Too big to fail? N.Y.U. keeps growing and growing…

By Donna Schaper

Wouldn’t it be terrible if the great institution — N.Y.U. — which surrounds us here in the Village — became too big to fail? Or just too big? Or even bigger? President Sexton has now written and spoken that this transition, this time, is going to be different. It will have more respect for its neighbors. It will be more transparent. It will respect the scale of the Village. It will not “do all it could do,” as was made evident in one press release after another, regarding the new Spiritual Life Center across the street from Judson Church. What that means is the building could “by law” be even higher than it is. Out of respect for Judson’s stained-glass windows, as well as other considerations, the project is only going so high. I want to say, thank you. My gratitude is tinged with curiosity — curiosity about the core value of the expansion itself. 

A few caveats are in order. Judson sold some of its property to N.Y.U. in the ’90s. We received around $3.5 million for the sale. The Catholic Center sold its neighboring parcel for around $28 million. I don’t think N.Y.U. is anti-Protestant, but the numbers are certainly interesting: One is small, the other large.

Another caveat: The spiritual light that we will lose when the new Spiritual Life Center rises is priceless. No one can put a price tag on the loss of some December light, some Sundays in our biggest season.

We also appreciate the courtesy that N.Y.U. has shown to us as an institution during this process. Indeed, we have been more than duly informed of how big they intend to get and what fraction of our light they intend to take. We don’t want to see the light leave. Some Sundays we wave goodbye to it, just to make sure we don’t forget its value.

A third caveat: If we were to have a new neighbor across the street, it is delightful that it is a Spiritual Life Center. We imagine decades of fine partnerships with our ecumenical tribe. Judson doesn’t really have a complaint about what is happening close by. We remain concerned about the “Oops” of construction, like what happened to our Rose Window when the law school went up, or what was not saved at the theater on MacDougal St., and “Oops” was the explanation. This time, though, we want to trust that the oops are no longer strategic for N.Y.U. 

We also have a few jiggles and niggles. Having a boiler in front of our building for half a year was no fun. Our “customers” couldn’t find us. Having Thompson St. closed down is a true pain. Jackhammers also don’t make for a great workspace — and we at Judson have often wanted to enter ourselves in the “Best Workplace” contest. We like what we do, we like each other, and we like to work well and in a tranquil, non-uptight environment. The construction may yet drive us crazy. But all these matters, the niggles and the caveats, are small compared to my real concern. 

That concern has to do with growth and size and “bigness.” I can imagine N.Y.U.’s own magnificent mission being threatened by the very bigness it now says it needs to fulfill its mission. I can imagine spread, within and beyond the Village, causing a lot of trouble to the community needed for quality education. I can imagine that the value of growth that respects limits, history, legacy and land is more conducive to education than its opposite — unfettered growth, or all the growth you can manage to get by the City Council. I think we are again in a fight about whether Jane Jacobs or Robert Moses will define Greenwich Village. 

One of the great architectural critics of the last century, Lewis Mumford, said that the key to something beautiful was to work with, not against, the obstacles. Waterfall in the middle of the property? Build the house around it. Funny hills in the middle of what you just bought? Make them the rooms. N.Y.U. is not working with Greenwich Village’s density so much as against it. What will happen to beauty under these circumstances is not clear. I can’t imagine that it will be helped. 

Both beauty and education are at risk as N.Y.U. gets too big. Put another way, I just don’t buy the argument that the mission of excellence in education is served best by expansion. I actually believe excellence in education is served best by agile and deft adaptations to the environment. Plus, I think a medium-sized institution is often better than a large one. Sometimes, I even think that a small institution is better than either. When small, you can still think. When large, things get in your way. 

I still want to trust that this time N.Y.U. will do something different. But for right now, it looks like it is doing the same old thing — growing, crowding and making dense what is already too dense — in a different way. I like transparency. I like courtesy. I even like neighborliness. I also question the value of growth.

Schaper is senior minister, Judson Memorial Church