The proposal, which comprises 2.45 million square feet of development on the two "superblocks" just south of Washington Square, was unanimously rejected by Manhattan's Community Board 2 in late February, after months of well-attended board meetings, all dominated by vocal residents rallying against the school's long-term construction plans.
The development would provide a mixture of uses for NYU, from academic to housing to retail. Most of the new capacity would come in the form of four new high-rise buildings along with significant below-ground development. NYU says the current site of a school-owned supermarket would be given to the city for a new public school, and has argued that it will provide more usable public space with better accessibility along the superblocks' perimeter.
Opponents have seized on different aspects of the 2031 concept, from the impact of living near a construction zone for years to come, to the possibility that the university's plans for public open space will change or fall through, to the sheer size of the proposed buildings.
"We're reaching a tipping point in the neighborhood where the university has become more and more of an overwhelming presence in more and more of the neighborhood," says Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. "If the Village loses its wonderful, longstanding mixture of people and institutions and uses, then it's really not going to be the Village anymore."
On the other hand, John Beckman, NYU Vice President of University Relations and Public Affairs, insists the plan "seeks to maximize the use of NYU's existing footprint for new development by using land NYU already owns … while avoiding tenant dislocation and the use of eminent domain."
The school's past development track record could very well be a factor in the distrust that has greeted NYU 2031. To get a sense of how that record looks from the perspective of NYU's neighbors, we talked to people living and working near recent NYU development sites:
Wilf Hall, 133-139 MacDougal Street
"I have never been a knee-jerk detractor of NYU," says Vittorio Antonini, owner of La Lanterna Caffe on the corner of MacDougal and W. 3rd. "I've always sort of said, ‘Hey, NYU sort of forms a natural component of the community down here in Central Greenwich Village.' I've always seen them as a good presence."
However, over the duration of the two years Antonini dealt with NYU's development of Wilf Hall a couple doors down from his business, he came to resent the way the school dealt with the surrounding area. During the 2008-2010 construction period, he reports losing 20 to 25 percent of his business, and although business was restored to its normal level in 2011, Antonini says the negative effects and aggravation would have been eased if NYU had practiced what they preached.
"They said they weren't going to close the street [during construction] and then they did," he says. "What it was, was sort of like the death of a thousand cuts. ‘We're gonna work with you,' [they'd say]. ‘We're gonna do this. We're not gonna close the street. Oh, we had to close the street… We had to shut off the water service, we had to do this and that.'"
As construction wore on, Antonini became more and more cynical about the things NYU was saying, and continued to say, about the importance of the surrounding community.
"I found myself slowly saying, ‘It's all lip service,'" he says. "They're actually not willing to do anything. They'll do it if it's not costing them anything… but otherwise they're not doing a thing."
Banking on his experience as a developer outside his work at La Lanterna Caffe, Antonini insists that NYU could have handled the construction better, and remains wary of any development promises the school has for the future.
Beckman, however, points to Wilf Hall as a recent success in NYU development, saying that NYU declined to develop the last 20 percent of the building's floor area ratio in a respectful gesture to the community, while also pointing to the restoration of the Provincetown Playhouse within the building, which provides a "state-of-the-art working theatre in the neighborhood."
In terms of aesthetics, even Antonini admits that the construction improved the building's look and usefulness, although he is, of course, more concerned with the price he and others on the street paid for that new look.
Founders Hall Dormitory, 120 E. 12th Street
Berman, often a harsh critic of NYU and its development proposals, gets particularly perturbed when discussing the Founders Hall dormitory that was opened up a couple blocks south of Union Square for the Fall 2009 semester (construction had begun in July of 2006). It was constructed on the site of St. Ann's Church, which was built in 1847. The property was sold in 2003 by the Archdiocese of New York, and most of the structure was torn down in 2005. NYU bought the land and angered several of the neighbors with the university's developing skyward while leaving the façade of the church intact.
"There's this little piece of this 19th century church that's still left on the site with this enormous 26-story dorm behind it," Berman says. "It's like a very feeble [presence] that's seemingly meant to hide this obscenity that was imposed upon the neighborhood."
Berman's feelings are echoed by some neighbors of the dormitory, who find NYU's choice to preserve only the front portion of St. Ann's without any signage about its history to be confusing to visitors, among other things.
"I refer to it as a carcass that serves only as a reminder of what was lost," says neighbor Elizabeth Langwith, whose apartment overlooks Founders Hall. "Frankly it would have been better for them to have gotten rid of the façade since it looks very incongruous. It has become somewhat of a tourist attraction. I often observe people scratching their heads when they look at it and try to figure out what it's doing there since it looks so out of place."
Langwith's fellow neighbor Leslie Kogod says she likes living in a university neighborhood. But she finds the dormitory to be an eyesore and a deviation from what has always made the area attractive for students and local residents alike.
"As ugly high-rises go up, and the area starts to look like any other part of the city, the charm of the neighborhood and of the university disappears," she says. "I would think that NYU would recognize this, but alas, their focus is grow, grow, grow!"
A look at property market values on the block generally shows modest appreciation in recent years, both before and after the opening of Founders Hall—even though property values have actually been declining throughout Manhattan Community Board 3 over the same span. But resident complaints concern which businesses have come to thrive and which have fallen by the wayside amid a huge population shift. Langwith and Jeanne Krier, another neighbor of Founders Hall, each point to the new prevalence of bars, fast food restaurants and Internet cafes, which have taken the place of small delis and grocery stores.
"The limited amount of green space in the area has become much more pronounced with the influx of 700-plus new residents," Langwith says. "Overall it feels much more transient and crowded than it did five years ago."
Krier says the "studentification" of the neighborhood is double-edged. "[The students] bring a lot of energy to our life," she says. "But with that comes noise, and with NYU's contribution it comes a footprint that feels like a stomp."
NYU's Beckman admits the construction and opening of the Founders Hall dormitory was "a source of frustration for [its] neighbors." He says NYU avoided any public hearing or process for Founders because the building design was allowed under existing zoning rules. But that meant little warning for neighbors. "The absence of a public process left [neighbors] feeling as though they had too little voice," Beckman says.
Beckman stresses the university's plans to expand elsewhere in the city and even points to a study, commissioned by NYU and conducted by the Global Strategy Group, that found that 59 percent of New Yorkers in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn support NYU's expansion plans.
But he acknowledges that NYU is still trying to "overcome what has sometimes been a rancorous history" in terms of development.
So far, their efforts to do better this time appear to be falling short. "I think a lot of people within the community resent the fact that they're trying to dress up their strategic goals with some sort of half-baked public salesmanship," says Community Board 2 Chairman Brad Hoylman.