On an evening in early January, roughly one hundred Village residents watched an NYU representative flick through slides of architectural renderings, images of glassy buildings couched in digitally rendered greenery, until the pounding on the windows became impossible to ignore.
Another one hundred people stood outside the at-capacity Community Board meeting where NYU was presenting its Village expansion plans. They were making absolutely clear they would not be leaving.
“I apologize greatly for this incredible inconvenience,” Community Board 2 Chair Brad Hoylman told the audience. “We completely underestimated the crowd tonight.”
After the meeting moved to a larger venue down the street, the audience quickly swelled to something closer to 500. More than 40 residents spoke during a marathon 2-hour long comment forum that night. Many identified themselves as NYU faculty or alumnus, and all were opposed to NYU’s plan to add 4 new high-rise buildings to the two university-owned “superblocks” just south of Washington Square.
This type of active opposition is nothing new for Villagers. In fact, it could be considered tradition. But the difference this time around is that “NYU 2031” represents the longest-term development plan yet brought to the community forum, and the most extensive review process to which NYU has ever needed to subject itself. For both the university and the Village residents, there is a lot more at stake.
By 2031, NYU intends to add 6 million new square feet to the university, in chunks spread out around Manhattan, Brooklyn, and possibly Governor’s Island. Of that, 2.45 million square feet of expansion–or nearly half the total–is imagined in the form of 4 new high-rise buildings and a swath of below-ground development, all penciled into an area that encompasses roughly six square blocks.
These two combined superblocks are both owned by NYU and are currently the sites of residential towers, where many NYU faculty, their families, and graduate students live. The blocks are monuments to early 1960s urban renewal–the brainchild of hugely controversial city planner Robert Moses–and the tall towers centered around courtyards feel wholly out of context with the surrounding low-rise landscape.
Just days prior to the Community Board meeting, NYC Department of City Planning formally accepted NYU’s application, setting in motion a seven-month official review period of which this meeting was a part. To begin building, NYU needs to secure a zoning map change, zoning text amendments, removal of Deed Restrictions, a Large Scale General Development special permit, and a “demapping” of the blocks to remove the road that runs through them.
The next few months will determine the fate of the plan. After Community Board 2 submits its recommendation to the borough president, the power of decision will make its way up to the City Planning Commission, and then to City Council.
If the plan makes it through the intensive review procedure, NYU will begin building as soon as 2013, and continue construction in the immediate area for 19 consecutive years.
What NYU is trying to get approved
To understand why NYU has to seek approval to build out the university-owned blocks south of Washington Square, you have to understand the concept of Floor Area Ratio, or FAR, something that is closely bound to zoning regulations. FAR is essentially the number of times the entire footprint of a plot of land can be built on top of itself. If a plot of land has an FAR of 2, and the owner wished to build a building that consumed the whole area of that land, the structure would be allowed to be 2 stories high. If instead the owner wished to build a taller building, it would have to have a smaller footprint. With an FAR of 2, and a building footprint 1/2 the size of the land itself, the building could be 4 stories high.
The biggest obstacle in NYU’s way, legally, is the fact that the blocks are zoned residential (if zoning is your thing, they are zoned R7-2) and for university purposes, they would need to be zoned for mixed-use (C1-7). This isn’t just a matter of regulating how the space will be used–zoning demarcations dictate how much of the space can be built, and FAR is the metric used to measure that. Right now, the superblocks have a residential FAR of 3.44. Should the zoning be changed to mixed-use, 6.5 FAR could be built for residential purposes, like dorm space and faculty housing, and the site would be allowed as much as 2 FAR of commercial space. This means, in short, open space would be reduced and more of the space in the superblocks could be developed at a higher intensity, making way for the four new high-rises.
NYU is also seeking height and setback waivers for the “Zipper Building” that would be built on the site of Coles, and the two kidney-shaped buildings to be built in the courtyard of Washington Square Village. These structures, in places, are too tall, too close to the street, penetrating the “sky exposure plane,” a virtual sloping plane that begins fairly high above the street and rises inward over the zoning lot, designed to provide light and air at street level.
Washington Square Village (WSV) is the superblock just south of campus bounded by Bleecker, West 3rd, LaGuardia, and Mercer streets. It currently houses two towers, each 170 feet tall, and an inner garden courtyard designed by American modernist Hideo Saske. You probably have never set foot inside it. It is rarely used by anyone but residents because the gate and raised platform leave an intentionally less-than-public impression. Residents like this and want it to stay that way, but NYU has framed much of their plan as promoting just the opposite.
