that are aspirational (Governors Island).

N.Y.U.'s history with its development and its community has not always been positive; through this effort of long-term planning, we believe that we can set that history on a new and more productive course and map out a clear pathway forward that recommits the university to its surrounding neighbors and its city. 

Hurley is N.Y.U. vice president for government affairs and community engagement

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