Critics Of NYU 2031 Plans Now Defend Once-Maligned NYU Buildings

“One of the most persistent criticisms of New York University’s development of the Washington Square area has been its penchant for high-rise buildings. Residents of the neighborhood contend that these are out of keeping with the scale of Greenwich Village – not withstanding that the Village has, since the nineteen-twenties, been characterized by a juxtaposition of tall and tiny structures, cheek by jowl.”

The above quote could have been pulled from any contemporary account discussing the reaction to the NYU 2031 plans to build in the superblocks to the south of Washington Square. However, the passage actually comes from a 1966 New York Times article, written by Glenn Fowler, about the controversy over the now-landmarked I.M Pei-designed pinwheel towers that stand in University Village.

Critics of NYU’s current expansion plans now stand staunchly in support of maintaining the current arrangement of Washington Square Village (WSV) and University Village (UV), arguing that new construction would be out of context, too big, and damaging to the praised existing buildings. Yet the buildings and layouts they now defend were once main targets for NYU detractors, straining the credibility of the attacks on the new plans.

Ira Henry Freeman wrote in The New York Times in 1957, “The mellow old landmarks of Greenwich Village are rapidly disappearing beneath modern glass monuments to the bourgeois respectability against which the Bohemians revolted forty years ago… Recent and planned construction indicates that Washington Square is inevitably becoming a campus for New York University, backed by tall, expensive apartment houses,” referring to the then-proposed WSV complexes.

“Despite complaints by residents that the traditional appearance of Washington Square is being destroyed, New York University is forging ahead with its long-range building program,” Freeman continued.

A 1964 Fowler article notes:

[F]rom 1953, when Washington Square Village was proposed, to 1961, when it was dragged through to partial completion, it was embroiled in controversy at almost every stage. From the moment the plan was announced, it was bitterly opposed by residential and business tenants of buildings that were demolished to make way for the new apartments. The project was fought by neighborhood civic groups that clamored for middle-income housing instead of high-rent suites.

One person in support of the project was the controversial urban planner Robert Moses who “hailed the project as a major stride in the replacement of the blighted areas.” His approval of the construction should have given pause to Villagers; his views on the ideal city were terribly misguided, as is evidenced by the out-of-context feel of both of the superblocks.

Despite the fact that NYU hopes to change the layout of WSV to make it more pedestrian-friendly and open to the community, by transitioning the block towards the urban walkable vision of urban planner Jane Jacobs, current critics argue the opposite.

“[NYU is] the new Robert Moses,” David Gruber, the chair of Community Board 2’s arts-and-institutions committee, told New York magazine in its excellent new piece on the battle over NYU’s 2031 plans.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation and fervent NYU critic, was quoted in New York as saying “Jane Jacobs would be the first person on the barricade saying, ‘NYU, we can’t let you take over and build more and more.’”

It’s no surprise that John Sutter, editor-in-chief of the Villager, told New York, “[The NYU opposition] doesn’t show any proportionality. Even when NYU does something good.”

Residents of WSV are even angrier. Andrew Schwalm, blogging on the WSV Tenants’ Association website, wrote:

Plans suggest that our garden will be jack-hammered apart, excavated significantly deeper and then paved over at ‘pedestrian-friendly’ grade with Mercer and La Guardia. So, when the concussive racket and billowing clouds of stifling dust of construction eventually ebb, will our sedate green oasis be transformed into a late-night thoroughfare for intoxicated belligerents lurching from one corner of the village to the next?

It’s clear: the tenants don’t want to lose their semi-private garden. Are they actually afraid that the new construction will “destroy the Village?” Their concerns sound a lot like those of the tenants 60 years ago – complaints about the impact of new construction on their personal living situation, not the overall Village welfare.

Consider that the existing UV towers might be even worse than the WSV apartments, in terms of their contribution to walkability and their “context” in the rest of the Village. NYU now wants to add a new 400-foot tall tower to the area. NYU Local opposes the tower because it does nothing to add to Village life and doubles down on the failure of the “towers in a park” concept pushed by Moses. That’s why we also dislike the Pei towers there now.

But look at Berman’s reason for opposing the new tower: “The fourth tower is completely inappropriate; it will never be approved. The whole idea of landmarking the I.M. Pei towers is that they’re in a wonderful space.” He said in a separate statement that the new tower “would compromise the award-winning Pei design, block views of the Picasso sculpture and overwhelm its surroundings.”

Villagers originally hated the Pei towers because they were high-rises “out of keeping with the scale of Greenwich Village.” Now, the “award-winning towers” are  “in a wonderful space” and deserve landmarking, but the new development is “oversized [and] out of context.”

