NYU vs. Greenwich Village: Round 2

Sarah Laskow | March 21st, 2011

Round two of the battle between NYU and its neighbors begins tonight. Last week, the university released its revised plan for redeveloping what it calls the school’s Core area, and tonight Community Board 2 will meet for the first time to consider the revised plans. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which has led the opposition to NYU’s development, is urging its members to attend the meeting in order to “find out more and express your opinion.”

In the last series of these sorts of meetings, in which NYU presented its plans and courted the community board’s approval, GVSHP and its allies were vocal about their opinions. CB2 has a history of opposition to development: It was the setting for Jane Jacobs’ campaign against Robert Moses, and she later served on the board. These days, meetings that feature NYU’s plans are punctuated with hisses and impassioned defenses of the neighborhood and its history. Comment sessions go on for hours, and neighborhood activists might even put their opposition into song.

The changes that NYU is proposing would affect primarily two “superblocks” below West 4th Street. These blocks are a Moses legacy; he razed the area’s tenement buildings as part of a slum-clearance program in the 1960s and handed over part of the newly empty land to NYU. The southern block features three residential towers designed by I.M. Pei, and NYU originally planned to add a fourth tower to that site. The school backed away from that plan in November when Pei expressed his disapproval. NYU’s updated plan edges its new construction away from the Pei towers, to opposite corners of the same block.

For GVSHP and its allies, however, the plan represents only a minor concession. The school is still asking the city to hand over space that’s currently used by the community — an issue that’s been a sticking point since the process started. The main disagreement, though, between the school and its opponents is whether NYU should be building tall buildings in the neighborhood at all. As GVHSP director Andrew Berman wrote to the press, the new plan is “more of the same from the university which has overbuilt, oversaturated, and overdeveloped in this neighborhood for decades.  A fundamentally better plan for the university and for the city as a whole would be for NYU to channel this massive growth to places like the Financial District.”

Neighborhood activists are not the only challengers that NYU must parry, either, in its quest to expand. The school has made Governors Island a key part of its plans: It identifies the island as one of the remote sites on which it plans to build, dispersing its presence throughout the city instead of concentrating it so heavily in one area. In the NYU plan, Governors Island could be a site for, in particular, the school’s scientifically oriented work.

But the mayor’s office announced last week that schools from all over the world are interested in working with the city to building science-focused campuses. If the mayor’s office picked a different school to sponsor, that school wouldn’t necessarily steal the space NYU wants. But a nod from the city would certainly smooth NYU’s path to developing a Governors Island campus.

One huge advantage to that space? Nobody lives there already.