Top 10 outrageous things about N.Y.U. plan approval
BY ANDREW BERMAN | The recent approval of New York University’s massive expansion plan by the City Council, City Planning Commission and borough president was a stunning, if not entirely unexpected, decision. As we and our friends at N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan prepare our legal challenge of the approvals, we have been poring over the voluminous documents outlining the terms of the giveaway of public land, light, air and development rights to N.Y.U.
The city documents have been an eyeful. Here for your perusal is a list of the 10 most outrageous things about the city’s approval of the N.Y.U. expansion plan.
Zipper trouble: At just shy of 1 million square feet, the massive “Zipper Building” to rise on Mercer St. will be the largest building ever constructed in Greenwich Village. The 375-foot-long, 300-foot-tall edifice will be so large you could actually fit all three of the adjacent 30-story I.M. Pei-designed Silver Towers inside the new structure twice over, or almost the entire neighboring four-building Washington Square Village complex.
In fact, at just shy of 2 million square feet altogether, the N.Y.U. expansion will more than double the current square footage on the two superblocks containing the already-quite-large Washington Square Village and Silver Towers complexes. But whereas those developments were designed with ample open space and low-rise structures around them to balance out the impact of their mass, much of that will disappear to be replaced by newer, much more massive structures.
And added bonus: While the city claims it disallowed N.Y.U.’s planned hotel in the Zipper Building, there’s actually nothing to prevent the university from having sleeping accommodations and suites available on a short-term basis for visitors, functioning for all intents and purposes as a hotel.
No alternatives: Opponents of the N.Y.U. plan didn’t simply say the university shouldn’t grow; we actually offered win-win alternatives for N.Y.U.’s growth that would have been greener and more beneficial to the city as a whole. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation commissioned studies showing that locating some of N.Y.U.’s expansion just a 5-minute subway ride away in the Financial District, where community leaders were begging N.Y.U. to consider locating, would have been more economically beneficial to the city (not to mention that satellite campuses have become the way for cities to deal with university expansions, and that schools across the country spread their facilities across distances the equivalent of Washington Square to the Financial District, or greater). N.Y.U.’s faculty pointed out that most of the university’s classes don’t meet on Fridays, and that if the university simply implemented Friday classes, it could increase its classroom space by 25 percent without spending a penny. But city officials refused to ask N.Y.U. to even consider these alternatives.
What public input? The N.Y.U. plan was roundly opposed by N.Y.U.’s own faculty, staff and workers; its neighbors; the local community board; and far and away the majority of the public who contacted city officials and participated in literally dozens of public hearings about the plan. The City Planning Commission public hearing lasted 10 hours, reportedly the longest in the commission’s history, due to the volume of opposing testimony. In spite of this overwhelming outpouring against the plan, the City Council, Planning Commission and borough president all voted to approve N.Y.U.’s application with only minor modifications.
Sasaki signs and accessible atriums: The “amenities” offered to the public in exchange for the lavish approvals given to N.Y.U. would be funny if they weren’t so sad. Two stand out. First, N.Y.U. will have to install better signs announcing that Washington Square Village’s award-winning Sasaki Garden is open to the public — that is, before it demolishes the garden to make way for massive new buildings and an underground labyrinth of labs and classroom. Second, in exchange for the loss of public parks, playgrounds, gardens and dog runs, N.Y.U. will have to allow public access to an atrium inside the massive, million-square-foot Zipper Building.
Bulldozers Yes, preservation No: While the city moved ahead with this massive upzoning and development project for N.Y.U. despite community objections, it continues to refuse to move ahead with the long-promised, proposed South Village Historic District, which directly abuts the N.Y.U. expansion. Groups have been clamoring for this designation for a decade. Meanwhile, N.Y.U. got its approvals from the Council, Planning Commission and borough president in just under six months.
