In the public-hearing phase for its huge new expansion, N.Y.U. girds for more tarring-and-feathering

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A rendering of NYU's plan. (NYU 2013)
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Late in the afternoon yesterday, the plaza at near New York University’s Silver Towers was quiet. Bundled-up children played near a community garden and dog-walkers cut through the block. A small toy tractor sat alone on a bench.

Right across the street, hundreds of neighbors packed a raucous community board meeting, mostly to rally against city approval of NYU2031, a 19-year plan to build four new academic buildings in the area.

“Anyone who brought tar and feathers, please save that,” David Reck, the zoning chair of the community board, told the crowd in a deadpan. “That’s for next month’s meeting.”

When 200 people sat in a hearing room at the American Institute of Architecture’s LaGuardia Place headquarters, about 40 people who were denied access to the meeting chanted and banged on the windows, until the board finally agreed to move the meeting to bigger space. Thirty minutes later, the meeting reconvened in the basement of Our Lady of Pompeii Church on Bleecker Street. By the time it began, there were about 300 people there, sitting in chairs set up under Christmas decorations.

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They watched three N.Y.U. representatives, including school spokesperson Alicia Hurley, lay out some of the plan’s specifics. Then they attacked the plan.

“That’s the Empire State Building that N.Y.U. wants to shoehorn into those blocks south of Washington Square,” Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, told the crowd. "It would overwhelm and oversaturate our neighborhood.”

The debate centers on what N.Y.U. does with open space on two superblocks bordered by LaGuardia Place and Houston, West Third and Mercer streets, much of it already owned by the university.

Residents living in or around the blocks don’t want to see a change that would add more density, take away park space and increase the proportion of students to long-term residents in the area.

In its statements and plans, N.Y.U. argues it needs to expand around its Washington Square Park hub to grow and stay part of the same community, and that its plans would in fact right some of the wrongs that were imposed on the neighborhood by N.Y.U.'s expansions in the past.

The South Block is known for I.M. Pei’s Silver Towers, the three reinforced-concrete high-rises that have stood sentinel over Washington Square since they were built in the 1960s. The towers would stay, but a gym on the block would be demolished and replaced with the so-called Zipper Building, which at its highest point would be 26 stories, on Houston Street. It would include dorms, a supermarket and an athletic complex. A Morton Williams supermarket would also be replaced with a high-rise containing a school.

On the block to its north is Washington Square Village, a complex bookended by twin buildings containing nearly 1,300 apartments. Again, those buildings would remain, but open space on the east and west sides of the building would be sealed with two mid-rise academic buildings.

In all, the plan calls for 2.5 million gross square feet of new space.

Another part of the plan, which is possibly the least contentious element of it, involves rezoning 26 new retail lots, most owned by N.Y.U., in the blocks east of Washington Square Park.

At the meeting, 50 speakers made public comments. All of them opposed the plan. Many of them were part of the Community Action Alliance on NYU2031, a blanket group of 31 neighborhood block associations and other advocacy groups.

Berman said the project would likely represent only a 20-year reprieve before N.Y.U. proposed yet another expansion project. He also said that there were inconsistencies between N.Y.U.’s worldwide expansion and their insistence that building further downtown would spread the campus too far.

“If N.Y.U. wants to build these campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, they can build in the Financial District,” he said.

(By contrast with the strong opposition to N.Y.U. expansion in Greenwich Village, Lower Manhattan actually wants N.Y.U. to build there, judging by the pronouncements of Community Board 1 chair Julie Menin and other representatives who have advocated N.Y.U. being part of a rebuilt World Trade Center. NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies has three floors of the Woolworth Building, but Hurley said there are no plans to expand further in Lower Manhattan.)

Media studies professor Mark Crispin Miller was one of a handful of N.Y.U. faculty members protesting the school’s expansion plan. He moved into the neighborhood in 1996.

"Since then, N.Y.U. has been devouring more and more of Greenwich Village, and now it wants to spend $6 billion and two decades making this part of Manhattan look like Dallas,” he said.

He said that the plan didn’t have broad support within the university, and pointedly conferred ownership of it on N.Y.U. president John Sexton.

“And surely, the Sexton Plan is as unnecessary as it is destructive, so we stand with the community and will do everything that we can to stop it,” he said.

The school says the expansion would boost academic space by 50 percent, to 240 square feet per student, but it’s still less than Columbia University’s 326 and less than half that of Harvard University.

N.Y.U. IS THREADED INTO THE NEIGHBORHOOD SURROUNDING WASHINGTON Square Park, but it wasn’t always that way. Its first classes were held in 1832 near City Hall, but three years later, it moved to the east side of Washington Square Park. When it expanded at the end of the 19th century, it moved many of its classes to University Heights in the Bronx, where it stayed until the 1960s. (That campus was later sold to the City University of New York in 1973.) N.Y.U. decided to make Greenwich Village its permanent base and it has slowly expanded in the neighborhood ever since.

That slow growth is part of why many residents oppose living in a “company town,” dominated by a single institution.

Today, N.Y.U. has other campuses like N.Y.U.-Polytechnic in Brooklyn and the “Health Corridor” on Manhattan’s East Side that includes the Langone Medical Center. N.Y.U. is also looking at Governors Island, but the school argues that to maintain its identity and sense of community, it has to grow near its Greenwich Village core.

Last night marked the official start of the ULURP process, a series of mandated meetings and approvals needed to rezone and remap neighborhoods. Though the community board and Borough President Scott Stringer’s recommendations aren’t necessary for the plan to pass, their input will ostensibly help guide the binding votes in the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

No politicians went to last night’s meeting, but it was attended by representatives for Stringer, Councilwoman Margaret Chin and Representative Jerrold Nadler.

Chin’s opinion on the issue is considered particularly important, since the Council will usually show a measure of deference on rezoning issues to the member whose district would be affected by the proposed changes.

During a town hall-style meeting last week on the same issue, Chin sat in the front row.

Speaking to the crowd, she delicately steered away from saying whether she would support the plan, even as people yelled for her to support a position.

“I need to hear from my constituents,” she said. “So you have to help, and you have to do the organizing. So every step of the way, you have to be there. And I will be there for you. So we need to work together on this, and it starts with the first community board meeting.”

In a brief interview afterward, though, she admitted that she hasn’t heard many constituents who supported the N.Y.U. plan.

“So far,” she added.

According to a statement handed out by the Marino Organization, a public-relations firm representing the school, N.Y.U. could have used other means of achieving its expansion that would have been even more intrusive than what it is currently proposing: “We believe our plan for new academic space in our core area will at one time allow N.Y.U. to continue to pursue academic excellence—with all the positive economic impacts that has for the city—while responding to our neighbors’ concerns by maximizing the use of our existing footprint, making new green space publicly accessible, and avoiding upzoning, the use of eminent domain or residential displacement.”

There are four more committee hearings in January before a likely vote next month. Opponents of the plan foresee a fight for the ages, along the lines of Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses.

“Clearly, this is the battle for this generation of Greenwich Village,” said Berman.

After the meeting ended, Hurley said that she and the school were sensitive to the residents’ reaction to construction, but pointed out the superblocks were initially built over the protests of village activists. In one of the fight’s ironies, N.Y.U. supporters want the university to preserve the same modernist superblocks that were reviled by Villagers and other neighborhood activists when they were built in the 1950s.

“What Robert Moses’ plans did, the way they were implemented, essentially removed six city blocks from the grid, the grid that’s being celebrated right now,” Hurley said. “What we’re trying to do is come up with a plan that reintroduces it, so we can have a pedestrian flow through that area again. And, yes, and build some building capacity so that we have an ability over the years to grow on our own property and now into the neighborhood.”

Hurley said N.Y.U. planners were working to adapt the project for the community, even as she implied that the community-based opposition was both unreasonable and unavoidable.

“Thursday, I’ll actually bring in the architects so they could talk about the vision for the open space, even though you can imagine these folks don’t want to hear it because they think everything’s perfect the way it is,” she said. “So we’ll struggle through that, we’ll give them some of the pictures that we think are pretty, and they’ll boo us. But that will be fine.”