Volume 74, Number 25 | Octuber 20 - 26 , 2004

Talking Point

The townsfolk rebel against omnipotent N.Y.U., again

By Ed Gold

Sometimes New York University resembles a sovereign state.

Its capital is Greenwich Village. Its “White House” is Bobst Library. Its “West Wing” the 12th floor of Bobst.

It has a loyal population of about 70,000 — students and teachers — but conspicuous pockets of resistance.

It sees itself as benign, with many important contributions to the public good in medicine, law, business, to name a few.

It provides services, both charitable and cultural, inside and outside its domain, as many respectable sovereignties profess to do.

It also has a fervent mission, a president firmly committed to that mission, a sense of “manifest destiny” and a budget in the making, larger than those of many real-life states, to fulfill that mission.

Of course, in the real world, N.Y.U. is a university and a great one, but not yet satisfied with its standing in the field of higher education.

While it would like to think of the Village as a campus under its control, there are upstart groups and individuals who periodically challenge its authority.

The university’s history of expansion has currently rallied fearful and questioning forces in at least two important community areas: one, the superblock that stretches north from Houston to W. Third between LaGuardia Pl. and Mercer St., where interested parties would like to preserve a balance between high-rises and open space; and to the east, in Noho, where residents want to preserve the artistic live-work character of the neighborhood as well as its architectural virtues.

The worry in both locations is fueled by N.Y.U.’s intention, stung by the description of its liberal arts program as “marginally adequate,” to upgrade that program by increasing its arts and science faculties by 20 percent, and by putting together an expansion fund of $2.5 billion, including a “war chest” of $200 million, to entice outstanding professors to the region, according to The New York Times.

N.Y.U. owns the superblock — except for 40-ft. strips on either north-south edge — which includes in the Houston-Bleecker area three high-rises — the two Silver Towers and 505 LaGuardia Pl. — along with important swaths of open space. The high-rises frame ground-level stretches that contain, at their center, a colossal sculpture by Picasso. To many in the area, this is hallowed ground.

Roughly 40 feet on either side of the superblock belong to the Department of Transportation, an anachronism if ever there was one; wider roadways were once planned for Mercer St. and LaGuardia Pl. but never materialized and are now otherwise occupied.

Of community interest on the Mercer side are a dog run, a modest children’s playground — now endangered by its sinking surface — and north of W. Third St., the Mercer Playground. On the LaGuardia side, we have the free-growing Time Landscape, the Corner Gardens and, north of Bleecker, the Friends of LaGuardia Garden.

The fear is that N.Y.U.’s educational expansion will lead to new high-rise construction on the superblock, the most likely location being in the northwest corner where a supermarket now sits. So it is no wonder that Jeffrey Rowland of LaGuardia Corner Gardens, which lies adjacent to the supermarket on the D.O.T. strip, is fearful. Corner Gardens has received many awards in its 25-year history, and is part of the Park Department’s Greenthumb program. Rowland worries that a new N.Y.U. high-rise on the site, whether for faculty or classroom use, would threaten the gardens’ existence. He has collected the names of 1,300 supporters who want N.Y.U. to keep hands off.

He and others on the superblock want the strips to become parkland, which they feel will preserve existing operations more than D.O.T. will. That makes a lot of sense since most operations on the strips fit neatly into the Parks Department’s oversight. Interestingly and unfortunately, N.Y.U. is not sympathetic to such a transfer. The university did in fact, more than 30 years ago, buy a 40-foot strip between W. Third and W. Fourth Sts. from D.O.T. to complete Bobst. One N.Y.U. source suggests that, should the university need a zoning variance affecting the strips, challenging parkland would be much more difficult.

A broad coalition has been formed to protect the integrity of the superblock. Councilmember Alan Gerson, a resident of 505 LaGuardia, may have put it clearest when he called on N.Y.U. to preserve the existing balance between open space and high-rises, contending that the huge residential structures on the site required zoning variances and represented a compromise between university and residential goals.

The coalition, which includes political figures like Gerson, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, outspoken residents at 505, many of the operations on the strip sites and environmental supporters, want the supermarket landmarked, which particularly upsets the university. Gerson calls for discussions but at this writing N.Y.U. has not responded.

In Noho, there are discussions between residents and the university. Noho also has trepidations about N.Y.U. expansion. The Noho Neighborhood Association does not want Noho’s character violated with the construction of “noncontributing” architecture, a reference to high-rises. Longtime residents may well remember the outcry on Third Ave. where N.Y.U., ignoring community outrage, built huge dorms that threw a shadow over many of the four-story houses in the area and were conspicuously out of proportion to neighborhood architecture. Another worry in Noho is that N.Y.U. construction would replace existing commercial operations that draw street traffic and liven up the neighborhood.

But on a hopeful note, Zella Jones, chairperson of the Noho group, is somewhat optimistic about current negotiations, suggesting that N.Y.U. President John Sexton may be showing signs of “sensitivity” to local concerns and “may not run roughshod” over community opposition.

Sexton has proven his intelligence, and shown signs of originality and affability, but he is no doubt still dedicated to an ambitious mission: To put N.Y.U. alongside Harvard at the top of the higher-educational heap.

He may wish at times that N.Y.U. was in fact a sovereign state. He might see fertile ground in a neighboring principality across the river, namely Brooklyn, which has been mentioned in some expansionist circles.

Many in the Greenwich Village domain might be very supportive of such a move.

Gold is a member of Community Board 2

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