N.Y.U.’s Plan for Expansion Draws Anger in Community

April 30, 2021
It is perhaps the largest project ever proposed for Greenwich Village, and it has angered many residents in the area as few issues have recently. Opponents say the development would mar one of New York’s signature neighborhoods.

A huge expansion of New York University is vital, school officials say, but some neighbors oppose its size and density.

Now the project’s future has fallen on the shoulders of two high-profile politicians who aspire to become the next mayor — Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, and Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president.
New York University says it needs more dormitories, classrooms, athletic and performance spaces and a hotel to accommodate its burgeoning student body and compete with national universities, and it wants to erect four buildings amid two sprawling apartment complexes north of Houston Street.
The square footage of the four buildings, the tallest of which would be 25 floors, would nearly equal that of the Empire State Building.
The local community board recommended unanimously last month that the Council reject the university’s plan — known as NYU 2031 — and the zoning changes it would require. The board said that the proposed buildings were too dense and tall and that the addition of thousands of students and workers would erode the character of a still quaint and offbeat city quarter.
Critics also said the 1,700 families who lived in the two complexes where the university wanted to build, including N.Y.U. faculty members, would have to endure years of construction.
Several political leaders, including Ms. Quinn and Mr. Stringer, must decide the project’s fate.
Ms. Quinn and Mr. Stringer face a delicate balancing act, taking into account the sentiments of voters in the liberal neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, the East Village, SoHo and NoHo, while considering a university board of trustees that includes real estate developers and businesspeople who contribute to campaigns.
“The bottom line is that elected officials have to take notice” of the project, said Robert E. Riccobono, first vice chairman of Community Board 2, which voted to oppose it.
Mr. Stringer, who is required under the city’s land use reviews to present a recommendation to the City Planning Commission by April 12, has reservations about the current plans.
While a flourishing N.Y.U. is “essential to the lifeblood of the city’s economy,” he said, the plan as presented is out of scale.
“N.Y.U. raises a legitimate issue about the need to expand, but my job is to make sure that the expansion does not overwhelm the existing neighborhood,” he said. “We need to strike the right balance.”
The university’s expansion plans are also a thorny subject for some Greenwich Village residents fearful about another dense neighborhood development project being contemplated there, on the campus of the former St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Mr. Stringer, who has raised $3.2 million for a mayoral campaign, has made a specialty of cobbling together compromises for academic expansion, having helped gently revamp Columbia University’s plan to build a 17-acre satellite campus in West Harlem and Fordham University’s ambition of expanding its campus at Lincoln Center. He is in talks with N.Y.U.
“I’m figuring out how to thread the needle on one of the most complicated and important development projects in the city,” he said.
Any zoning changes would have to be approved by the City Planning Commission, probably in early June, and then by the Council, which must vote by July 31. Speaker Quinn, who has raised a $4.9 million campaign chest, declined to be interviewed, but said through a spokesman that she would work on the issue with the local councilwoman, Margaret Chin.
Councilwoman Chin, besides expressing concern about what construction would mean for residents of the two complexes, also worried that the four buildings would mean the loss of precious greenery.
N.Y.U. owns the land and six of the seven buildings at the two complexes, bordered by Houston, Mercer and West Third Streets and La Guardia Place.
While the debate over the proposal is focused on the future of Greenwich Village, N.Y.U.’s ambitious plan also has wider implications for other parts of Manhattan and for Brooklyn. The university has an engineering campus in Downtown Brooklyn, now called Polytechnic Institute, that it absorbed; influential urban-design experts, like Vin Cippola, the president of the Municipal Art Society, have urged the university to focus its expansion there.
N.Y.U., which has been in Greenwich Village since 1835, has 42,000 undergraduate and graduate students and contends it has far less space per student than its rivals.
It argues that it needs new facilities to accommodate its rising enrollment, end costly leases for a half-dozen buildings and continue attracting paying students from around the world.
Community board leaders contend the new buildings would bring 10,000 more people to the Washington Square campus, prompting an upsurge in all-night fast food joints that students crave. University officials emphasize that the figure would be under 4,000 students.

Courtesy of New York University

An artist rendering of what N.Y.U.’s campus would look like in 2031.

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The officials also point out that most of the buildings would be built on land already occupied by smaller buildings, like the five-level Jerome S. Coles Sports Center, or by tenant parking lots, and that tenants and neighbors would ultimately have an equivalent amount of green space.
They say the nine-block area is large enough so that staggered construction would not constantly upset all residents.
University officials suggest that N.Y.U., by choosing the complexes as an expansion site, is snared in a Catch-22.
“People wanted us to stay in the existing footprint rather than acquire new properties in the neighborhood,” said Alicia D. Hurley, the university’s vice president for government and community affairs.
Some faculty members, including Mark Crispin Miller, oppose the plan. Dr. Miller, a member of a faculty steering committee fighting the plan, said the project would prompt professors residing in the complexes to leave the university.
“We wanted not only to teach at N.Y.U. but to live in the Village,” said Dr. Miller, a professor of media, culture and communications, who lives in Washington Square Village, which is the northernmost complex.
The community board’s rejection was advisory, but the debate, said Brad Hoylman, its chairman, reflected the anger many neighbors have long felt toward a university that has gobbled up many buildings in Greenwich Village and the East Village and put up buildings like a dormitory on East 12th Street that critics argue has tarnished the legendary Bohemian charm that draws many students.
“This irony is not lost on Community Board 2,” its resolution opposing the project said. “For through its 2031 plan, N.Y.U. threatens to destroy the very essence of the local neighborhood from which it benefits handsomely.”

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