By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
On June 29 of last year, the members of the New York City Council's Land Use Committee gathered at City Hall to consider a local property holder's request for permission to undertake a substantial building project. Meetings of this sort generally produce, in onlookers and often in the participants themselves, a nearly narcotic boredom, but this one was different. The property owner was New York University, and the project at issue was a 20-year program of rolling construction that will radically increase NYU's footprint in Greenwich Village. The chamber was packed with an audience so raucous that the committee frequently had to halt the proceedings to restore order.
NYU President John Sexton acknowledged that the construction plan would have an unavoidable impact on the neighborhood, but told the council members that it was necessary to fulfill the mission of the university. "This is not a development project," Sexton insisted. "It's an academic project. We have half the space per capita of most of our peer schools." The need for the construction project was clear, Sexton told the committee. "The deans who spend their time doing this are unanimous," he said. "The trustees are unanimous on this, the university administration is unanimous, and we're the people that are asked to be the fiduciaries for the long term of the university."
There was bound to be some friction as NYU pursued its manifest destiny. There always is when the wrecking balls come out. Some neighbors are still bitter about NYU's previous fits of expansion in the 1960s and again in the '90s; in both periods, the university earned its reputation as an insatiable beast swallowing entire neighborhoods. But the current proposal goes much, much further. And it doesn't stop at the edges of New York City.
Dubbed "NYU 2031," the plan calls for 2.8 million gross square feet of new construction—slightly less than all the floor space in the Empire State Building—in the two blocks bound on the south and north by Houston and 3rd streets and on the east and west by Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place. The construction would dramatically increase local retail space, displace a dog run, and entail the demolition of the historically significant 1959 Washington Square Village Garden by Hideo Sasaki. Along the way, NYU would build—and then tear down—a temporary gym for its student athletes. It would also renege on promises it made 50 years ago, when it built the existing residential towers, to not further crowd the area.
Sexton and his colleagues are adamant that the endeavor is a response to students' needs. At the hearing, Gabrielle Starr, a university dean, read aloud a plaintive e-mail from an anonymous pre-med who found himself closed out of a required class. "Registration for General Physics I is closed due to the capacity of lab seats already being met. I'm writing this e-mail to ask that you please allocate funding for the physics department at NYU to open more labs so that students who are in a similar position as myself can be accommodated to graduate on time."
Of course there was the requisite grumbling of a privileged movie star—in this case Matthew Broderick, who grew up on the north side of Washington Square. Broderick now lives with Sarah Jessica Parker in a nearby townhouse, and he stood up to air his nostalgia for the Greenwich Village of his youth, before the university swallowed up so much of it. But Broderick's appeal didn't find much purchase with the council. Mitchell Moss, an NYU faculty member who supports the 2031 plan, reminded the assembly that "this is not the pristine village of Sarah Jessica Parker, of Sex and the City, of Matthew Broderick." (The jab provoked such a hubbub that Moss demanded that an extra 30 seconds be tacked onto his speaking time.) "Higher education is one of New York's growth industries," he continued, brandishing a list of firms that have left New York in recent years. "Universities, in fact, are part of our intellectual capital—they bring people here, they stay here, and they add to the vitality and the future of New York."
Shortly after the hearing, the council voted to approve NYU's plan, and for many observers, it seemed that the issue was settled. Educational vision and economic dynamism had prevailed over celebrity preservationists who wanted their quaint neighborhood frozen in amber. But eight months after the City Council's vote, the debate over NYU's expansion has only escalated, becoming a fight over the soul of the university itself. A lawsuit is challenging the legitimacy of the city's review process, and faculty members are scheduled to hold a vote of no-confidence in their own administration at the end of March—a vote many expect President John Sexton will lose.
Observers inside and outside NYU are watching closely, because the outcome of the vote will likely determine which path the school takes over the coming decades. In affirming Sexton, NYU would be doubling down on a strategy of almost metastatic growth, both in New York and globally; a relentless assault on tenured professors in favor of cheaper and more docile contract and adjunct faculty; and ever-rising tuition that transfers the school's debt onto its students. If the vote goes the other way, it would reaffirm the idea of universities are primarily about learning, not earning, and might even change—or, rather, help preserve—the face of the city itself.