NYU Professors Sue Government Over 2031 Expansion, Ask To See The Business Plan

A group of NYU professors filed a lawsuit against several city and state agencies yesterday, claiming that the city’s approval this summer of NYU’s 2031 expansion plan was against the law.

The professors are part of a group which calls themselves NYU FASP, or Faculty Against the Sexton Plan. They were joined by ten other neighborhood groups, who collectively charge that the various zoning law changes granted to the university violate land use regulations. The infringements cited include destruction of historic buildings, destruction of features within the community, alienation of parkland and violation of deed restrictions. Also prominent in the suit is the claim that the construction plan (slated for completion in 2031) will have significant environmental impact from pollution and construction noise.

The lawsuit is technically an Article 78 proceeding, which is how the decision of a city agency is challenged. A monumental Article 78 victory was won in Brooklyn last year, when local preservation groups sued the National Parks Service for allowing an old tobacco factory in Brooklyn Bridge Park to be bought for private development. The law firm that won back the factory was Gibson Dunn & Cruther, the same firm now representing the groups suing the city over NYU’s 2031 plan. 

This is the same faculty-resident coalition that has bombarded NYU with raucous protest at each of the plan’s many public hearings over the past year. Their efforts came to a head in July, when the City Council (named as a defendant in the suit) cast the final approving vote for ‘NYU 2031,’ which would allow NYU to go ahead with its construction on the two ‘superblocks‘ just south of Washington Square. That is, unless this lawsuit (and another pending suit against NYU) gains traction.

But lawsuits are expensive to litigate. This summer, NYU FASP published While We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York, a book of short contributions by the likes of E.L. Doctorow and Jules Feiffer to raise money for their lawsuit’s legal fees. Fran Lebowitz even articulately freaked out about it for a full thirteen minutes at the book’s launch party. Next on the agenda is a ‘Save the Village’ benefit concert scheduled for October 10, with Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore performing alongside saxist John Zorn and a host of other groups.

By 2031, NYU plans to add 6 million square feet to its campus, in parcels spread out around Manhattan, Brooklyn, and possibly Governor’s Island. Of that, about 2.45 million square feet of expansion was imagined in the form of four new buildings penciled into an area called the ‘superblocks’ that encompasses roughly six square blocks. That was slimmed down this summer to three high-rises and one four-story building, plus a swath of below-ground development. The new total has been estimated at something around 1.6 million square feet, or what Councilwoman Chin calls a 26% reduction from the original plan.

NYU departments object, ask for a business plan

Since its official approval, opposition to 2031 has only intensified, especially within the NYU community. Thirty-seven NYU departments have passed resolutions against the plan, many of them by a unanimous vote. With roughly 40 percent of NYU faculty living on the superblocks, a portion of these professors are not just addressing the future of their employer, but also of their immediate surroundings at home. Their resolutions cite concerns over “disruption caused by construction,” which they write will have “serious adverse effects on the retention and recruitment of excellent faculty.”

Most striking, perhaps, are the resolutions passed by the Economics department (29 in favor, none opposed, one abstention) and the Stern School of Business (52 to 3). Not bastions of leftist historic preservationism or NIMBYism of any kind, the argument from these departments is about the numbers–and the risk.

NYU has refused to present any kind of business plan for 2031. They didn’t legally need to; that long approval process with the city was about zoning, not financing. That makes these departments nervous. The “possibility of default” comes up in their resolutions, as does “higher tuition rates” and “a larger student body.” Though NYU has assured us that funds will not be raised by way of tuition or increased admission, if the school finds itself in a compromised financial position, these seem impossible to rule out.

Neither an estimated cost nor a formal plan to furnish those costs has not been articulated by the university, but since one square foot costs roughly $1,000 in Manhattan, the estimate for the whole plan floats somewhere between $5 billion and $6 billion. If, for example, the university needed to pay 5% interest on a 5 billion dollar bank loan, that’s $250 million a year just to service that debt.

Now with the university-run hotel and retail space out of the plan, it is hard to see where that revenue would come from. The new dorm space would replace dorms that NYU currently leases, which would certainly help, although we imagine revenue would not begin flowing from that source until the cost of construction has been absorbed.

Besides bank loans, the university has pointed towards private philanthropy as a source of funding. But that has never been its strong suit. NYU is an icon of astronomical student debt, owing to its comparatively tiny endowment, which currently sits at $2.5 billion. To put that into perspective, Columbia University’s endowment is $7.8 billion. Harvard’s is a whopping $32 billion. And yet, in a letter announcing 2031, university president John Sexton pointed aspirationally to both those schools’ physical footprints: “NYU has approximately half the square footage per student of Columbia, one-quarter of Harvard’s—the university has reached a tipping point.”

Living in New York means understanding the preciousness of square footage. No one comes to NYU for a campus, and as such, no one mourns the lack of a sprawling green, or resents the walk from, say, the buildings ringing Washington Square Park to the art studios on Stuyvesant Street or the dorm tucked down on Broome. People choose NYU because it is a great university in a vibrant, demanding urban environment. We chose a city that asks you to live smaller, because the tradeoff seems worthwhile.

We understand that NYU needs more classroom space. But how much, and where that space is located, are nuanced considerations that seem lost in a plan that raises the ire of 37 faculty departments and a large swath of neighbors. Against the backdrop of an iconically heavy student debt burden and with few actual numbers to inform us, the financial commitment seems counterintuitive.

We’ll keep you updated on any new news about the lawsuits as they develop.



5 Comments

  • ann pettibone
    September 27, 2012

    Thank you for your very thorough report. I look forward to your sustained interest and coverage. This battle isn’t over!

  • Britton T. Burdick
    September 27, 2012

    This is an embarrassment to the university. Building elsewhere would be truly counterintuitive. NYU already owns the property, and it now wants to build on it. Building somewhere else would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars more.

    People (students and teachers) often complain about a lack of space and now they’re getting it. Ironically, some of those 37 departments are included on the list of people clamoring for new and better facilities.

    I wonder if there would be such an uproar if the faculty members didn’t live in the neighborhoods where the new building has been proposed.

  • Leah Clancy
    September 27, 2012

    Amazing reporting as always, Zoë!

  • Christopher Blair
    October 2, 2012

    Britton – how do you think this plan is paid for? It may cost $6 billion +(although the administration is silent) and NYU students are already some of the most indebted in the nation. How much do they really think alumni and donations will provide? The fact is that this is paid for by increased tuition, lower financial aid and more students (which impedes the plan of increasing space per student….)

    NYU is already one of the largest private universities in the country. Why does a private school on one of the most expensive parcels of real estate believe it needs to be gigantic?

  • Egle Makaraite
    October 9, 2012

    Yeah. We’ll get more space when there’s less students admitted! Plus, spend that 6bill that’s burning J-sex’s pockets on better advisers and support for students instead. Dealing with administration at NYU is a huge headache most of the time. I think that would be a way easier way to improve a lot of peoples’ NYU experience rather than expansion.

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