N.Y.U. is really growing on us, not in a good way

By Andrew Berman

Back to school means many things for many people. In the Village, it means — among other things — the return of New York University’s full and overpowering presence in the neighborhood.

This year, that return has even greater significance. Later this school year, N.Y.U. is slated to release its final recommendations for its “Plan 2031,” a roadmap for the university’s growth over the next 23 years. The process for arriving at this plan has been unusually public, with regular open-house events, solicitations of public feedback, participation in an “N.Y.U. Community Task Force” led by Borough President Stringer and agreement to a set of “planning principles” intended to address many of the community’s ongoing concerns about N.Y.U. and its expansion. These “principles” include a promise to “prioritize…reuse before new development” and for N.Y.U. to “decentralize facilities” by “cultivating locations outside” the Village and surrounding neighborhoods. 

One would hope this new process would lead to a substantive change in what has been N.Y.U.’s pattern of demolition and massive expansion over the last 50 years. But, so far, the evidence indicates just the opposite, with N.Y.U. contemplating a physical expansion in our neighborhoods at close to twice the rate it has over the last 40 years. And N.Y.U. is already moving ahead with plans for demolition of historic buildings in the face of vocal public opposition, in spite of the university’s promises. 

Case in point: N.Y.U.’s 2031 plan (viewable at www.nyu.edu/nyu.plans.2031/) currently contemplates adding between 3 million and 3.6 million square feet of space — out of a total of 6 million square feet to be added over all — in and around what N.Y.U. calls the “core”: Union Square, Washington Square, the East Village and points in between. To give a better sense of what that number means, N.Y.U.’s almost-completed, 26-story, 700-bed “megadorm” on E. 12th St. — the tallest building in the East Village — is about 175,000 square feet. Thus, N.Y.U.’s proposed expansion in the “core” area over the next 23 years is the equivalent of about 20 more of these highly controversial structures. 

By another measure, the 3.6 million square feet N.Y.U. is contemplating adding to “the core” over the next 23 years is actually the amount of newly built space they added over the last 42 years, making N.Y.U.’s projected growth rate nearly twice as fast as it had been. In the last 23 years — a time of extreme growth by N.Y.U. — it added only 2.25 million square feet of newly built space. And the 19 buildings N.Y.U. has added over the last 42 years, comprising the equivalent of what it contemplates adding over the next 23, includes some familiar — and not exactly inconspicuous — structures: the new N.Y.U. Law School and Kimmel Student Center on Washington Square South, the gigantic Alumni Hall and Third Avenue North dorms that were built on Third Ave. in the 1980s, Bobst Library and the two 30-story Silver Towers constructed for N.Y.U. faculty in 1966. Imagine another set of each of these and a dozen other similarly scaled buildings added to the neighborhood and you have N.Y.U.’s Plan 2031 for our future.

The sheer scale of N.Y.U.’s proposed expansion is not the only reason to be concerned. Though N.Y.U. agreed to “prioritize reuse before new development” as part of its Plan 2031, the university’s very first project under this agreement involved demolition of the historic Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments at 133-139 MacDougal St. — a building the New York State Historic Preservation Office recently ruled as qualified for listing on the State and National Register of Historic Places. N.Y.U. originally planned to demolish the entire building; and only after a massive public outcry did N.Y.U. agree to preserve the theater space, although this comprises only about 6 percent of the building. N.Y.U. still plans to demolish the remaining 94 percent of the building, in spite of strong protests. 

N.Y.U. claims this is a great step forward, because the new building will be somewhat smaller than it could have been under allowable zoning and a fraction of the old building’s facade will be incorporated into the new one. But while better than 100 percent demolition, this approach is actually the same one N.Y.U. has been taking for years, long before it agreed to this new set of planning principles, with less than admirable results. For example, at its new Law School on Washington Square South, N.Y.U. agreed to lower the new building’s height and “preserve” the 19th-century Poe House on the site by retaining its facade in the new building’s base, much as it has agreed to do with the Provincetown Playhouse. But the results there speak for themselves — the Law School building is widely considered one of the ugliest and most intrusive in New York. Even groups like the Historic Districts Council, which negotiated the agreement for preserving the Poe House, now call the results “frankly sad,” and opposed N.Y.U.’s demolition plans for the Playhouse and Apartments to avoid repeating past mistakes.

As part of its Plan 2031, N.Y.U. is now also floating the idea of building a 40-story tower — the tallest ever built in the Village — on Bleecker St., next to the Silver Towers, in what is currently public open space. And while earlier this year N.Y.U. did site two new dorms outside of the Village (so things could actually be worse), the university has made no progress and no commitments on identifying other locations for decentralizing its facilities, present or future, as promised in the planning principles to which it agreed. 

Thus, while we have seen two small steps in the right direction by N.Y.U., we are also seeing several very large steps in the wrong direction. N.Y.U.’s planned development in our neighborhood over the next two decades — the equivalent of all its development in the last four decades, or 20 more of its recent skyscraping “megadorms” — paints a daunting picture for the future. 

That’s why this fall’s return to school should be a wakeup call, since decisions will be made that will affect the Village, East Village and Noho for decades to come, and will likely never be reversed. A more public process by N.Y.U. is fine, but the results have to be different and better than those of the past. We must let N.Y.U. and government leaders know that the proposed accelerated rate of N.Y.U. expansion in our neighborhood is not acceptable, and that N.Y.U. must stick to its agreements — reusing buildings, rather than tearing them down for new development, and looking for locations outside the Village if the university is to expand in the future. It will take nothing less to ensure the continued survival of our neighborhoods as we know them.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation