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NYU's 2031 expansion plan faces major test

Undated rendering showing an overview of New York

Undated rendering showing an overview of New York University's proposal to expand its Greenwich Village campus. Credit: Handout

City lawmakers are expected to decide later this month whether to allow New York University to expand its Greenwich Village campus -- a plan that neighbors, preservationists and faculty fear will destroy the character of the area.

"When I moved to the Village, NYU was a presence, but over the years, it has become a stranglehold," said Judy Magida, 69, a retired medical supplier who lives on a block where the university wants to build.

The university, among the city's largest landowners, has proposed adding more than 2 million square feet to its campus south of Washington Square Park. NYU officials say the private institution's 40,000-plus student body has outgrown its Manhattan home and needs new and bigger facilities to stay competitive.

Plans include four new high-rises bounded by Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place, West 3rd Street and Houston Street, on two "superblocks," each consisting of three normal-sized blocks. Construction would take two decades and replace existing green space, including the prized Sasaki Garden that sits between the 17-story apartment towers of Washington Square Village.

NYU already owns the land and says that part of the neighborhood already is commercial in character, distinct from the picturesque, cobblestone streets that much of Greenwich Village is known for.

"This isn't the low-scale, two-story brownstone area of the West Village. We are talking about an area already changed," said Alicia Hurley, NYU's vice president of government affairs. Hurley said the school needs space for more classrooms and dormitories, labs, a gym and a performing arts center.

Plan called 'destructive'

Critics inside the university say the growth plan championed by the school's president, John Sexton, could do more harm than good.

"We don't accept the premise that expansion is good for the university in the way it would be good for Starbucks or McDonald's," said Mark Crispin Miller, a communications professor and leader of NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan.

The ongoing construction would make it difficult to recruit world-renowned faculty and top-of-the-class students, Miller predicts. He also worries about the impact on tuition, already more than $40,000 a year.

"We are talking about an academically destructive plan," Miller said.

Sexton has pegged costs of overall expansion between $3 billion and $4 billion, more than the school's $2.7 billion endowment. The administration said the projected capital expense over time is in line with what NYU has already been spending. The difference is that the university drafted a long-term construction plan instead of working piecemeal, administrators say.

"We've been at this for five years," Hurley said.

The school needs City Council approval to move forward and finish the project by 2031, the school's 200-year anniversary. The council is scheduled on July 25 to vote on NYU's plans, which include rezoning residential space to mixed use. The council usually approves land-use plans, and lawmakers say they'll rely on the guidance of the neighborhood's representative, Councilwoman Margaret Chin (D-Manhattan), who has pressed for modifications.

"I continue to work towards reducing the size of NYU's expansion proposal so that it does not overwhelm the surrounding community," Chin said in a statement.

Already, NYU has scaled back its blueprint from 2.4 million square feet to 2.1 million square feet to win the support of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. Community Board 2, which offers an advisory vote, rejected the plans.

Some politicians opposed

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Edward I. Koch are behind the plan, but other Manhattan politicians, including Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, State Sen. Thomas Duane and Assemb. Deborah Glick, as well as the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, believe NYU's ambitions are inappropriate for the storied district.

"It's just too big," Lappin concluded, adding any compromise should "keep the fabric of the Village."

The Village expansion is the most controversial part of NYU's larger vision for the future, which includes erecting a new nursing and dental school on First Avenue and East 26th Street and opening an applied science research institute in downtown Brooklyn.

The fight has attracted star-studded opponents, including actor Matthew Broderick, who lives in the Village with his wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, and recently testified at a council hearing of the "danger of wiping out those very things that make being here unique."

Despite university concessions, plans for the tallest structure -- the 25-story, block-long Zipper Building slated for Mercer Street between West Houston and Bleecker streets -- remain untouched. The building is named for the zigzag profile it would create and would include faculty and student housing, classrooms, retail space and a new gym. It would rival the height of the area's largest building, the Silver Towers on LaGuardia Place.

Neighbors said they'll fight until the end. Magida warns that if construction starts, "I think you'll see people chained to trees and standing in front of bulldozers. This is a very angry community."

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