“Something that is fences and trees around it isn’t considered public open space by the EIS,” said Alicia Hurley, referring to the Environmental Impact Statement included in its permit application, which was commissioned by NYU from an environmental consulting firm called AKRF.
Because NYU’s EIS does not consider the garden or the playground in WSV–called Key Park because it is used by resident families who have keys to its gate–to be public open space, it counts its own plan as adding 3.1 acres of public open space to the complex, despite the addition of two new buildings on the site.
“Even though we’re asking to change the open space ratios, we’re actually going to be improving the amount of public open space,” said Hurley. “It’s counterintuitive, but that is going to be part of what we’re trying to get people to understand at the hearings.”
But for Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media, culture and communication at NYU who lives in the complex with his wife and 10-year old son, NYU’s claim to be adding open space is a deeply flawed PR strategy.
“This is something that would make George Orwell’s head explode. They’re not providing green space, they’re proposing to make the type of plaza found around shopping malls. Putting saplings in urns with brick walkways is no substitute for the thriving ecosystem with old trees that we have now. Once the birds go, they’re gone, and it takes saplings a long time to grow. [NYU’s message] is a bit of propaganda spin,” said Miller. “Let’s be perfectly honest about this. They’re annihilating green space to make way for huge buildings.”
The two new Mercer and Laguardia buildings planned to be installed in the courtyard are curved, kidney-shaped structures that stand at 218 feet and 128 feet respectively. They are planned to be positioned at an angle, which NYU says is to allow more public street access to the center of the complex.
Since the 2031 plan was unveiled in 2008, the superblocks have become the latest icon of a familiar scene: the vehement local protest that has accompanied NYU’s expansion in Greenwich Village quite literally since the 1960s. Local groups have assembled, demonstrations have been organized, and a campaign to prevent approval of a “pinwheel tower,” the would-be tallest building in the Village, ultimately lead to its removal from NYU’s original plans.
Village residents are a notoriously active bunch when it comes to mobilizing for neighborhood preservation, and have long found an impervious foe in the university. Campaigns to stop the construction of Bobst, Kimmel, Coles (formerly the site of a baseball diamond) and even the buildings that currently stand on the superblocks were all ultimately unsuccessful.
In NYU’s view, the 2031 plan is already a major departure from the way it formerly did business with the community. Twenty years ago, when many of the dorms were opened, NYU typically “looked for a space on the market, bought it, and developed it as-of-right,” building to the maximum allowable dimensions, explained John Beckman, the university’s vice president for public affairs. No public hearings took place, and no approval by city council was necessary. Often, neighbors felt they were given very little notice about major changes to their immediate landscape, and resentment festered.
The 2031 plans in the Village, in contrast, propose building on property NYU already owns, increasing density on those parcels but preventing sprawl elsewhere. The plans hinge on winning major changes to the area’s zoning laws, which requires months of public review, but NYU is quick to point out that submitting to public scrutiny was a deliberate part of its new, neighborly plan.
“We’ve now voluntarily engaged a process that allows the community to criticize us more. We made a choice to do this,” said Alicia Hurley, who is effectively the face of NYU 2031 at public meetings. “There’s nothing to prevent the university from buying property around the neighborhood and building as-of-right,” she said, a fact she expects will be–to NYU’s benefit–on the minds of elected officials when it comes time to decide the fate of the plan.
“You’re always going to have a reaction by the very local, affected community. It would be no different if we went back into the ‘as-of-right’ world,” said Hurley, referring to massive opposition she faces at every Community Board meeting. “You’re going to get it wherever you put it.”
One difference, this time, is that the plan directly touches many professors and graduate students who live on the superblocks. Their criticism of NYU’s expansion, which before focused largely on wider tropes like “destroying the Village” or the perils of a “reckless rate of expansion,” have now taken on more personal tones.
“The lives of many real people are going to be seriously effected by this, and a lot of people are their own faculty,” said Miller. His son has asthma, and he worries about the construction pollution and particulates that will inevitably accompany the heavy construction work on his block.
NYU plans to offer to seal off people’s air conditioners to reduce inhalation of construction dust and other matter, and will offer storm windows to mitigate the noise pollution. But despite building phasing, residents will be amidst a continuous construction site for 19 years. “Or at least two decades, since NYU has never finished a building in time,” added Miller.
But for Beckman, the benefits for NYU and for the neighborhood outweigh these concerns. “Look, nobody loves construction,” he said. “Sometimes you push through that period and end up with something great. One has to keep their eye on what’s going to be there in the end.”
As members of the NYU community find themselves the recipients of the plan’s undesirable effects, the traditional struggle between the university and its neighbors becomes blurred. With months left of review, it can only be expected to intensify. We’ll keep you updated.