We wrote in last week’s cover story about the brewing faculty rebellion at NYU driven in part by the school’s ambitious plans to expand its footprint in Greenwich Village. But the fight against the 2031 plan, as it’s known, extends beyond the no-confidence vote scheduled for next month. It’s also being fought out in the courts, in a case that had its first hearing before a judge this morning.
The lawsuit alleges that City government acted illegally when it signed off on the NYU plan, and it’s comprised of several different arguments. But this morning’s hearing focused only on one of them: the question of whether four parks that would be subsumed in the construction project, are, in fact, properly parks. By state law that encodes the Public Trust Doctrine, towns and cities can’t just give away public parks to private developers without first getting permission from the state legislature. The city never sought or received that permission.
The 11 organizations suing to stop the expansion say that means the approval is illegal. But lawyers for the city and for NYU say not at all — those parks were never technically parks.
“The land cannot be considered parkland,” Alan Levine, one of NYU’s attorney’s, told Judge Donna Mills. The reason? The parks were never “mapped” — a technical process by which the city officially incorporates designations into its plans.
But parks don’t have to be expressly dedicated to be covered by the Public Trust Doctrine. They can also be “impliedly” considered parks, argued Randy Mastro, the lead attorney for NYU’s opponents. At least some of the parcels in question are certainly parks by that standard, he said.
“They are parks with park signage on the front door,” Mastro said. “Park rules on the front door. Park leafs and signage all through the park. Public dedication ceremonies. Public statements. On the Parks website, these are parks!”
Mastro buttressed his argument with an affidavit from former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, in which Stern said “it was always the City’s intent in continuously making these sites available to the public for recreational use over many years to treat them as dedicated parkland.”
In fact, Stern says in his affidavit,
“It is therefore shocking to me that the City now claims, falsely, that it has ‘repeatedly and unequivocally declined efforts to demap any of the[se] Street Sites…or to otherwise dedicate them as parkland.’ To the contrary, as Parks Commissioners, I repeatedly requested to transfer these sites to Parks and officially list them as such on the City Map, and on each and every occasion, NYU objected. As I recall, it was the only neighboring property owner who objected. Thus, the only reason these sites haven’t been formally mapped as parkland is because of NYU’s obstructionist tactics and steadfast opposition over many years.”
Mastro and his clients wanted Judge Mills to consider ordering expedited discovery so they can dig through the city’s records concerning the parks. Mills granted the motion, meaning that some time in the coming weeks both sides will have the chance to argue for and against that discovery.
NYU’s legal team released a statement after the hearing minimizing the significance of the ruling:
“Nothing changes as a result of today’s hearing. The decision to sign the order to show cause was merely a procedural move. As the case proceeds, the well-documented history of this site will demonstrate that the properties in question have long been recognized as Department of Transportation strips, not parkland. The court proceeding today was an attempt to delay the scheduled judicial process and it did not succeed.”
The hearing on the discovery question hasn’t yet been scheduled, but both sides will certainly be back in court on other matters April 28.
You can read Stern’s affidavit here: