There is a lot at stake: Why N.Y.U. must build here


By John Beckman

Volume 80, Number 22 | October 28 — November 3, 2010

West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Talking Point

N.Y.U.’s southernmost superblock, viewed from the corner of Mercer and Houston Sts., with Coles Gym in the foreground and Silver Towers looming behind. The university plans to add two buildings to this block: a 400-foot tower, part faculty residence and part hotel, and a mixed-use building housing 1,400 first-year students that would replace Coles.

There is a lot at stake: Why N.Y.U. must build here

In his unceasing campaign against responsible growth, Andrew Berman is right about one thing: There is a lot at stake. But it’s not the scary story he keeps telling.

The piece of New York University’s proposal against which Andrew Berman has been lobbying most furiously boils down to this: four buildings constructed over the next two decades on property that N.Y.U. already owns, and on which there are already five large towers.

That’s it.

Andrew Berman thinks this effort will change the character of these blocks. We do, too — for the better. Let’s be real: The truly sweeping transformation of the superblocks is not what will happen over the next 20 years; it’s what happened 50-plus years ago when urban renewal razed nine blocks of buildings, disrupted the grid and created the superblocks and towers we know today.

In carrying out these proposals over the next couple of decades, N.Y.U. will provide a space for a new and much-needed elementary school for the neighborhood; create new green space and recreational space where there is none now; alter the landscaping of the two superblocks so that underused areas of open space are actually accessible to the public; and help meet N.Y.U.’s academic needs for the future.

And there’s a broader point: Greenwich Village, like all our neighborhoods, is part of a city. If Greenwich Village is going to prosper, the city will need to prosper. That’s going to require a talented workforce and people with ideas.

In other words, exactly the kind of people that major, thriving universities around the globe attract.

N.Y.U. has come a long way as a university — from a regional university to a major research university of significant international stature. It’s a rare achievement in the field of higher education, and we think most New Yorkers look at it with pride.

But from our experience with St. Vincent’s Hospital, we in the Village know all too well that institutions are not immortal. Just a few short months ago, that hospital was being pilloried for its development proposals; who in the neighborhood doesn’t miss St. Vincent’s now?

N.Y.U. has half the academic square footage per student of Columbia, one-quarter of Harvard’s and one-sixth of Yale’s. We are not proposing to reach their levels, but these are the institutions with whom we compete to attract faculty. New York City and Greenwich Village have extraordinary appeal to faculty, but they will not overcome an inability to deliver on lab space, on adequate office space or on a decent place to live. New York will be worse off, not better, with a less successful N.Y.U. Thoughtful people understand this.

At heart, even Andrew Berman acknowledges that: He is O.K. with N.Y.U. building new facilities, just not on its own longtime footprint. Let’s examine that.

Lay aside that N.Y.U.’s plans in the Village focus on its own footprint, mostly property it has owned for many years. Lay aside that N.Y.U.’s proposals involve no use of eminent domain. Lay aside that N.Y.U. is only seeking to make use of the developable square footage already available on the blocks, and no additional square footage beyond that. Lay aside all those important points.

It comes down to this: Not all space is fungible. There’s a reason why your kitchen isn’t in a different building down the block from the rest of your apartment: It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t work. The same is true for a university: If one has to move from class to class, if one has to consult with colleagues, if one has to have access to the library between classes, or if one participates in an interdisciplinary research group, then the flippant suggestion that N.Y.U. can simply build academic space somewhere — anywhere — else becomes obvious for what it is: misguided at best, and willfully misleading at worst. “Anywhere but Greenwich Village” is not a plan; it’s a slogan, and it’s a recipe for harming our research, teaching, learning and the building of our scholarly community.

We disagree with the assertions that N.Y.U.’s plans will hurt the Village; in fact, we are fully mindful that there are limits, and we have taken steps in our planning to acknowledge them and live within them. We are affirmatively and conscientiously doing most of the development near Washington Square on our own property, and we are situating fully half the square footage we think we’ll need outside the neighborhood, in locations where it makes academic sense.

There is a lot at stake, to be sure: If we are careless with how we treat our city’s important intellectual, cultural and educational institutions — the institutions that offer good jobs, that bring in the talented and the energetic, that will keep New York City at the forefront of a knowledge economy — there will be harm: to the future of both the city and the Village.

Beckman is vice president for public affairs and chief spokesperson, New York University