NYU’s expansion plans hit a snag today after State Supreme Court Justice in Manhattan Donna Mills ruled that the city illegally approved construction within public parklands without New York State’s approval. Mills dismissed five other claims against NYU’s pending construction on the two superblocks housing the Washington Square Village, Silver Towers, and Coles Sports Center.
The city’s approval of NYU’s proposal violated the Public Trust Doctrine and therefore allocated three strips of public parkland for non-park uses without proper approval. Now, the university must seek the State Legislator’s approval before using these small parklands for the project.
“So NYU has to go back to square one,” said Randy Mastro, lawyer for NYU’s opposition. “Its massive expansion project is now dead, absent State Legislature approval, and that is never going to happen. End of story.”
“This is a complex ruling, but the judgment is a very positive one for NYU,” said NYU Vice President of Public Affairs John Beckman, “five of the six petitioners’ claims were dismissed, the judge reaffirmed the City’s approval of the project, and most importantly the judge’s ruling allows us to move forward with our first planned project – the facility to provide new academic space on the site of our current gym.”
Justice Mills did not designate the Mercer-Houston Dog Run, running adjacent to Coles, as parkland. Therefore, the university may still be able to follow through with plans to build the Zipper Building, a large structure consisting of many towers.
Yet, Mastro disagreed that the university could move forward with any portion of the construction plan. “It is delusional for anyone to spin that parts of this comprehensive project, which was approved as a whole and reviewed for environmental impacts on that basis, could still now somehow go forward without starting from scratch,” said Mastro. “Any such piecemeal approach would constitute a new project materially different from that previously approved by the City and requiring its own separate environmental review and approval process.”
“But the petitioners and their lawyers are wrong in the claims they are now making that this ruling would stop us from building on the gym site, or that the proposals must be resubmitted to the City Council through another ULURP,” said Beckman. “The court did not vacate the City Council’s ULURP approval and specifically rejected petitioners’ claim that the street adjoining the gym site is a park.”
A draft report created by the University Space Priorities Working Group reconfirmed the university’s pressing need for more academic space, according to Beckman. The group, formed by both faculty and students, is expected to issue its final report in the coming weeks. Hence, the university’s push to expand will not end with today’s ruling.
“The decision reaffirms the ULURP approval by the City Council,” said Beckman. ”Once we have a chance to thoroughly review the decision with our planning team and determine the precise impact of the ruling on our ability to implement other elements of the plan, we will work with the City, as lead respondent, to determine our next legal steps.”
The lawsuit ruled on today came about after the City Council authorized the university’s expansion plan, known as NYU 2031, in the July of 2012. Even at the time, many faculty and Greenwich Village community members met the proposal with resistance. The Faculty Against Sexton Plan (FASP), a group consisting of faculty across the university, has gained steady traction against the university’s administration.
“We’re thrilled by this decision, which will save NYU’s neighborhood, and NYU itself, from an expansion plan that has no academic rationale, and that would only hurt us all,” said Mark Crispin Miller, a NYU professor and active member of FASP. “That’s why 39 schools and departments have passed resolutions urging Pres. Sexton either to abort it, or rethink it.
“It also helps explain the fact that five faculties have voted no confidence in his administration, with another three approving statements highly critical of his policies,” said Miller. Over the past year, a number of faculties held votes of no confidence against university President John Sexton, questioning his leadership and vision for domestic and international expansion. However, Sexton found his own support, most notably in the NYU School of Law, School of Medicine, College of Dentistry and College of Nursing.
“The president consistently ignored that faculty consensus, just as he ignored the protests by the whole community,” said Miller. “It’s therefore appropriate that Judge Mills has deemed his plan illegal, on the grounds that New York City, under Bloomberg, violated the public trust by handing those park strips to NYU. For if this really is ‘a private university in the public interest,’ Pres. Sexton too betrayed that trust—as this clear legal victory confirms.”