Pushing Back Against Critics, NYU Powers Ahead With Expansion Plan

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

NYU’s proposed buildings in context. (Source: NYU 2031)

New York University’s proposed Greenwich Village expansion plan that would add more than 2 million square feet to its footprint was approved by the City Planning Commission with a few changes — meaning the plan will face only one more hurdle in the City Council.

The board voted to reduce the planned footprint from 2.4 million square feet to 2.1 million. Buildings on Mercer and Bleeker streets will be lower and have deeper set backs from the street. The university will not be permitted to build a hotel, and some underground space has been reduced too.

NYU said in a statement that the city planning commission’s vote of approval, with modifications, “strikes a thoughtful balance.”  The University said it will now focus on the City Council review of its proposal.

While school officials are pleased with the decision, some neighborhood groups are disappointed.

Andrew Berman, with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, was not surprised by the outcome of the vote. He and other neighborhood groups plan to focus on lobbying the City Council to turn down the plan.

Earlier this year, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer recommended NYU scale back construction. The changes would have reduced the project's footprint by about 20 percent.

While the city planning commission ratified important aspects of Stringer’s recommendations for NYU’s plan, it did remove some concessions Stringer had secured from the University for the neighborhood. The commission did not ratify a setback for one of NYU’s proposed buildings, known as the "zipper building."  Stringer wanted this setback to protect light and air for neighboring residential buildings.

“This makes no sense, especially in light of fact that NYU agreed to these changes. I expect the City Council to correct these mistakes,” Stringer said in a statement.

New York City Council Member Margaret S. Chin, who represents Greenwich Village, is especially concerned about the bulk and density of the four buildings NYU is proposing to build in the area south of Washington Square Park. Another issue for the community is the “constructions impacts, which are expected to last for 20 years,” the Chin's office said.

Community vs. University

Town and gown disputes between Greenwich Village and the sprawling university date back to the 1800s. But now increasingly NYU faculty and staff are joining with residents to oppose the school’s plan.

“The plan we’ve submitted is what we need. Now, it’s our best estimate, it’s a 25-year projection,” NYU President John Sexton said. “We may be off 10 percent on way or the other. … Now, what’s before the city planning commission is a decision of whether or not we will be authorized to do it in this least intrusive way possible, this least expensive way possible.”

The university’s initial growth proposal included two crescent shaped high rises connected by an entire block of underground space and a hotel on the corner of Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place. All of the work is proposed to be completed by 2031.

Sexton said if the plan is amended by city officials, the university will just have to find some place else in the Village to build the space it needs.

He said building on land NYU doesn’t own, could mean more disruption for residents, and added cost to the university.
Sexton said he has “amazing’ support for the project internally. He also said expansion is needed to secure NYU’s future.

“The people who make decisions for the university, the Board of Trustees, all are unanimous and enthusiastic about the plan,” he said.

(Rendering courtesy of of NYU 2031)

Faculty Opposed to Plan

But professor Mark Crispin Miller, concerned about the environmental impact of the project, said at least 34 NYU departments have voted for resolutions to oppose NYU 2031.

“This plan is a huge financial gamble,” said Miller.

A faculty survey about the expansion found that a majority of those who took the survey oppose the plan.  But only about a third of those sent the survey filled it out. And some faculty members welcome the expansion plan.

NYU Professor Michael Purugganan studies how rice grows in heat and drought. He has secured a federal grant for his project, but he doesn’t have enough space, and says most scientists at NYU need more lab space.

 “We have 16 people and we have space for 12, so I’m trying to play musical lab chairs to make sure everybody gets their space,” he said.

More than half of NYU’s faculty lives in the middle of what would become a construction zone.

The part of project getting the most push back is centered in NYU’s core Village campus, where the university hopes to space for dorms, offices, classrooms and a hotel

The blocks extend blocks extend from West Third Street south to West Houston Street, and then from Mercer Street west to LaGuardia Place.

Residents have held numerous rallies opposed to the plan. At an April rally in Washington Square Park’s Garibaldi Plaza, Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick (D-66) told the crowd she would help them fight “against the unbelievable arrogance of NYU.”

“People come from all over the world to this unique and historic community, and we intend to preserve it,” said Glick.

She was joined by officials from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Greenwich Village Block Association, and a faculty group formed to oppose NYU’s plans, called NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan,” referring to NYU President John Sexton.

Cost of Doing Business

NYU hasn’t named a total cost figure, though outsiders estimate it will be in the billions.  Then after construction, the new facilities will have to be maintained.

Higher education experts, like Professor Ronald Ehrenberg, director of Cornell University’s Higher Education Research Institute, said those costs would be passed on to NYU students.

“NYU’s endowment is relatively small compared to competitors on a per student basis. Invariably the cost of building will raise operating costs and that leads to higher tuition, and larger debt levels for students,” said Ehrenberg.

NYU students already graduate with high debt loads.

The average debt for graduates of a private non-profit, four-year institution in New York during 2010 was $29,586, according to The Project on Student Debt. The average debt of an NYU grad in that same year was $41,300.

The City Planning Commission approved NYU’s expansion plan with modifications during its hearing Wednesday at 10 a.m. The City Council will consider the proposal next month. It has 50 days to act on the commission's approval of the plan.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that NYU President John Sexton rejected the Borough President’s recommendations. This is incorrect. WNYC regrets the error.

Listen below for an extended interview with NYU President John Sexton:


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Comments [8]

Student Debt Crisis from New York

I wonder how this plan financed on the back of future student debt loads will pan out if a student debt crisis ever hits? The Trustees of NYU are dominated by developers and not educators. This short sighted plan is the same type of rationalization that got this country into the financial crisis of 2008.

Letters sent to alumni act like the entire community supports this plan even though that is far from the truth. It's a shame that NYU misrepresents fact in all regards to this plan. Kind of makes you wonder what they are hiding.

Jun. 24 2012 09:35 AM
A. S. Evans

NYU like to say they are building on THEIR land, but point in fact is that the NYU's 2031 Plan is contingent in taking or buying under market open, green and playground PUBLIC LAND.

A private institution should not be allowed to commandeer public lands for personal use and gain, and thus deprive the community of valuable public space.

Also, to note that the Community Board 2 Resolution, drafted after numerous pre-hearings and 11 hearings and the input of over 500 community member testified, was UNANIMOUS in its OPPOSITION to the NYU 2031 Plan.

Jun. 06 2012 05:20 PM
MajorRay from Massachusetts

In any case, Brooklyn will rival the village in the near future. Perhaps NYU should preserve the history of the area by moving its futuric economic power to Brooklyn. Leave the village like it was in the 1850s. It would be an even greater tourist attraction--like colonial Williamburg.

Jun. 06 2012 05:08 PM
TruthToPower from New York

To sum up, the NYU faculty opposed to Plan 2031 cannot define the stakes more clearly: We are concerned that the recklessness of the expansion may lead to NYU’s own ruin, miring it in academic mediocrity – and debt. It is, after all, not a glut of commercial real estate and oversized dorms flying our purple flag that make for a great university. A university is not the sum of its architectural footprints or global satellites, now numbering over a dozen in NYU's case. (In listening to Pres. Sexton address faculty in recent years, one would think that "NYU New York" is now a "portal" of the "Global Network University"). Higher education is not just another business to be measured in profit margin and square footage. The defining qualities of a top university are, instead, the retention and hiring of superb faculty; a demanding admissions policy (NYU currently admits roughly a third of all applicants, as compared to, say, Columbia’s 10%); better faculty-to-student ratios; smaller classes (with more seminars, colloquia and tutorials); and more generous financial aid packages. Sexton’s plan stands to do precisely the opposite: hike tuition even further than its already-punishing rates (to pay for the expansion and resulting loan debt), squeeze even more undergrads (currently the most indebted of any private university) into our oversubscribed classes and – given the 19-year construction zone that will be WSV and Silver Towers – drive away many of our best colleagues, all the while making the recruitment of new faculty (to replace those who have departed) as exceptionally difficult as possible. Meanwhile, there is the issue of squandered space. There are no fewer than 70 vacant apt. units in the four WSV buildings alone! Bottom line: NYU is not a commercial business and does not need to constantly expand in order to excel. At 22,000 undergrads, plus graduates -- approx. 45,000 students in total -– NYU is more than large enough, at base. If anything, it is currently overgrown. Sadly, our president's rationale for the expansion is that NYU must grow so that it can … grow. NYU MUST grow to remain competitive with the smaller, more selective colleges that invest all of their intellectual and fiscal capital in academic excellence -- that is to say, student instruction and pioneering research. What we should be doing is turning to new, creative solutions in sustaining and improving our academic mission. Massive new building projects imposed on the two residential blocks – and, worse, encroaching on PUBLIC land (playgrounds, a volunteer dog run with a 250+ membership) -- are not necessary. Growth should instead be internal and incremental, as needed – focusing on existing built space, careful renovation and technological upgrades and consideration of other locations just a short subway ride away, where new construction is actually welcome. It is this sort of smart, responsible growth that will help both the University and the City in a realistic way.

Jun. 06 2012 04:18 PM

President Sexton, who refers to NYU 2031 in the audio clip as a "no brainer" and admits to obliviousness as to why anyone would oppose what largely amounts to growth for growth's sake, claims broad faculty support for his administration's 4-6 billion-dollar expansion. Make no mistake: This is a complete falsehood, and I say this as a member of the NYU faculty. As of today, as many as 34 Schools and Departments have drafted and voted in favor of individual resolutions, voicing their opposition to NYU 2031, as it is currently proposed. The Departments expressing their profound concern with the aggressiveness of this otherwise unaffordable and largely unjustified and poorly explained plan range from Politics, Economics, History, Art History, Classics and French Studies to Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Chemistry and Mathematics. Entire Schools and Centers voting against the Plan include the Stern Business School (which should tell the public something about the economic feasibility of the plan), Gallatin School of Individualized Study, the Silver School of Social Work and the Center for Neural Science. The large majority of departmental votes have been unanimous (see While the wording of every resolution is different, the spirit behind each one is the same: We, the NYU faculty, believe that the current administration is endangering the intellectual and fiscal health of our University given the scale, density and cost of the planned expansion. This is all to say nothing of the irreparable damage that the two-decade long construction will have on the Village itself -- all to take place in what amounts to a two-block radius (Washington Sq. Village and Silver Towers), in a residential neighborhood that also counts as NYU's own greatest (and, up to now, greenest) asset. Every four out of ten faculty members make their homes there. However, if this makes them/us "NIMBYs" -- the laziest argument always trotted out by those seeking to marginalize opposition to ill-conceived construction projects -- we are ALL NIMBYs in this fight. That is to say, we are all deeply invested in and concerned about our local community, both residential and academic. We all have something personal at stake; we wouldn't be very good neighbors -- and, in the case of faculty like myself, very good teachers, if were as apathetic as the University administration and the likes of the Greenwich Village/SoHo Chamber of Commerce would prefer us to be. NYU has always been in and of the Village since its inception. Indeed, its location in this culturally and economically vibrant neighborhood is the very reason that not only students and faculty but also small businesses and families have moved here. Yet how dramatically this entire dynamic has changed under the Sexton administration ... and all for the worse. Once its ally, NYU the Corporate Brand and Real Estate Octopus is now in danger of becoming the Village's most reviled enemy.

Jun. 06 2012 02:56 PM
eastvillage from eastvillage

One salient issue is that NYU's ability to expand is dependent on student attendance, which is possible only by government subsidies through student loans. Once it becomes obvious to students/parents that they are being gouged by higher education costs, NYU and all the other over priced higher education institutions will have to curtail their development-business model. It should also not be overlooked that NYU's zealous indifference to the neighborhoods in which it operates has contributed to the vanishing neighborhood feel by housing transient students whose general attitude toward the neighborhoods is that they are merely places to party.

Jun. 06 2012 09:35 AM
Pat Bianculli from Brooklyn, NY

Perhaps NYU should consider that the future expansion of the University might easily take place just
across the river on the Brooklyn waterfront. Consider these points:
1) The area is hot with construction and is quickly becoming THE destination in NYC.
2) There are many buildings up for sale as we see the Jehovah Witnesses gradually selling off their real estate. These building's are in super good condition and can easily be re-tooled for the university needs.

Dr. Sexton, (my former theology professor at St. Francis College) should consider a move back to his home borough. I am sure Marty Markowitz and the people of this great borough would welcome him here.

Jun. 06 2012 08:56 AM
Margaret from SoHo/Greenwich Village

NYU's president mentions the strong support of the NYU board of trustees for the expansion, but does not mention the high number of developers on this board (vs. the number of educators), perhaps chosen for the task of developing Greenwich Village. Also, the issue is hardly NIMBY or town vs gown, given that NYU has already expanded throughout our neighborhood through the years.

Jun. 06 2012 06:43 AM

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