“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