At the beginning of 2012, NYU filed its application for a series of city approvals to allow its massive, 20-year expansion plan to go forward. The plan was more than five years in the making, during which time NYU met with community groups (including GVSHP) under the guise of seeking feedback. The plan NYU has now filed, however, nevertheless flies in the face of nearly every recommendation made by the community through that supposedly consultative process.
If this current plan is approved, NYU will shoehorn 2.5 million square feet of construction—the equivalent of the Empire State Building—into the blocks south of Washington Square Park. NYU is seeking to build hundreds of new dorm rooms, classroom space, faculty housing and a hotel. The plan will have an enormous impact not only upon the immediate area but on the entire Village and surrounding neighborhoods as well. And it would set dangerous precedents that could allow similar overbuilding throughout the city in areas where it was never intended.
To understand the extent of the potential impact, one has to look at what NYU is actually requesting. The University is seeking a series of zoning changes that would greatly reduce the amount of open space it will be required to provide as offset for the enormous buildings that currently exist in the former urban renewal superblocks now occupied by Washington Square Village and Silver Towers and the even bigger buildings NYU wants to construct in the remaining open space.
Some architecture critics are fans of these mid-century modern, tower-in-the-park complexes designed by S.J. Kessler and I. M. Pei respectively. (Both have been ruled eligible for the State and National Register of Historic Places, and the Silver Towers complex has also been landmarked by New York City.) Some find the designs out of place and lacking. Whatever one’s opinion, the clear rationale for both complexes was that these very large buildings (among the largest anywhere in the Village) would be offset by generous open space. This was not only a design philosophy but was required by the city’s zoning rules and the urban renewal terms for the site, which were crafted to ensure that the public got open space in perpetuity in return for these very large structures.
But now NYU is asking for the rules to be changed.
What’s at stake
The University doesn’t only want to vastly reduce the amount of open space it must provide. It also wants residential zoning changed to commercial zoning to allow construction of a 300-foot tall hotel, and it wants urban renewal deed restrictions that prohibit construction on the site of the supermarket at Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place to be lifted. NYU also wants several pieces of public land along Bleecker, Mercer and West 3rd Streets and LaGuardia Place given over to it directly or to be granted “easements” to them so it can build under them and close them for private use for years at a time.
What will result if these requests and rule changes are granted? NYU will build four enormous new buildings over the next 20 years—larger and taller than the existing Silver Towers and Washington Square Village—adding millions of square feet of construction to their presence in the Village. “Towers in the park” would become towers on top of towers on top of towers, much more similar to midtown Manhattan than to the Village as it currently exists.
As most New Yorkers know, NYU’s growing presence in the Village over the last several decades has had an enormous impact not just on the neighborhood in the More and more blocks around Washington Square, Third Avenue, Union Square, University Place and Lower Fifth Avenue feel almost entirely given over to NYU, and the presence of a growing number of NYU students can be felt in both the West and East Villages and on the Lower East Side, where the rental market and nightlife scene have been tremendously impacted by this ever-expanding presence.
But allowing NYU to move ahead with this expansion plan won’t simply lead to “more of the same” in and around the Village—more out-of-scale buildings, a further tipping of neighborhood character towards a single large institution, more crowds, more students and a larger transient population. If the City Council and City Planning Commission grant NYU’s requests, they will be opening the door to approving similar giveaways of public land and allowing other urban renewal superblocks—land where construction of extra-tall towers was permitted with the understanding that they would always be offset by generous amounts of open space—to be turned into massive development sites with huge towers shoehorned between other huge towers. Superblocks with similar restrictions can be found throughout the East Village, Lower East Side, Chinatown, Chelsea, Tribeca and virtually every other neighborhood in Manhattan.
For all these reasons, it’s critical that NYU’s plans not be approved and that the University consider alternative sites for its expansion. One alternative GVSHP has long urged NYU to consider is the Financial District. There, NYU’s planned development would be contextual and welcome and would add needed elements to a growing neighborhood rather than oversaturate and overwhelm an established neighborhood as it would in the Village and surrounding area.
What you can do
The public review and approval process for NYU’s proposal will take approximately seven months, providing ample time for people who oppose the plan to make their feelings known and work to defeat it. Here’s how the process works.
Community Board No. 2 has already held multiple public hearings on the proposal and will hold a final vote some time in February. It’s essential that members of the community get the Board to completely reject the plan. Then, Borough President Scott Stringer has 30 days to decide his vote, and it is essential that the public also persuade the Borough President to vote to reject the plan in is entirety. Both these votes are advisory; they can’t prevent the plan from being approved. But they will have a significant impact on how other officials evaluate the plan and set the tone for the votes to follow.
Next, the City Planning Commission will hold hearings and vote on the plan. Without its approval, the plan cannot move forward. The Commission consists of 13 members: seven appointed by the Mayor, one by each of the five borough presidents and one by the Public Advocate. All of these officials must hear from opponents of the plan about why approving it would be misguided and dangerous and why it should be rejected.
The final step in the process, if the plan makes it this far, is the City Council vote; without the Council’s approval, the plan fails. The Council is supposed to consider the concerns of the effected community in this land use approval process and traditionally defers to the Council member representing that community—in this case, District 1 Council member, Margaret Chin. However, on land use issues of citywide significance such as the NYU application, the full Council, led by Speaker Christine Quinn, will likely exert a strong influence on the final decision.
Thus, Council member Chin and Speaker Quinn will have a huge say—and possibly the final word—on whether the NYU plan is approved or defeated. So it is especially important that they hear from those who oppose the plan now, loudly, clearly, repeatedly and in large numbers to make sure they understand that we need them to reject the NYU plan. If you are among the many New Yorkers who oppose the plan, contact these elected and appointed officials now and urge them to reject it:
- Go to gvshp.org/nyultr for pre-addressed letters you can send to these public officials urging them to reject the plan.
- Go to gvshp.org/nyuphone for phone numbers to call to urge these officials to reject the plan.
This seven-month approval process for a 20-year expansion plan that will change the character of our neighborhoods forever has just begun. If the decision-makers responsible for voting for or against it don’t hear from us now, we will lose our chance to have a say in the future of our communities. And, quite possibly, we will lose much of what we love and hold dear about them. Don’t let this happen. Go to gvshp.org/nyu to learn more.
By Andrew Berman
Executive Director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation