Thank You for Not Hating N.Y.U.

thank-you-not-hating-nyu
Alicia Hurley. (Sarah Laskow)
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If New York University had compromised with its neighbors back in 1965, Alicia Hurley’s office would have a less impressive view. Hurley, the university’s vice president for government affairs and community engagement, works from the top floor of Bobst Library, the massive red building on the south side of Washington Square Park, and her wide window looks out over the treetops and onto Greenwich Village, spread out below.

In the 50s or '60s, it would have fallen to someone in Hurley’s position to listen to Village residents argue that Bobst was too large, too expensive and too alien to be allowed. Today, Hurley spends much of her time listening to similar arguments about N.Y.U.’s plans to add an additional 3 million square feet to its real-estate holdings in the Village and explaining why and how the school will go forward with its buildings anyway.

With this latest expansion, N.Y.U. is trying harder than ever before to present a friendly face to a neighborhood that for decades has rallied against its development projects. The anger about N.Y.U.’s expansion focuses on the insistence of the university—an entity whose profile is increasingly global, and corporate—that it belongs in the Village, one of the few places in Manhattan, as long-time Villagers say, where you can still see the sky.

Hurley is N.Y.U.’s primary ambassador to its neighbors, and when she descends from the 12th floor of Bobst, she carries that chilly corporatism with her, in the form of a coterie of lawyers, sharp PowerPoint presentations, and bland, purposeful phrases to describe plans that will mean, in some cases, tearing down homes.

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But after she spars at public hearings with Village activists and community board members, taking punches for N.Y.U., she makes it a point to turn right around and kiss her opponents on the cheek at fund-raisers and community events.

Hurley likens her job to working in the office of an elected official.

“We’re like every local political office,” she said, in an interview arranged after an extended back-and-forth about this article. “We’re essentially doing constituent services and construction mitigation.”

Hurley’s uniform tends to be a straight bob and streamlined, black outfits, and at community meetings she’ll stand for hours taking criticism from neighborhood activists; she knows just what kind of comments will set off angry hisses and boos at community meetings.

On N.Y.U.’s terms, at least, Hurley and her team are succeeding. In its 2031 plan, which lays out the school’s future ambitions, N.Y.U. encompasses its community-engagement goals with the term “awareness,” and is more concerned with being transparent about its plans than actually winning support for them.

The school’s 2031 materials argue that “N.Y.U.’s success is interdependent with its city, neighborhood and community,” but that it “cannot let space constraints limit its academic ambitions.” N.Y.U. dorm rooms are often tiny and its classroom hallways crowded, but at one recent event Hurley noted that the expanded space helps the school compete not necessarily for students, but for world-class professors, who might otherwise prefer to teach at a school like Harvard or Yale. It's clear how both N.Y.U. and its new hires would benefit if the school can promise recruits spacious Village apartments with fabulous views; it's less clear what the school's closest neighbors get out of this arrangement.

“We want people to be aware,” said John Beckman, the school’s vice president for public affairs. “We don’t expect agreement. We want people to understand our thinking.”

Certainly, people are aware of N.Y.U.’s intentions. The school has hosted open houses presenting its plans, the media has covered the expansion extensively, and Hurley guesses she is asked to come before the community boards more than anyone else in the city. The extent to which N.Y.U.’s neighbors understand what’s coming—and the fact that they have so far refrained from staging dramatic protests in Washington Square Park—can be credited to her.

Part of Hurley’s role is to demonstrate the ways N.Y.U.’s ample resources are actually benefiting the neighborhood, or at least mitigating some of the inconvenience of its actions. It’s her office, for instance, that blasts out emails before N.Y.U. move-in day, offering to pay for garage parking for neighborhood residents affected by the influx of students. She also has a budget that she can use to fund community events, and she makes herself available to address complaints about problems like construction noise or blocked roads.

 

HURLEY’S CONNECTION TO NEW YORK AND THE VILLAGE COMES primarily through N.Y.U. She grew up in Trinidad, Colo., a town just north of the New Mexico border that is known primarily for being the sex-change capital of the world. She got her undergraduate degree at U.C. Boulder, a party school at the time which she now says she didn’t care for. After college, Hurley spent a year in Washington, D.C., working in public policy on higher education issues. Then she came to New York to study at N.Y.U. and never left.

It was as a student that Hurley first encountered her future boss, Lynne Brown, who gave a guest lecture in one of Hurley’s classes at the Steinhardt school. At the time, Brown was an N.Y.U. vice president for government and community relations—essentially the same job Hurley has now. (Today, Brown is the university’s senior vice president for university relations and public affairs.) Brown’s job aroused Hurley’s interest, and by 1996, she was working in the government and community affairs office part-time, as a graduate assistant. After finishing her master’s degree, Hurley went on to earn her Ph.D. in higher-education administration and continued working under Brown, primarily on federal-level lobbying.

“My story is an N.Y.U. story,” Hurley said. “I’ve never really enjoyed going to school, and I never imagined I’d get a Ph.D. I’m loyal to this institution because of the opportunity it’s given me.”

In 2005, Hurley was asked to take on state and local issues, after the person handling that portfolio moved on. At that point, she had been working or studying at N.Y.U. for a decade. 2005 was also the year that N.Y.U. announced it was building a new dorm on East 12th St., a prospect that did not sit well with the school’s neighbors. The building’s height (26 stories), and its design came under fire, as did the potential impact of an influx of students on the neighborhood. (The building is a bit bizarre: the 26-story structure is tucked back from the street, behind the only remaining bit of the former occupant of the site, St. Ann’s Church, the façade of which was left standing.)

