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Planners Engage in Polite Combat Over NYU Expansion

| March 29, 2012 4:00 AM | Updated: March 29, 2012 10:56 AM video

A rendering shows how NYU intends to expand in Greenwich Village by 2031. The school says it needs to grow to survive, but many neighbors say the plan will overwhelm their historic neighborhood. Image courtesy of New York University.

Ever since NYU submitted its expansion plan for the next 19-years — calling for an additional 6 million sq. ft., 2.5 million of which are in Greenwich Village — many have rallied against the plan, calling it destructive to the historic neighborhood. On March 27, the Municipal Art Society gathered together three urban planning experts and the chair of the local community board to discuss whether some kind of compromise can be reached.

The  expansion plan, NYU 2031, is the largest single development ever proposed in Greenwich Village, and the largest in the university’s history. NYU has been toiling over the plan for two years, and after some setbacks, this is the final version. It calls for four new buildings to be constructed next to two massive apartment buildings on a site the university owns, which is surrounded by Houston Street, West Third and Mercer Streets and La Guardia Place. The space totals nine blocks, or two “super blocks” — larger-than-normal blocks created under Robert Moses’ 1950s redevelopment plan.

NYU’s administration says it needs the added space to grow its academic programs and student body, and that one of the buildings will house a new public school for the community.

Community Board 2 has unanimously rejected the plan. The board, along with neighbors, NYU faculty and the Greenwich Village Historical Society say the buildings called for are far too tall, that the large open space and playground would be ruined by shadows and the constant flow of students, and that plans for a new gym to replace Coles Gym as well as for a new hotel are murky and unnecessary. Last week, Greenwich Village-resident and New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman criticized the plan, and suggested the buildings be reduced in size and that NYU make better use of space in other neighborhoods. The Preservation League of New York State has called for the South Village to become a historic district, partially to protect against the expansion.

For those not familiar with NYU’s history in Lower Manhattan, past expansions have resulted in outcries from the community, which faulted the university for failing to listen to their concerns and going forward with its original plans against their wishes.

Top planners debated the NYU expansion at a special event hosted by the Municipal Art Society on Tuesday. NYU's plans are controversial within the Greenwich Village community. Photo by Giles Ashford for The Municipal Art Society

The plan is currently being reviewed by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and on April 12 his office will submit its recommendations publicly. After that, in April or May, the City Planning Commission will hold a public hearing and vote on the plan and the multiple zoning amendments that it entails, and finally, in June or July, City Council will vote whether to approve the plan.  According to estimates by the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, the upside to NYU 2031 is the creation of an additional 2,400 jobs for the next 20 years that will generate more than $490 million in economic output.

The Municipal Art Society has asked NYU to alter its plans, and the panel event it held on Tuesday was meant to engender a calm dialogue between the community and experienced academic planners. At many points during the debate, the audience, largely composed of Greenwich Village residents and NYU faculty who oppose the plan, chimed in.

WATCH VIDEO:

Watch a video of the entire debate over the NYU expansion, hosted by the Municipal Art Society. Video by Jaime Lebri for The Municipal Art Society.

The discussion was moderated by John Alschuler, chairman of both the urban planning advisory firm, HR&A, and Friends of the High Line. Panelists included Brad Hoylman, chair of Community Board 2; Hilary Ballon, deputy vice chancellor NYU Abu Dhabi and professor of urban studies and architecture, and curator of the Greatest Grid exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York; Ron Shiffman, a professor at Pratt Graduate Center for Planning, who was involved with designing an alternative plan to Columbia University’s controversial expansion into Manhattanville; and Gary Hack, former dean and professor of urban design at the University of Pennsylvania.

MetroFocus shares some of John Alschuler’s questions below, and panelists’ responses.

Brad Hoylman, chair of Community Board 2

Flickr/West Side Neighborhood Alliance

What do you make of how this plan uses open space and the two buildings that boomerang on either side of it?

“It represents NYU’s attempt to solve its identity crisis — this open space area [the school proposed] serves as a quadrangle. But you’re destroying a playground, you’re destroying a historic garden.”

Should the city play a different role in planning institutional development?

“By this point its too late for the community to really say anything. I think developers should have to meet with the community before going to the Department of City Planning.”

How should Coles Gym be replaced?

“What’s planned is a fifth building — a temporary gym — which the community board has serious issues with, because it will mean an additional 10 years of construction. NYU should find another location to replace Coles.”

What about the new hotel NYU proposed?

“Most of us on the community board were just scratching our heads when we heard about the hotel.”

Can there be a compromise between NYU and the community?

“We need for NYU to make a better case. I would advise NYU to take their plan back to the drawing board.”

Hilary Ballon, deputy vice chancellor NYU Abu Dhabi

Image courtesy of NYU.

What do you make of how this plan uses open space and the two buildings that boomerang on either side of it?

“Both of the super blocks [where the proposed expansion will occur] were created by Robert Moses after the 1949 urban renewal plan was approved. I see it [NYU's plan] as creating more open, usable space, rather than limiting it.”

Should the city play a different role in planning institutional development?

“I had a sense that NYU is taking a big step forward instead of making small, single moves. I understand how foreboding that can seem to the community. We need to ask, do we have structures in place that allow us to think about the city-wide impact?”

What about the new hotel NYU proposed?

“It’s my understanding that the hotel will support the academic department.”

Can there be a compromise between NYU and the community? “Even though it may not feel this way all the time, the university does care deeply about the community.”

Ron Shiffman, professor at Pratt Graduate Center for Planning

Flickr/threecee

What do you make of how this plan uses open space and the two buildings that boomerang on either side of it?

“I agree with Hillary on the need to build open space, but since the bulk of those [proposed] buildings is really enormous and the open space will be overshadowed. I think two buildings there is really inappropriate.”

Should the city play a different role in planning institutional development?

“I really think there should be an institutional plan. Maybe we need to encourage NYU to move to its Brooklyn Poly site. Why NYU ever left the Bronx is beyond me. We need a formula for institutions to expand. Most of the boards of these [institutional] planning departments are staffed by developers. We have to open up this process.”

How should Coles Gym be replaced?

“The real issue is what replaces it. It’s unclear in NYU’s plans how the gym will be used.”

What about the new hotel NYU proposed?

“People go to NYU because of the distinctiveness of its location. If we keep concentrating these institutions we’re going to lose that uniqueness and diversity.”

Can there be a compromise between NYU and the community?

“I would seriously advise NYU and the city to look at [New York Times architecture critic] Kimmelman’s proposal. It allows the university to expand but looks at alternative sites around the city.”

Gary Hack, former dean and professor of urban design at the University of Pennsylvania

Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

What do you make of how this plan uses open space and the two buildings that boomerang on either side of it?

“I walked down to the open space [currently there] this evening, and there really wasn’t many people using it.” (Multiple audience members respond: “It’s cold!”)

Should the city play a different role in planning institutional development?

“Most cities, like Philadelphia and Boston, have an institutional master plan review process.” [New York City does not have what most urban planners consider a real master plan process, which includes a public planning component.]

How should Coles Gym be replaced?

“For NYU to survive, they do have to get the space they need for future use. But due to the changing nature of the city over time, we can’t expect them to know exactly how the space will be used.”

What about the new hotel NYU proposed?

“A hotel is an essential educational facility these days. If you’re going to have conferences and meetings, you need more than a hotel with just room, you need a hotel with these facilities.”

Can there be a compromise between NYU and the community?

“There’s two things needed. One is to get the massing and form of the buildings right, because once the shadows [created by the buildings], they’re not going away. And whatever the square footage yields is what you should build there.”

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