(Not) Promise keepers: It’s one thing when elected officials do things you don’t like. It’s another when they publicly state they are going to do one thing, but then do another. Both Councilmember Chin and Borough President Stringer stood with community groups for a press conference announcing they absolutely would not, under any circumstances, support giving away any public green space to N.Y.U. as part of its expansion plan. And yet that’s exactly what they did: The plans approved by the borough president and the City Council both sold off what are now public playgrounds, park space, gardens and dog runs to N.Y.U.
Beyond that, Borough President Stringer convened a “Community Task Force on N.Y.U. Expansion” for four years prior to the university submitting its expansion plans, a task force in which Councilmember Chin, Speaker Quinn and Councilmember Mendez all participated. A broad range of community groups and stakeholders participated as well, and were charged with issuing recommendations regarding N.Y.U.’s expansion and how it could be compatible with community concerns. While the elected officials did not pledge to be bound by the task force’s recommendations, they did pledge to be guided by them in considering N.Y.U.’s application. The recommendations included that N.Y.U. first look outside the Village for locations for new facilities, as well as provide a rationale for why any new facilities must be located within the already oversaturated “core” of the Village. Neither recommendation was ever raised by either the Council or the borough president in their approvals.
Window dressing: With approval of the N.Y.U. plan, literally thousands of New Yorkers will be living directly adjacent to 20 years of demolition, multistory, underground excavation, and massive new construction. The mitigation? The City Council is requiring N.Y.U. to provide new windows for neighbors.
Lack of commitment: Throughout the process, N.Y.U. repeatedly claimed that its requested expansion was not prompted by any planned expansion of its student enrollment, and that enrollment over the course of the two decades of this plan would only grow 0.5 percent annually. (That’s even cited by the City Planning Commission in its approvals.) Instead, the university claimed the expansion was needed to provide adequate space to accommodate growth that had already occurred over the past several decades. But opponents pointed out that there was absolutely nothing in the approvals N.Y.U. sought from the city that kept the university from, in spite of this claim, continuing to grow its student population at a breakneck speed, and coming back in 20 years to ask for more new facilities, more public land, and more neighborhood zoning protections to be overturned to accommodate additional growth.
In fact, mere days before the Council voted to approve its plans, N.Y.U. admitted that in the coming year the number of freshman entering the university would increase by 10 to 15 percent over the prior year, or roughly the entire increase in student enrollment N.Y.U. predicted would take place over 20 years!
Before the ink was even dry…: Speaking of breaking commitments, before the ink was even dry on its approvals from the City Council, N.Y.U. broke one of its cardinal commitments connected to its expansion plan. Throughout the process, the N.Y.U. administration claimed the entire rationale behind its proposal was to make its planning “transparent,” and that, unlike in the past, it was letting the public, especially the Greenwich Village community, know everything it was planning to build in advance.
But just days after the City Council voted to approve the N.Y.U. 2031 plan, the university announced its intention to construct new physics labs at 726 Broadway — a never-before disclosed plan that requires adding a three-story mechanical addition atop a building in the Noho Historic District. This means Landmarks Preservation Commission approvals are required, and — because physics labs are prohibited by the area’s zoning — also a zoning variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals. So much for transparency! The reaction from city officials that approved the N.Y.U. plan? Not a peep.
It could be worse: As bad as the terms are under which N.Y.U.’s massive expansion plan was approved, they could actually worsen in the future. A provision in the City Council approval allows N.Y.U. to go back at any time and apply for changes to certain aspects of the plan that would only need to be approved by the City Planning Commission, an unelected body, rather than go through the full public review and approval process that includes the City Council, an elected body. Supposed “amenities” being offered to the community as “givebacks” in the plan could all be eliminated, such as the community space N.Y.U. is supposed to provide and the public access to certain areas. Requirements to try to preserve existing gardens, plus mitigation requirements on noise and construction and environmental impact, could also simply be changed or eliminated at the request of N.Y.U. by a mere vote of the commission.
One thing that became painfully clear with the review process for this plan is that this was a done deal from the start. In spite of vigorous public participation in the process, the only thing the university and city officials were willing to consider was fiddling with the margins.
G.V.S.H.P. and N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan will announce the filing of our legal challenge of the N.Y.U. plan soon.
Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation