BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Saying they want to “extend an olive branch” and finally “end this war” with N.Y.U., the plaintiffs in a historic community lawsuit against the university’s superblocks megadevelopment plan gathered at a victory press conference last Thursday.
The setting was the E. 11th St. headquarters of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which was one of the plaintiffs in the suit.
Joining them in a unified front were a phalanx of local politicians — including Assemblymember Deborah Glick, who was a party to the suit — and actor and Village resident John Leguizamo.
Also, during his own press conference the same day, Mayor de Blasio, when asked about the N.Y.U. ruling, said he wants to work closely with the community moving forward to reach a resolution. Specifically, de Blasio was asked if the whole N.Y.U. plan should be “reset” now and the cityʼs review of it start all over again.
De Blasio responded that he felt the university’s earlier version of the plan was “too expansive,” and that as the then public advocate, he called for it to be scaled back, which is what happened. He said all lawsuits have larger ramifications for the city, and so he is withholding legal judgment until he hears more from his Law Department on this decision. But the mayor expressed support for the community.
“I think a lot of the community concerns were valid, and we’re going to work with the community going forward,” he said.
Jim Walden, who along with his partner Randy Mastro from Gibson Dunn, argued the winning case in court, was the emcee of the press conference at G.V.S.H.P. He called it “one of the most worthy land-use cases in quite a long time.”
Dozens of community groups and residents joined the suit, along with members of a new ad hoc group, N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan. Many N.Y.U. faculty and their families reside on the superblocks. Not wanting to live in a 20-year construction zone, much less have four new buildings squeezed into the currently tranquil blocks, the faculty members were a driving force behind the lawsuit.
On Jan. 7, State Supreme Court Justice Donna Mills ruled that three of four open-space strips along the two superblocks’ eastern and western edges, although currently under Department of Transportation jurisdiction, are de facto parks and thus cannot be used — such as for construction staging areas — for New York University’s ambitious 2031 expansion plan for the blocks.
Mills ruled that the state Legislature would have to first “alienate” these strips — removing them as public parkland — before N.Y.U. could drive construction vehicles over them or otherwise negatively impact them. In bypassing this requirement, she said, the city had violated the “common law public trust doctrine” that safeguards public parkland.
“Justice Donna Mills has spoken,” Walden declared. “There are three parks in the superblocks. It must remain open and accessible to the community. Period.”
However, Mills ruled that one open-space strip, in front of Coles Gym on Mercer St. — which contains the Mercer-Houston Dog Run — is not parkland, mainly because it lacks official Parks Department signage and because N.Y.U. has maintained the dog run (though not other parts of the strip, which it has failed to keep up).
Walden called on N.Y.U. now to come to the table, negotiate and bury the hatchet — because the plaintiffs aren’t done yet.
“Absent a settlement of this litigation, we will continue to fight in the courts,” he warned.
In other words, they will dispute parts of the decision they aren’t satisfied with, he assured.
N.Y.U., however, says that Mills’s decision doesn’t stop them from starting on the Zipper Building, a 1-million-square-foot project that would replace Coles and sit on part of the open-space strip where the dog run is now.
Walden and Mastro see it differently, and say the entire plan — which calls for a total of nearly 2 million square feet of space — must now go back to square one and go through city ULURP (uniform land use review procedure) all over again.
“This is a plan that is, from our perspective, legally dead,” Walden stated firmly.
Celine Mizrahi, district director for Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, read a statement on his behalf.
“I stand with the community and ask that, in light of this decision, N.Y.U. reconsider the whole plan,” Nadler said.
Glick added that, from the very start, N.Y.U. had said every aspect of the massive project was crucial, that all of its parts were “interlocking elements.”
Referring to the open-space strips, Glick said, “These key elements have been removed from the plan. It seems only logical that N.Y.U. should go back to square one.”
New Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said, “I am pleased that Judge Mills ruled in favor of protecting open space. Preserving open space has always been a priority of mine.”
“Let’s be clear,” said state Senator Daniel Squadron, “the decision confirms that the process failed to include half of the open parkland available to the community. Now we need a reassessment of the plan that accounts for all the open space.”
Now a state senator, Brad Hoylman was chairperson of Community Board 2 when the board voted an “absolute No” against the entire N.Y.U. plan.
“All of us in this community were up against some very powerful forces,” he noted. “Public land is sacrosanct — we need to preserve it.
“N.Y.U. is in crisis — there’s no question about it,” Hoylman declared.
“As they say, ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.’ Meet us at the table,” Hoylman urged the university. “Help us protect what is important about Greenwich Village — our historic buildings, our playgrounds and our open space.”
Placing the victory in the context of Village activist lore, he added, “And somewhere, Jane Jacobs is looking down at us now and smiling.”
