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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | This month, the New York City Council is weighing in on a massive expansion plan by New York University that, if approved, would tack on about two million square feet of development to two superblocks the university owns south of Washington Square Park.
By an overwhelming vote of 19 to 1, the City Council’s Land Use Committee approved N.Y.U’s massive 2031 expansion project for the two South Village superblocks on Tues., July 19. The vote follows eight hours of testimony by university administrators and the plan’s local supporters and opponents at a City Council hearing in late June.
Those who are against the plan believe it’s too extensive and that it could erode Greenwich Village’s otherwise quaint, residential character.
The estimated 100 people who attended the vote comprised a mix of Village residents, N.Y.U. faculty and Downtown activists and preservationists. Public testimony wasn’t allowed at the vote, although opponents held aloft small protest signs saying the project is “wrong” for the Village, N.Y.U. and the city.
The full Council was poised to cast a final vote on the plan on Wed., July 25, the day after this publication went to press. The vote will complete the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which began earlier this year.
Lynne Brown, N.Y.U.’s senior vice president, maintained that the plan would help New York City remain “economically vibrant” and the “talent capital of the world.”
“The plan approved today by the City Council Committee on Land Use will enable N.Y.U. to add the academic space it needs for classes, labs and performance space — while at the same time providing the local community with more publicly accessible open space and community facility space,” she said.
Confronting the continued opposition to the project, Council Member Margaret Chin — whose 1st District includes the N.Y.U. superblocks — said she was able to get the university to make significant reductions and concessions.
In the latest negotiations, the Boomerang buildings planned for the Washington Square Village block were cut down — very significantly in the case of the Mercer Street Boomerang, which had been the larger of the two. During the Council’s review, the Mercer building was cut by 64 percent, thereby dropping it by seven stories. More than 20,000 square feet was also slashed from the LaGuardia Boomerang.
Both buildings now have smaller footprints, meaning they’ll take up less space and make the complex’s central courtyard more accessible to the public, according to Chin and other advocates of the current plan.
As for the Zipper Building, a 14-story tower on its northeastern corner has been chopped down to five stories, and the building’s bulk generally shifted southward in order to minimize its impact on residents who live at 200 Mercer St. and 88 Bleecker St.
“At last month’s public hearing, I made it clear I did not support N.Y.U.’s expansion proposal as modified by the City Planning Commission,” Chin said prior to the vote. “Throughout this process, I have tried to keep an open mind. I have maintained that it is possible to strike a balance that upholds the integrity of Greenwich Village and meets N.Y.U.’s immediate academic needs.”
Chin said she felt confident that the modified proposal, which incorporates what she deems are “major modifications” to the expansion plan, strikes an appropriate balance between the needs of the university and the surrounding community.
“To be perfectly honest, no one got everything they wanted,” said the council member. “This was a compromise, but it was arrived at rationally in good faith.”
District 2 Council Member Rosie Mendez said many people would be happy if she voted “no” and that it would be the “easy thing to do.” But, deferring to her “sister” Margaret Chin, she said she would vote “yes.” (The Council’s practice is generally for members to follow the lead of the council member in whose district a project is located.)
Unlike at the June hearing, when testimony by the project’s unequivocal opponents, including actor Matthew Broderick, had drawn flurries of agreeing “jazz hands” fluttering in the air, they had little to feel jazzed about this time around. The only “jazz hands” in evidence were when Council Member Charles Barron spoke before casting his lone dissenting vote.
Barron cited the noise, traffic and congestion the project would cause.
“These are neighborhoods, these are not university towns,” he said in reference to expansion projects by N.Y.U. and Columbia University. “We should send this back to the drawing board.”
Alluding to Community Board 2’s resolution on the project, which was an “absolute no,” Barron added, “It does seem that everything in this report is diametrically opposed to what’s in the plan.
“This is so-called representative democracy,” he declared. “We’re supposed to be representing the people — not N.Y.U.”
While retaining the option for a K-5 public school at the southeast corner of Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place, Chin got N.Y.U. to commit to ensuring that, if the school plan doesn’t materialize, one-quarter of a building there will be devoted to community use.
The city Department of Education’s School Construction Authority would have until late 2014 to approve the site. The S.C.A. would then have until mid-2018 to begin construction.
If the S.C.A. declines to build the school, then N.Y.U. would construct a building at the site of up to 100,000 square feet, with no less than 25,000 square feet devoted to uses by community groups, such as a preschool or senior day center. In total, N.Y.U. has committed to building 38,500 square feet of community space. Space would be leased out to the community groups at a rent that “ensures that N.Y.U. would not make a profit,” according to the agreement.
Speaking before the Council vote, Alicia Hurley, vice president of N.Y.U.’s Office of Government Affairs and Civic Engagement, maintained that the university would build “the core and shell” of the community space in the Bleecker building and fully fit it out for use by the tenants.
As for what N.Y.U. would put in the floors above this community space, word is it would be something like the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service. N.Y.U.’s previous plan for the site included a freshman dorm, but community members and C.B. 2 argued it would be inappropriate, in that it would be akin to plopping “Animal House” on top of a public school.
N.Y.U. has also pledged to provide 6,000 square feet in Washington Square Village 4, a high-rise building, for community use.
In addition, the university is planning a 7,500-square-foot indoor atrium and community space on the western side of the new Zipper Building, perhaps comparable to the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden. Chin and her staff said this atrium might be a place where one could get a cup of coffee and hang out, and would give people more of a reason to walk down a widened walkway on the western side of the building.
Chin was unsuccessful in preventing N.Y.U. from taking part of the public strip along Mercer Street in front of Coles. N.Y.U. said it had to do this. Otherwise, it would limit the way the mechanical systems could be laid out in the building.
N.Y.U. has also committed to immediate upgrades to existing open space in the area. Due to the community’s concern about N.Y.U.’s ability to maintain its public spaces, the university has committed to entering a maintenance and operation agreement for care of the public land with the city Department of Parks and Recreation. In addition, the university has plans to create a $150,000 annual endowment for the permanent upkeep and maintenance of private open spaces on the superblocks.
As part of the agreement, N.Y.U. is promising to maintain the city-owned public strips at the same standards as N.Y.U.-owned private land.
N.Y.U. has additionally consented to modify the so-called “Open Space Oversight Organization” — which was previously approved by the Department of City Planning — to include oversight of existing and future open spaces. The organization is to be established by the end of this year.
In other issues, N.Y.U. has agreed not to lease space on the superblocks to nightclub operators, and has similarly vowed not to allow tenants to obtain cabaret or liquor licenses.
In a rally before the vote, members of N.Y.U.’s Faculty Against the Sexton Plan (FASP) — a faculty group named after N.Y.U. President John Sexton that opposes the project — presented their “no-build” alternative, which calls for the university to move administrative uses out of the campus core, thereby freeing up space for academic use.
FASP members previously said they would support teaching on Fridays, since this would better utilize the university’s existing classroom space, so that new space wouldn’t be required. (The no-classes-on-Fridays regimen currently in place is a holdover from the university’s days as a commuter school.)
But despite these myriad amendments, some firmly held their ground against the plan. Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said the Council committee’s vote was “deeply disappointing.”
“The plan is still absolutely wrong, and it violates a public trust,” he said of N.Y.U. 2031. “This was public land given to N.Y.U. a generation ago. This land was never supposed to be built on. While we appreciate that the plan was scaled back slightly, it’s not nearly enough to make it acceptable.”
Berman noted that filing a lawsuit against the plan is still an option.