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On July 17, the City Council’s Land Use Committee voted overwhelmingly, by 19 to 1, to support New York University’s 2031 development plan for its two South Village superblocks.
The resulting plan wasn’t what opponents were hoping for, but represents significant concessions by N.Y.U., and may be the best outcome achievable under the circumstances. The Bloomberg administration strongly supported the plan — as witnessed by the City Planning Commission’s earlier vote to approve the 20-year project.
In any compromise, no one is ever completely satisfied. Six years ago, N.Y.U. started a public process to provide a rational and transparent planning process for the expansion of its facilities, which it said had not kept pace with the growth of the school’s student body and its shifting role from a commuter school to a world-class university.
Growing on its own footprint is an improvement to the university’s former approach of haphazardly finding new development sites. Yet, the superblocks plan was an overreach and needed to be reined in. City Councilmember Margaret Chin and Borough President Scott Stringer — and City Planning, which nixed an N.Y.U. hotel from the project — have all played a part in paring the plan down. The earlier removal of a temporary gym was also a win for neighbors.
Chin worked long and hard on this — her first major Uniform Land Use and Review Procedure (ULURP) application — to secure compromises from N.Y.U. And the concessions by the university are binding, agreed to in writing by N.Y.U. President John Sexton.
Specifically, the Mercer Street Boomerang building has been shaved down significantly, from 11 stories to four. Its footprint, along with that of the LaGuardia Place Boomerang, has been reduced — thereby taking up less space within Washington Square Village and making the complex’s courtyard seem less like a walled-off “college quad.”
The Zipper building, which will replace Coles gym, has also been reduced in size. Its mass was shifted toward Houston Street in order to minimize the impact on residents living near the building’s northern end.
Also important, N.Y.U. has agreed to maintain the open-space public strips on the superblocks at the same level as its privately owned public spaces on the blocks. Up until now, the university has done an atrocious job in this regard — allowing a playground on Mercer Street, for example, to become a condemned sinkhole, unusable by the public. This agreement will rectify that long-festering problem.
In another major concession, N.Y.U. has agreed that – if the School Construction Authority doesn’t build a public school at the current Morton Williams supermarket site – then the university will include at least 25,000 square feet of space in a new building there for use by community groups, at a moderate rent.
In her negotiations with the university during this process, Margaret Chin has handled herself as a competent and committed community leader. She has listened to all sides in this roiled debate, including her constituents, many of whom never gave her a reasonable road map to a final solution. Had they backed off of an unreasonable maximalist position of “no growth whatsoever in the core,” she might have been able to make more headway. Without any guidelines, they left her up against the N.Y.U. powers almost alone.
The councilmember pushed N.Y.U. to make critical cuts in the project and provided novel community spaces and amenities. In this most important decision of her Council tenure, Margaret Chin stands tall.