N.Y.U. president hugs Scott Stringer for his OK on an expansion plan, but faculty, and some neighbors, are unmoved

John Sexton (Dan Rosenblum)
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Nancy Scola

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On the 19th floor of the Manhattan Municipal Building yesterday, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and New York University President John Sexton presented the public with an agreement to scale back the university’s controversial plan to expand its already considerable presence in Greenwich Village.

The mood in the room full of elected officials and local leaders was congratulatory.

Seeing Sexton, president of N.Y.U. since 2002 and dean of the school’s law school for 14 years before that, roam the Village doling out hugs to every “man, woman, child” was “a sight to behold,” Stringer told the crowd.

The rangy Sexton responded by wrapping his arms around the shorter politician. To that, Stringer made joking noises about not wanting a hug that bad. And to that, Sexton replied, “you’d be surprised how many people take them that don’t want them.”

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The agreement reached by the university and the borough president after five years of discussion and 50 meetings: To reduce the amount of square footage the school hoped to add to its “superblocks” south of Washington Square Park by 19 percent and accept other concessions aimed at lessening the expanding school’s impact on the historic neighborhood.

In recent weeks, a number of faculty departments at N.Y.U. have passed resolutions saying that they opposed the plan, called "N.Y.U. 2031." Yesterday, the Department of Economics joined the Departments of Politics, Sociology, Anthropology, Religion and others, passing their resolution against the plan by a vote of 20 in favor and one abstention. The economists' resolution cited the "financial risks and the possibility of default" should the university forge ahead with the construction on its superblock south of Washington Square Park.

Stringer had been seen by faculty and neighborhood activists as likely to endorse the plan, even though information leaked from his office and published on the New York Times website characterized him as angry about some elements of the plan which he thought had been misrepresented to him earlier.

Asked whether the concessions negotiated by Stringer should mitigate faculty concerns, Sexton paused before responding. When he began, he spoke haltingly.

Dialing down the plan should take care of some of it, he said.

“I also expect that at some point virtually all of my colleagues”—Sexton, a professor of both law and religion, himself continues to teach—“have that moment where, as academics and people who think about the advancement of thought, and think in terms of generations, that they’ll recall that spot in themselves where it’s a worthy thing to plant a tree under which someone else will sit.”

That moment wasn’t to be yesterday. Shortly after the press conference wrapped up, a press release went out announcing that N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, the lead faculty opposition group, was retaining the services of the law firm Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher, to represent them as they continue to navigate the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, of which Stringer’s recommendation is part.

Joining N.Y.U.-FASP in that move is the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

Mark Crispin Miller has been a vocal opponent of N.Y.U.’s vision for its superblocks, and he’s a professor of media, culture, and communications at the school.

We emailed before the specifics of the plan had been announced; what was known at the time came from a short New York Times piece announcing the agreement.

Miller and a handful of other FASP members met with Stringer in mid-March to discuss their concerns, and Miller said he found the Borough President dismissive.

“So what did Stringer do for us?,” Miller said in his email. “It’s like we went to see the people who’ve been promising to cut off all your fingers, and persuaded them to leave you half a pinky and a thumb.”

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, puts it another way. The school’s growth vision, he says, is flawed all the way down. “Is it a little smaller?,” Bermans said. “Sure.”

“Will it still turn a residential neighborhood into a 20-year construction zone? Absolutely.”

“Will it continue to tip the balance of the neighborhood further and further in the direction of N.Y.U. being an overwhelmingly dominant presence? Absolutely.”

Berman had harsh words for Stringer, who by all accounts is preparing to run for mayor. “We’re disappointed that the borough president got so little in exchange for his approval,” said Berman.

In recent weeks, a few dozen Village businesses have come out in opposition to N.Y.U.’s growth plans, organizing themselves under the banner of Villagers for a Sustainable Neighborhood and under the leadership of Judy Paul.

Paul runs the Washington Square Hotel, a Village presence for more than a hundred years. In a statement, Paul said that she applauded Stringer for getting the school to finally make some changes to its plans. But it’s not enough, she said in her statement.

“For the many small businesses in Greenwich Village,” the statement read in part, “it’s imperative that N.Y.U. improve its proposal further during the coming months to ensure that it will balance its need to expand with the community’s needs.”

But the faculty's arguments, while including many that are also part of neighbors' objections to the plan, also are about the belief that a massive construction effort at the school will force increases in tuition and enrollment that threaten the academic standards of the school; and that it will create unattractive faculty housing that will make recruitment difficult.

At yesterday’s unveiling of the agreement, Sexton spelled out his belief that the faculty is central to the future of N.Y.U., calling the university “essentially a high-talent service business.”

But he predicted that the faculty assembled by N.Y.U. will come, in time, to accept that the school’s vision for growth is worth their while. “Yes,” conceded Sexton, “this does call upon members of our community – I’m talking about the N.Y.U. community – to bear pain that wouldn’t be borne if we built away from the place that so many of our faculty live.”

“But that’s a price,” said Sexton, “that I think my colleagues will become more and more willing to pay.”

As other administrators have in the past, Sexton was eager to make the point that it’s not as if every one of the few thousand professors on the N.Y.U. payroll has come out against the plan.

At one point in the press conference, Stringer spoke of having a chance to meet with N.Y.U. faculty to discuss their concerns about the plan, saying that they were “very helpful in their suggestions about how to mitigate” the impact of construction on their lives.

Stringer said he did take their worries into consideration.

“I want to thank the faculty,” said Stringer, standing at the podium, “who obviously had strong opinions about this plan, but were willing to come in…”

Standing to Stringer’s right, Sexton interjected. “Some faculty.”

“Some,” agreed Stringer. “I’m sorry, some. And some that offered very good goals, and I think some of them will be pleased.”

As the city’s seven-month-long ULURP process rolls along, those not wholeheartedly behind N.Y.U.’s expansion plan as written are finding that they have to decide how to engage in a process that will move forward with or without them.

Larry Goldberg of the neighborhood group Friends of LaGuardia Place thanked Stringer for his diligence amidst the “sturm and the drang” of the last few years.

Councilmember Margaret Chin came out in support what Stringer and the school had done, but her big moment in the process is yet to come. Under ULURP, the City Council will get a crack at the plan after the City Planning Commission is done with it.

This whole thing has been going on a long time, Chin said. A meeting about N.Y.U. was the very first item on her staff’s agenda when she took office. Chin was elected in 2009. Yesterday marked progress, she said.

But: “I emphasize that there’s still a lot of work ahead, and there are many other elements of this plan that must be discussed.”

Stringer’s adjustments reorient the plan, she said, but the “right balance” is still a goal to be reached.

And then there was Brad Hoylman. Hoylman is the chair of Community Board 2. Back in late March, the board entered a high-profile no vote on N.Y.U.’s plan. At a March 29th evening debate organized by the Municipal Art Society, Hoylman said that his hoped-for outcome from Stringer’s deliberations would be for the school to start from scratch.