Corey Johnson succeeded former Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who did her best to push through the N.Y.U. plan in the City Council in July 2012. The Bloomberg administration was a strong supporter of the university’s superblocks scheme. Last Thursday, Johnson gave one of the most impassioned speeches against the proposed project.
“We’ve seen too much over the past 12 years of needless overdevelopment,” he said. On the other hand, community consultation has been lacking.
Referring to Mills’s decision, Johnson said, “I’m not an attorney, but I believe this does call into question the whole project. There was a final environmental impact statement — a key part of it was struck down [by Mills’s ruling]. …”
Johnson praised the community’s activism in fighting the unwanted development plan, and drew a comparison to another fierce struggle going on statewide to protect clean drinking water.
“The only reason hydrofracking has not happened in New York State is because of activism,” he said. “I stand with community activism.”
David Gruber, the current C.B. 2 chairperson, headed the task force on N.Y.U. that put together the board’s extensive resolution recommending denial of the required zoning changes for the project.
“We worked really hard on this for years,” Gruber said. “We held some 25 public meetings — thousands of people showed up. N.Y.U. was completely tone deaf to us, they didn’t listen. One of the legs that support this table is off — N.Y.U. needs to sit down and re-engage with us.”
Adding some Hollywood pizzazz to the press conference, actor Leguizamo said, “I’m here as a community member. All I want to say is, we want to work with N.Y.U. as a community — but, please, go back to the drawing board.”
Andrew Berman, G.V.S.H.P. executive director, said, “We have no objection to N.Y.U. growing, but how does it impact the Village?”
In short, the university should look to other neighborhoods and boroughs outside the Village to site its expansion projects, he stressed.
“Justice Mills’s ruling is a wonderful opportunity for a do-over,” Berman said, “and to do it right — to really listen to the community. We invite N.Y.U. to work with us to move forward together.”
Attorney Walden next introduced N.Y.U. media studies professor Mark Crispin Miller, praising him as “the soul of the plaintiffs group.”
Miller noted that there were five faculty votes of no confidence against university President John Sexton over the development plan.
“It is quite clear that it is not an academic plan, but a real estate deal,” Miller said of N.Y.U. 2031. “N.Y.U. now has an opportunity to mend fences, not only with the community, but with its own professorship.”
During the Q&A, The Villager asked Walden about the position of City Councilmember Margaret Chin, whose statements on Mills’s ruling — while praising certain aspects of it — clearly seem to indicate she still supports the full N.Y.U. plan. Is Chin’s position — even though the superblocks are in her district — basically moot at this point in the face of such overwhelming political support for Mills’s decision, as witnessed by the many elected officials at the press conference?
“The olive branch we extend also extends to Chin,” he responded. “She was on the wrong side of this issue from the beginning. She has not taken a clear position now. We invite her into the tent. We invited her here today,” he noted. “She didn’t come.”
Berman later told The Villager that Councilmember Rosie Mendez was also invited to the press conference. Mendez did not attend or send a representative.
Asked by The Villager about the status of the Zipper Building now, as far as he’s concerned, Walden responded, “To be clear, in our view, the Zipper Building is as dead as the rest of the plan. It was a one-shot approval” for the entire 2031 project, he said, and so Mills’s ruling has sunk the whole thing.
Talking afterward, Berman drew a connection between the historic victories by Jane Jacobs and her Village allies two generations ago in the 1950s and ’60s against redevelopment projects and highway plans by powerful planning czar Robert Moses. It was very “apropos,” Berman noted, that the superblock open-space strips are leftover remnants from when Moses widened Mercer St. and LaGuardia Place for a crosstown highway plan that was ultimately defeated by the community.
Ellen Horan, a leader of the LaGuardia Corner Gardens, located on the open-space strip along LaGuardia Place south of Bleecker St., was relieved the garden is now protected as a result of Mills’s ruling. N.Y.U. had planned to bulldoze a pathway through the garden to access one of its planned construction projects, slated for the current supermarket site.
The flourishing, decades-old garden also would have been roofed over with a protective construction shed, blocking out natural light. But N.Y.U. had a solution for that.
“They suggested grow lights for three years,” Horan said.
In a statement in response to the plaintiffs’ Jan. 24 press conference, N.Y.U. spokesperson John Beckman said, “The recent judge’s ruling upheld the university’s ULURP approvals and it clearly permits us to move forward on the Coles Gym site, the first of the proposed projects. The litigants are simply wrong in fact and law.
“The reality is that this is a good plan,” Beckman said. “It allows N.Y.U. to put needed academic facilities on blocks long dominated by large towers, on property N.Y.U. has owned for decades, and in ways that create beautiful new green spaces for the public; it creates thousands of new jobs; and it helps N.Y.U. maintain its edge as a top university.
“Finally,” Beckman stated, “we are confident that Justice Mills’s application of the notion of ‘implied parkland’ will be overturned on appeal.”