Watching critics decry NYU as “the new Robert Moses” is odd, considering that they spend a great deal of time defending Moses’ original vision for the superblocks.

Though the arguments against new NYU construction often arise from a plea for preservation, the blocks badly need change. Claiming that the existing layout is good sounds a lot more like a bias towards the status quo than an actual desire to save the Village. It’s hard to be sympathetic to cries of “context” from NYU critics when the blocks they champion haven’t fulfilled their vision for decades.

Previously on NYU Local: How NYU Plans To Expand In The Village & Why Residents Are So Mad



5 Comments

  • Keyana Stevens
    November 18, 2010

    “Claiming that the existing layout is good sounds a lot more like a bias towards the status quo than an actual desire to save the Village.”

    YES. THIS. I love the history of the Village but saying it should never change won’t make it a better place to live – it’ll just make stagnate an area that was once (and still is) a vital cultural center.

  • [...] hate the proposal, as it would block views from the existing Pei towers and, they argue, would be out-of-context for the area.“We expect to build a building of similar overall size on the Morton Williams [...]

  • Benjamin Hemric
    November 27, 2010

    Very good articleon this controversy — one of the best!

    I’m greatly surprised that a lot more people haven’t noticed, or at least publicly commented upon, the very weird fact that many critics of NYU’s plans for the superblocks (both the University Village superblock and Washington Square Village superblock) are, in one breath, fighting to preserve the very thing that they’ve criticized in a previous breath! So it’s very refreshing to see that this is observation is a significant part of your essay.

    As one of the rare community residents who supports the expasion of NYU on the superblocks, I do take issue, though, with the idea presented by NYU that its proposals for the two superblocks (including either a “fourth tower” or a high-rise on the Morton Williams site) would constitute an improvement over their original anti-urban, anti-Village, tower-in-the-park design. (You too also seem to be skeptical about this, at least with regard to the now withdrawn “fourth tower.”) I think NYU’s current plans would actually exacerbate the faults of the current design and thus make the superblocks even worse — and thus NYU’s current plans constitute a terrible waste of a splendid opportunity to “Jane Jacobize” these superblocks.

    I’ve written a bit more about this elsewhere and would like to provide some links for those who might be interested:

    1) Here’s a link to the “letter to the editor / op-ed essay” that I wrote last spring for NYU’s “Washington Square News.”

    I kind of like the title that they gave to it on the website edition of the newspaper. In my essay, I used the word “Downtown-ize,” and they made it into an imperative title for my essay: “Downtown-ize the superblocks, NYU.” (Perhaps it would have been even better if they had put an exclamation point at the end of the title!?)

    “Downtown-ize the superblocks, NYU [!],” Benjamin Hemric, WSN,

    http://nyunews.com/opinion/2010/04/20/21letter/

    If the link doesn’t work , Google the following: WSN Hemric superblocks.

    (By the way, I’ve noticed that sometimes it takes “forever” to load this page and sometimes it loads almost instantaneously. So, if you’re interested and it doesn’t “work” at first, please try again.)

    I’ve also posted similar comments on the on-line editions of the “New York Observer” and the “The Real Deal”:

    2) “The Bad and (potential) GOOD of NYU’s Expansion in the Village” a comment on “At N.Y.U. Open House for Expansion Plans, Simmering Civility,” by Roland Li, The New York Observer, April 15, 2010.

    http://www.observer.com/2010/real-estate/nyu-open-house-expansion-plans-simmering-civility

    3) Comment on “NYU expansion plan critics still protesting,” Amy Tennery, The Real Deal, April 15, 2010:

    http://therealdeal.com/newyork/articles/critics-of-new-york-university-expansion-plan-for-2031-intend-to-keep-protesting

    Basically these last two comments are similar to, but shorter than, the NYU comments. However, the “Real Deal” comment includes one paragraph that I wish I had included in the much longer NYU comment. So let me include here in this e-mail:

    “As part of their plans, for instance, NYU intends to add three more towers-in-the-park that will even further isolate and block off the superblocks and make them even more of a obstacle to community cross use. Furthermore, there won’t be additional streets to absorb and catalyze this density for both the good of the site itself and for the good of surrounding neighborhoods too.”

    I eventually hope to write a fuller explanation of what I think is wrong with NYU’s proposed plans — and what I think would be the right way for NYU to develop the site — but this is it for the moment.

    Benjamin Hemric
    November 27, 2010, 3:20 p.m.

  • [...] years our expensive education will eventually earn us enough money to live in the West Village (and hate on NYU). 2. If all else fails, and everything you thought you knew about yourself and loved about this [...]

  • [...] Critics of NYU 2031 Plans Now Defend Once-Maligned NYU Buildings [...]

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