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The Community Board Voted Against NYU 2031 Last Night, But What Does That Mean?
/ February 24, 2012

Over a thousand people packed a church auditorium on Sullivan Street last night to oppose NYU’s plan to add 2.45 million square feet of space to the two “superblocks” just south of Washington Square by 2031. They bore signs that read “Neighborhood Not Campus” and “Stop NYU’s Jaws,” slogans that have became familiar over the three months of public hearings leading up to the Community Board 2’s vote that night.

After a lively outdoor rally and a two hour comment period (115 people signed up to speak against the plan), CB2 voted unanimously to reject NYU’s 2031 proposal. But what does that mean for the plan in real terms? We break down the details, both technical and emotional: 

What the vote means, technically:

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, called the “superblocks.”

To build these requires an array of zoning law changes, turning residential areas into ones zoned for commercial use that allow for higher intensity development. It also requires that NYU obtain ownership of strips of green space currently owned by the Department of Transportation. Check out our previous guide for a complete breakdown of these technical details.

The requested variances and the sheer scale of the project require city approval, a 7-month process that involves several levels of city government, the first of which is Community Board 2.

“The Community Board 2 is turning down flat NYU’s proposal,” boardmember David Gruber announced to cheers from the audience last night. “It would forever change the character of this historic neighborhood, significantly reduce residents’ quality of life…,” he continued, reading from CB2’s lengthy anti-2031 resolution that will be passed to the City Planning Commission on March 11th.

CB2’s vote against the plan last night is nonbinding, and serves to “advise” the City Planning Commission, who will begin their assessment process when they receive that resolution. City Planning will negotiate with the university to make any changes they deem necessary, and then will pass the updated plan to City Council. City Council will then vote the whole plan either up or down. If they decide more changes need to take place before they can make their binding decision, it will go back to City Planning for review.

Once City Council has voted, the Mayor has five days to veto the decision, although most people present last night agreed a veto by Bloomberg is unlikely.

In short, there are months left to this process, and last night’s vote, while an important representation of the stance of Village residents, is one small piece of the puzzle.

What the vote means, emotionally:

Howard Bader, who participated in the pre-vote rally, lives across from where the proposed zipper building would go up after Coles Gym is torn down. He said he would chain himself to the cherry trees on Mercer Street if the construction begins.

“I wait for them to bloom every year,” Bader said. “I walk my dog there. And so what, now they’ll be gone?”

A five-year-old girl named Crosby jumped around the auditorium waving a sign enthusiastically. She asked her mother, Michelle Jassem, what it said. “Greenwich Village Condemned By NYU,” Jassem read aloud.

Jassem and her daughter live accross from the super blocks. They are regular users of Key Park, which would be removed and replaced over the course of the proposed construction. She said she was concerned what the 19 years of construction would do for her family’s health, and for the permanent implications of the new buildings.

“I was an NYU freshman once. I don’t need a thousand of them running around outside my door,” Jassem said. She is an alum of the journalism institute.

Jeff Goodwin, an NYU professor in the sociology department, lives in Silver Towers on the southern superblock. He used this one minute of comment time to lead rhetorical question-and-answer-style chant.

“Would a twenty year construction site, less sunlight and less open space help NYU recruit and retain outstanding faculty?” he asked the crowd. “No!” they shouted back. “Can NYU remain a prestigious university if it cannot recruit and retain outstanding faculty?” he asked. “No!” they shouted again.

Goodwin and other professors have organized a group called ‘NYU Faculty Against The Sexton Plan,’ or ‘NYUFASP‘, which sent a letter to top administrators last week demanding the university make it broadly known that they planned to demolish Cole’s Gym next year to put up the zipper building, and that its replacement would not be available for the following 6 years.

The turnout last night was among the highest at any CB2 meeting, according to boardmember David Breck. The auditorium of St. Anthony of Padua church on Sullivan Street was packed. One hundred and fifteen people signed up to speak, and residents of the two superblocks and surrounding area spoke during a two hour comment period, along with NYU professors, members of the NYU graduate student union GSOC, and a few Occupy Wall Street supporters.

CB2 serves all of eastern downtown manhattan, from Canal to 14th Street, convening each time a developer wants to alter a landmark or get a zoning variance. In recent years, that developer has often been NYU. The university is, after all, the largest developer in downtown Manhattan.

Greenwich Village has a long history of being one of the most actively preservationist communities in the city, so Breck’s naming of 2031 as one of the largest sources of public response is particularly significant with that in mind.

The past three months of public hearings on NYU’s 2031 plan covered everything from it’s impact on traffic congestion to forseeable construction pollution. At each, the members of CB2 listened to thousands of slides worth of plan presentations from NYU and hundreds of comments from village residents, who turned up meeting after meeting to speak vehemently against it. Among them were the LaGuardia Corner Garden people, the Mercer Street Dogrun people, and the families who use Key Park playground, aspects of the superblocks which will be eliminated over the next 19 years if NYU’s ULURP makes it through the various levels of city government. Provisions for the replacement of each of these are included in NYU’s plan.

The DOT-owned strips, proposed to be transferred to NYU, struck a particular chord with Breck. They were forgotten legacies of a plan by the infamous urban planner Robert Moses, and essentially “hung fallow” for years, he said, as “rotten places of disheveled nothingness.” He explained that various community groups spent time and raised money to get those places fixed up, and the prospect of NYU incorporating them into their plan–even if they will technically become ‘remodeled’ greenspace–has shook them to protest.

“They kind of feel that they own the strips,” he said. “And to some extent, I think they do.”

Breck noted that NYU has done a better job of incorporating outreach into their development plans, something they “had a very poor history of not doing,” he said. A 2031 task force was also added to the conversation, under Borough President Scott Stringer. This is a change that John Beckman, the university’s vice president of public affairs, has recently emphasized too.

But despite soliciting comments from residents, NYU has only been minorly receptive to what’s been said, according to Breck.

“By not compromising or scaling back anywhere they’ve actually increased their opposition,” he said. “It’s really hard for us to approve anything.”

Photos by George Brooks and Zoë Schlanger.

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