N.Y.U. had conceived the project hastily, after losing its lease on another dorm space, and Hurley says the school’s real estate team came to her and said, essentially, “We did this. Now explain to the community that it’s going to be OK.”

“I went to two or three Community Board 3 meetings, one worse than the next,” Hurley said. “If you think you’re hearing now that people are angry, there was much more ire in the room.”

N.Y.U. had not done much work in the East Village before, and Susan Stetzer, Community Board 3’s district manager, says the mere fact of Hurley’s presence was something of a novelty.

“I don't remember anyone at her level ever coming down before,” Stetzer said. “I was talking to her all the time, asking, 'Do you know about this? Or what about this?’ I don't remember that ever happening before.”

Other active neighborhood residents also noticed a change.

“Community affairs at N.Y.U. was a pretty close-knit group, and they had very limited actual outreach within the community,” said Zella Jones, a long-time neighborhood activist in Noho. “Things began to change very, very quickly when Alicia took over.”

Jones, for instance, first met Hurley at a public forum; soon after, the two met to talk about N.Y.U. using certain buildings for uses they were not zoned for. Working with Hurley, Jones said, “I knew there was someone at N.Y.U. who would answer the phone and I knew even if it wasn't what I wanted to hear, I would have the straight scoop.”

But Hurley’s politeness and willingness to traffic in authorized information isn’t always enough. Andrew Berman, who heads the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and who has been one of N.Y.U.’s most vocal critics, says the school’s engagement efforts on the 12th Street dorm isn’t much more than window dressing.

“N.Y.U. agreed to sit and meet with neighbors about issues that were being raised and talk about mitigations,” Berman said. “They said we're not making promises, and we'll listen to everything and try to make changes where we can. Later we found that N.Y.U. was filing its plans without making any changes.” Berman says the school did not notify neighborhood residents that they were going forward with the unchanged plans, either.

Those are the same kinds of complaints that Hurley hears now—that if N.Y.U. were truly listening, it would agree to move more of its buildings somewhere else.

OVER THE PAST COUPLE OF YEARS, N.Y.U. HAS BEEN soliciting opinions about its planning ideas and proposals, and the Community Task Force on N.Y.U., a smaller group of community board members, neighborhood activists and elected officials, met in private to discuss attendant issues. But now the task force has stopped its work, and N.Y.U. is moving into a more active stage, where it’s applying to the city for permissions, including substantial rezonings, to make the plan go forward.

Since the fight over the 12th Street dorm, N.Y.U. has refined its posture toward community affairs. The dorm still comes up as a prime example of N.Y.U. blundering, and Hurley says the process of building it pushed her and her colleagues to step back and ask what they did wrong.

They found, among other things, that neighbors always wanted to know what other projects were coming, and that they couldn't always tell them. But they had to be seen to be trying.

N.Y.U.’s 2031 plan was in the works before 2005, but it “was implemented after the 12th Street debates and was therefore able to benefit from what we had learned from that experience,” Hurley said.

She sometimes emphasizes that the information she’s presenting to the neighborhood represents a plan, not a series of decisions set in stone—that if the university needs the space and if it can afford to purchase or build it, only then will it actually add the full 6 million square feet (3 million in the Village, and 3 million at remote sites) to its campus.

“It’s not like Columbia, which bought 6 million square feet and will develop it over time,” she said.

For Hurley, this means another round of community board meetings, where often, despite the back-up of the 2031 plan, she still can’t offer enough specifics to mitigate Villagers’ concerns. The most common and impassioned pleas are for N.Y.U. to build more of its campus further away (a position neatly summarized on stickers, passed out at the meeting by the Community Action Alliance on N.Y.U. 2031, which read, “Financial District—Yes! The Village—No!”).

Hurley says some critics just “want us to stop what we’re doing,” and then when N.Y.U. moves forward, “it’s easy to accuse us of not listening.”

Last week, for instance, she spent more than two hours in P.S. 41’s auditorium, acting as buffer between neighborhood residents and the lawyers she'd brought along to explain N.Y.U.’s latest land-use proposals, which include demapping stretches of Bleecker, LaGuardia, West 3rd and Mercer Streets, and changing the zoning of areas to the south and east of Washington Square Park. The demapping proposal—which would deliver the land to N.Y.U.—was the first one to elicit hisses from the audience. The presentation was interrupted intermittently thereafter by boos and angry questions.

Hurley almost never loses her cool during these bouts. During this presentation, she kept her focus on the slideshow, and during the question-and-answer period, she gave her attention to the speaker, or jotted a note on her notepad.

At this meeting, the speakers were mostly older, and while some asked questions about the zoning plan, others gave prepared speeches about N.Y.U.’s wrong-headedness. The very last speaker said he lived at 15 Washington Place, and asked if N.Y.U. was going to tear down his building. Hurley replied that 15 Washington Place was “a site identified as one that could be converted.” In other words, yes, maybe.

She also pointed out, consolingly, that N.Y.U. first took possession of the superblocks as part of a slum-clearing project in the 1950s, but that N.Y.U. was “not the one who bulldozed those blocks.”

She smiled broadly, for maybe the first time that night. “That was Robert Moses.”

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