N.Y.U.'s Alicia Hurley takes on intransigent neighbors, explains how they will sell faculty on the big 2031 expansion plan
1:43 pm Apr. 3, 20127
New York University was supposed to be in the home stretch in its effort to get approval for its plan to expand its footprint in Greenwich Village by some two million square feet.
But it's been a rough month for the university, whose plan, called N.Y.U. 2031, is increasingly looking like it will reach the final decision-makers this summer bruised and bloodied by neighborhood residents, the borough president and 2013 mayoral contender Scott Stringer, and two new insurgent protests against the plan being organized by prominent local businesses, and a group of the university's own faculty, respectively.
It's largely the job of Alicia Hurley, the school's public point person, to make people understand the plan, but that's not the same thing as getting people to like it.
In a Sept. 2010 interview with Capital, Hurley described the way the university dealt with neighborhood residents as one of transparency, but not approval-seeking.
"We're at a point now," said Hurley in another interview with Capital last week, "where we have kind of dwindled down the people we're dealing with to the people who live right on or around the blocks, the adamant opposition."
These aren't people simply hungry to know more about what the school has in mind.
"They're picking out the pieces that they think will be the best ammunition, so it's a real challenge," said Hurley.
When Hurley first spoke with Capital, and for some years previously, the objectors to N.Y.U. plans tended to be a recurring cast of neighborhood activists and preservationists. But since these new protests have started up, the university has been largely silent.
In February, a group of faculty began raising objections to the plans. It's a provocative dynamic—in practice, perception, or both, a university depends upon its faculty. N.Y.U. cannot be eager to have its faculty rise up against expansion in a high-profile way.
"We understand that this will have an effect on our own community—the faculty who live on these blocks," Hurley said.
The situation is muddied, what with the school acting as both landlord and employer to many faculty, but one angle is to appeal to those academics' own professional survival instinct.
Some faculty have questioned the need for N.Y.U. to expand at all. One professor at the Stern School of Business recently told Capital that, yes, N.Y.U. classrooms are packed from first thing in the morning until late in the evening.
"But that's just a fact of being in Manhattan," the professor said. "That's what students have to accept when they come here, that there might be class at 6 p.m. I don't think that's a big deal."
It's not an argument that Hurley has much time for.
"I'm not sure what departments they're in," she said of the faculty doubters in general, "but I can assure you that there are schools and departments who have immediate and aggressive growth needs that they are articulating to the University. We've got 14 different schools feeding up their space plans" to the administration.
WHEN JOHN SEXTON WAS NAMED PRESIDENT of N.Y.U. in 2002, a faculty survey was conducted about what was holding the school back academically, Hurley said, and lack of space was the top issue raised by faculty.
The second angle is as landlord: To pledge to do what the school can to make it the planned construction as painless as possible.
They're exploring, for example, sound-attenuating windows in faculty housing.
"There are ways that we can mitigate this," Hurley said, "and that's a conversation we're certainly having with some of our faculty."
She puts a slight emphasis on the word some.
"There's definitely a portion out there who would, you know, choose to still fight it altogether," she said.
Some faculty and graduate students have pointed to the project's open-ended price tag which, really, is two issues packed into one. The first is that the school has declined to specify how much it believes the expansion projects will cost as a whole, and the second is that absent a number from N.Y.U., the one that is floating around is a pretty staggering $6 billion.
It's not accurate, said Hurley.
"They must have just done a straight thousand-dollar-a-square-foot [calculation] and put it out," she said.
"We don't have a cost," said Hurley. But the one being bandied about "is not a number we would use or agree with."
She also rejects the notion that the school will be taking on an unwise amount of debt.
The four superblock buildings, said Hurley, will be paid for the way the school does anything else.
"We do financing, borrowing, philanthropy, and then just working capital," she said. Borrowing is planned through the DASNY, or the Dormitory Authority for the State of New York. The buildings would be paid for progressively; the plan, argued Hurley, is to only bring the new buildings online as they are needed and as their uses can be nailed down.
Hurley said that architecturally ambitious buildings present a new chance for would-be donors to put their names on a piece of N.Y.U.
"There actually have not been a lot of opportunities for that in our past," she said.
There are also plans for a public school on site, the tab for which, Hurley said, will be picked up by the city.
It's a floating mix of funding options that, combined with the complexities of trying to build big buildings in New York City in the 2010s, "make it hard to put a price on" the build-out plan, she said, "and it's why we wouldn't do that."
"But," she said, "it's not like we're spending down endowment to do this."
N.Y.U.'s endowment stands at about $2 billion.
"People confuse that. It's not like that's our savings account."
As for the argument that the cost of the plans will necessarily trigger the addition of (tuition-paying) students, Hurley says that that's not on the cards.
Asked directly whether N.Y.U. foresees the possibility of growing the already 40,000-plus student body, Hurley simply said, "no," adding, "our assumption we're building in [to their plans] is actually a slowing down of growth. Much of this is about a decompression of the student expansion we had, particularly in the 90s."
In one 15-year period, N.Y.U.'s student body grew by about a quarter. The outlook from here forward, said Hurley, is for growth in the range of half a percent—"a rounding error."
RUNNING THROUGH THE DEBATE IS THAT NO MATTER what reassurances come from Hurley and her ilk, the mark left on the city by N.Y.U. is potentially too great to allow to proceed purely on a basis of trust. And whatever the university does, it is still private university facilities for students and professors, and not permanent residents, that they are interested in building.
"Administrations come and go," said Community Board 2 chair Brad Hoylman at a recent forum. "That's what we see at N.Y.U. But the residents stay."
Should the superblock construction ever take the full 19 years, President Sexton would be nearly 90 years old by the time it was done. But the city would remain changed.
In the end, concrete, steel, bricks, and glass matter more than words. The superblocks were, themselves, the product of a Robert Moses slum-clearance plan. He hasn't walked the earth in 30 years, but New York City is still fighting over what he left behind.
For N.Y.U.'s leaders of today, though, there are more immediate concerns: a bulging student body as a result of decisions made but those who came before them.
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