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

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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    14 Comments

  1. says

    I wish there was more coverage of both sides of the story. This seems pretty biased, and while I don’t want NYU to expand, part of the plan of the superblocks would be to have community centers and a free gym (or so I hear) for greenwich village residents. I could totally be wrong, but is there another side to this?

  2. says

    @Egle– yes, while this does focus only on the resident’s side of the story, that is because this is coverage of the event that happened last night. NYU wasn’t present. The event really was about village reaction.

    Village residents already have access to Coles at a discount, and that will probably be the case again when the new gym is finished, in 2018. Between now and then, there will be a temporary gym built, with access only for NYU’s varsity sports teams.

    No community center is planned, from what I’ve seen, but if you read that someplace please link me to it?

    Anyway, for NYU’s side of the story, check out every other post about NYU 2031 on NYU Local, where you’ll find info and quotes from meetings with administrators. Just click the NYU 2031 tag at the top of this post.

  3. says

    Great reporting, Zoe. While I tend to sympathize with grassroots activists over big institutions like NYU, in this case I rather think that if these people want a quiet village, Manhattan is probably not the place for them. New York City is about change and growth – and yes, construction, noise, and pollution. Isn’t that why we love it?

  4. Sara Jones says

    Grass roots activists suggest NYU go downtown to ground zero where they will find plenty of space for the University. There is an ongoing (Ten Year) construction site there looking for tenants at WTC. Neighbors resent the fact that NYU wants to take public lands and develop retail space and a hotel where there are now public parks and playgrounds. This is a corporate land grab and the current pols are in the developers pockets.

  5. Kenneth Hsu says

    Completely agree with Brett. While I do sympathize with nostalgia of Villagers, one of my favorite quintessential traits of New York is that it is constantly changing, always moving forward. That’s what makes the city so constantly ahead of its time. Maybe in a few generations we will have Villagers protesting renovations to the zipper building, but at least we’ll see the unwavering evolution of the city.

  6. Ann Pettibone says

    According to NYU2031 website, the university “….contemplates a limitation of growth in the neighborhood ..….but to do so without overwhelming the neighborhood. ” NOT TRUE! 2.4 million square feet shoe-horned into two super blocks bringing 10,000-15,000 people daily thru the area WILL OVERWHELM this historic neighborhood!

    Additionally, “…The University already has a good track record on this front as nearly half of its properties lie in historic districts.” A BALD FACED LIE! Look at what happened to the Poe House and Provincetown Playhouse. Both all but lost. Look at the south view from above Washington Square Park, forever ruined by the bulk and density of NYU library, student union, law school and other insensitive construction.

    New York is a city of neighborhoods. Greenwich Village is so famous that millions visit every year. NYU 2031 will destroy its uniqueness, overwhelm its charm and beauty, and obliterate precious open spaces.

  7. LA Klein says

    I am not really sure that people understand quite how big 2.4 million square feet is. Go to Bellevue Hospital and view the big white building in the back. That building is 2 million square feet and 25 stories high. Then imagine 400,000 square feet added to that and consider all that thrust into the village.
    It’s pretty shocking when you have some spatial perspective.

  8. Olaya Barr says

    very comprehensive, zoe, esp for someone who didn’t know much about this stuff. i can’t avoid buy sympathize with the locals and the protesters…nyu can be such a big fat rich bully. i’m not clear on how expanding by more space/more students is going to help provide more resources, a higher and more rigorous level of education, or …anything

  9. Victoria McNally says

    I actually live right across from St. Anthony’s where the protest was taking place. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend and only saw them in passing, but I absolutely support them.

    To play Devil’s Advocate to Bret, this isn’t necessarily about a problem with New York “changing” all the time; that is to say, it’s not only about the “nostalgia factor” or about wanting a quiet village. The issue here is that much of what they want to tear down is community-used space – my local supermarket, the garden next to it, the park across the way – and though apparently claims have been made that they will replace it with more community space, it will still be privately owned and overrun with non-community members (because let’s face it, most NYU students are not considered village residents, not really), and that’s very unsettling. It’s not Robert-Moses-West-Side-Highway bad, but it’s still less than ideal.

  10. Tom Sampson says

    Great article Zoe. I will say, its funny how naive people can be when it comes to change. Change in a community does not take place in just physical changes, changes in buildings, but change in the human body that makes up the community. Look at how the Village community has changed, financially, age, professions, ect. What I am saying is that the Villiage of old (late twentieth century) that many people associate with the image of the Village in their head is now long gone and simply by looking at the age demographics shown in the protestor photos in this article I think its clear to say that the Village has been changing right under our noses for years now.
    If NYU wants to continue to grow as a powerhouse of education and gain the kind of respect held by its Ivy League peers than I say go for growth NYU. New York City has always been the best at what ever it does, I think having another one of the world’s best colleges continue to grow and thrive on this island is of upmost importance. In times like these I would hope we are all desperately praying for a future full of more educated minds.
    More educated minds will leed to the culture we would want our future!

  11. Dora Mintz says

    Brett, you wrote: “New York City is about change and growth – and yes, construction, noise, and pollution. Isn’t that why we love it?” The first part makes sense. Change and growth is a good thing across the board for any city. Are you serious when you say you love construction, noise and pollution? I find it disturbing that Kenneth agrees with you. I would never, ever like noise and pollution no matter where I live. It can cause lung cancer and worsen asthma. And noise? It can permanently cause ear drum damage if loud enough. What kind of people are you? I suppose you would both be happy living in Ahwaz, Iran. Well, whatever rocks your boat, something I would never board.

  12. Daniel Chase says

    To the people who support NYU, you clearly don’t mind Greenwich Village looking like Midtown. Bryant Park can replace Washington Square Park and you all would be happy. As far as change, once you big large buildings and add thousands of people, you can never go back…..

    In the end, this isn’t about growth to me. It’s about fairness. NYU wants to take public land. NYU wants to disregards the building moratorium they signed thirty odd years ago. NYU won’t disclose the financial projections of these plans to its own faculty. NYU won’t disclose the tuition increases to pay for this expansion. NYU won’t explain to anyone that has been on top of Coles why there are so many vacant faculty apartments in Silver Towers. NYU won’t announce to new students that they will have no real gym (Palladium is tiny). The list goes on and on.