Ever since NYU unveiled its behemoth 2031 expansion plan in 2010, it has drawn heated reaction from Downtown residents, community groups, activists and politicians alike. Hosted by the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), last Tuesday’s panel of urban planning experts broke little in the way of new ground as the merits and failings of NYU 2031 were once again debated.
The MAS is a nonprofit membership organization involved in urban planning, design and preservation and has been involved in Village planning issues since the 1950s. The organization has also authored a comprehensive position statement on NYU’s plan, featuring detailed recommendations on neighborhood context, public space and public process.
The audience of more than 200, comprised mainly of NYU students, faculty and local residents, were eager to hear some ostensibly new perspectives on NYU’s plan to add about 6 million square feet of academic space throughout the city with nearly half of the expansion, equal to about the size of the Empire State Building, concentrated on two Washington Square-area superblocks located near the school’s main campus in Greenwich Village.
As the panel’s moderator, John Alschuler, chairman of HR&A, a regional planning consultancy, asked each member of the panel to weigh in on various parts of the NYU 2031 plan, the audience either groaned in disapproval or gave a brief round of applause in support.
Asked about the planned NYU hotel tower to go into the Zipper Building on the corner of West Houston and Mercer Street, Brad Hoylman, chairman of Community Board 2, which recently voted against the NYU 2031 plan, said that the board “scratched its head when it heard about the hotel plan.”
He added that the board was unclear about why there was a need for such a hotel, which would cast shadows on the landmarked Silver Towers located on the same lot.
Hilary Ballon, deputy vice chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi and a professor of urban studies and architecture at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, defended the proposed hotel, saying it is necessary to “support academics” coming to the area from out of town and even abroad.
And Gary Hack, a professor of urban design at Penn Design, the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, called the hotel a “critical piece of the plan.”
But Ron Shiffman, a professor at the Pratt Graduate Center for Planning, said, “We have hotel space—there is no reason to not stay at other hotels in the area.”
While acknowledging that a certain level of expansion is necessary for the university, he noted, “Expansion for expansion’s sake is a formula for disaster.”
In response to a question about what level of growth is appropriate and constructive, Hoylman said that NYU has not gone to the community with adequate answers. “There is not enough information on what the school is doing.”
“Growth should not take away the character and distinctiveness of the community,” Shiffman said.
Expanding further on growth strategy, Shiffman said that the school should be encouraged to control the density in Manhattan by expanding into the outer boroughs such as Brooklyn or the Bronx.
“There’s a limit to density,” Shiffman said. “You do need some open space.”
Speaking generally about the plan, Ballon said it is about preparing for the future. “The plan represents people who’ve yet to emerge,” she said.
A handout prepared by the office of Assembly Member Deborah Glick was more skeptical of NYU’s plan. Under the headline “Truth be Told,” the handout said that the real truth is that NYU has tried for years to create a campus to compete with other universities and that this plan represents an “NYU administrative scheme that doesn’t reflect the needs of the students, faculty and certainly not the community.”
And Glick is not alone in her opposition. On March 22, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation led a press conference on the steps of City Hall to call upon Borough President Scott Stringer to vote “no” on NYU 2031’s ULURP application.
The press conference was followed up last week with a joint letter urging Stringer to vote no, signed by about 50 community activists, residents, politicians and preservationists including Simeon Bankoff of Historic Districts Council, Jeanne Wilcke of Downtown Independent Democrats and Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance.
Ronna Texidor, a resident of Thompson Street, said, “No one who lives here wants 20 years of construction.”
“The university cares deeply,” said Ballon to loud groans from the audience. “The city is part of its identity. Its success is linked to the city.”
Said Hoylman, “We need NYU to make a better case to the community. We never saw any movement. We’re for taking the plan back to the drawing board.”
Stringer has until April 12 to make his recommendation to City’s Department of City Planning, after which City Planning has 60 days to act. From that point, the City Council has another 50 days, including a possible 15-day extension, for a final vote.
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