N.Y.U.'s Alicia Hurley takes on intransigent neighbors, explains how they will sell faculty on the big 2031 expansion plan
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.
"A lot of what we've spent the last decade doing," said Hurley, "is trying to get our assets, our buildings, upgraded, and moving things around so that they're better organized. That was able to absorb a lot of what we're trying to do academically. But at this point, there's not that much space left."
"And that," she said, "is the scary part."
To hear Hurley tell it, the difficulties faced by N.Y.U. in getting public support for their plan has, to some extent, proven to be a matter of damned if you do, damned if you don't.
In 2005, the year Hurley was asked to take on state and local issues on behalf of N.Y.U., more than 1,000 N.Y.U. students who had been housed in a rented facility on Water Street were forced to leave.
"And about six years ago, the owners of the building decided that they wanted to turn it into condos, so we had to scramble for 1,200 student beds in New York City," she said.
In a bind, the school bought land on East 12th Street and built a 26-story dormitory building—a project that, Hurley said, the university took extensive public flak for.
It's only in recent years that the university has had to significantly expand its footprint beyond the collection of properties it owns in the center of Greenwich Village around Washington Square. The school would simply build on land they owned, or buy what was available on the market, and, Hurley said, "not engage with the community."
"We literally would never go to the community board unless we absolutely had to," she said. "Everything we did was as-of-right. You'd only do a project if you didn't have to seek government approval that would force you into processes like these."
Over the years, that approach raised hackles.
"The community always said, 'we want a plan, we want a plan,'" Hurley said. "This is the only plan we can present."
"We've spent the last 20, 30 years building our facilities around the community," said Hurley. "Do I think it's right to just continue growing in the community and not try to absorb some of this on our own property? No, I don't. I think it's time to really consider more carefully how we should be expanding. We're trying to isolate it."
"In the past," she said, "it was ad hoc. We'd just lease or buy stuff in the neighborhood. Some of it was contentious, some of it less so, but there was always a buzz around it. This is the first time we've been able to plan, to say, 'OK, why don't we utilize our own property and absorb our growth needs as they occur.'"
The plan, Hurley said, is about taking the school's destiny into its own hands and out of those of "the real-estate market, the developers."
"This isn't about the growth of student housing, for example. This is about the few leases we have left in the neighborhood we have on student housing, and that it's much better for us to own than lease our dorms."
BUT THE SCALE OF A LARGE MASTER PLAN FOR New York University has ended up looking like a monster to the same groups that wanted clarity on the university's plans in the neighborhood all along.
Maybe a project that seems too complex to be understood by interested Village residents and faculty employed by a well-regarded institution of higher learning is simply too big a construction project for a school to undertake in New York City?
"I don't think so," said Hurley. "It's much smaller than what Columbia did in Manhattanville in scope and complexity. And it's even smaller in scope than was Fordham did up on their superblocks."
The problem is a different one, she said.
"I don't think it's that you can't manage the complexity," she said. "You can deal with the complexity when you're dealing with agencies and with people who are choosing to engage on the content [of the plans]. But if you're dealing with an audience who is choosing to just use your content against you, then it's a losing battle."
"If you follow politics in Washington or even here in New York," said Hurley, "you know, it's just not a world that's friendly to nuance."
No project in New York City's history, said Hurley, has received the sort of public vetting that N.Y.U.'s expansion has.
To some extent, N.Y.U. is asking the Village, the city, and its faculty to have a renewed faith in the school's ability to make fair and intelligent decisions about its role in New York.
"It's not growth for growth's sake," said Hurley. "If we don't need the space, we won't build it."
But it's not a promise that appears promising to interested observers. Associates of Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer recently aired in the New York Times his sense that N.Y.U. had misrepresented whether it could adjust the balance of space added on the superblocks and elsewhere in New York City.
"You know, you're out there with these documents that are essentially supposed to show you the worse-case scenario, and people see them and consider them construction plans," she said. "We know that there's absolutely no way that we are going to build for 20 years, in that exact sequence, in that exact time."
From the school's perspective, its current vision is that of a bit-by-bit expansion—"these are facilities that we will bring online as we have a need for them," Hurley said—that looks like four fairly major buildings being dropped as a set into Greenwich Village.
Of the four buildings being proposed by the school—the so-called Pinwheel Tower on Bleecker Street designed to match the existing 30-story Silver Towers; the mixed-use Zipper Building; and a pair of boomerang-shaped structures known as the Mercer Street Building and the LaGuardia Place Building—three will, in whole or part, be built on what is now open space.
"We're pretty set that the southern block, whether it's the 'Zipper Building' or the Bleecker building [that] would go first. But it's certainly the case that, for example, all of Washington Square Village is going to experience the construction of those buildings on the south block."
"If you're facing the inner courtyard, you may hear something once in a while, but we live in New York. If there's construction going on a block away, or two blocks, you don't feel it. I mean, I work in an officer where, during the day, construction happens. I had a whole building go up a building away. I heard it maybe once."
According to university documents, the Zipper Building is slated to take four and a half years to complete.
But really, Hurley doesn't believe that people don't like the plan because they can't get their heads around. It's that they can't get their heads around it because they don't like the plan.
"It's been one of the great frustrations," Hurley told Capital.
For instance, a recent debate was convened by the Municipal Arts Society attempted to create a rational framework for adjudicating between the University's generally uncontested academic and space needs and the impact of their expansion plans on the neighborhood.
But most of the debate stuck to well-trodden ground.
"We've looked as this plan for years," said Hoylman at the event, "and we haven't gotten the answers we need."
At that forum, Hoylman described himself as stymied to understand what connection, for example, a proposed hotel on one of the two "superblocks" up for construction has to do with higher-education.
"This is where I will tell you," said Hurley, "that Brad Hoylman has heard me say this at least 15 times. Whether or not he chooses to believe it is another thing."
"But I assure you, he has heard it," she said. "And if he hasn't, it's not because we haven't said it. It's because he has chosen not to listen."
So what, exactly, is the thinking behind the hotel planned for the southern superblock?
The school is increasingly hosting visitors from out of town—parents, visiting scholars, faculty who might be on site anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Village hotels are lovely, and expensive. The school ends up housing those visitors in Queens, for example, as was the case with a recent group of out-of-town visitors. Having hotel helps them better manage the flesh-and-bones part of the academic experience.
"But, I think, when people get this intensely involved in something," said Hurley, "you're not there to learn about it, or to try to reshape it. You're more just engaged in battle."