Mayor de Blasio with NYU President John Sexton (Diana Robinson for the mayor's office)
In mid-April, Mayor Bill de Blasio went to Washington Square to speak to a crowded room of NYU alumni as part of the school's "Speaker on the Square" series. A Class of '84 graduate himself, the Democrat reflected on his time at the school, when he was still involved in campus labor politics and community activism. Meanwhile, in the crowd, a pamphlet entitled "NYU in the New Millennium" was passed around, laundry-listing the university's achievements and describing its plans for the future in Greenwich Village. "Over time, NYU may create as much as 1.9 million square feet of added space," it read.
The line is a reference to NYU 2031, the university's massive expansion plan, which, if implemented, would permanently establish the school as the real estate power of Greenwich Village by its target completion year and the school's bicentennial, 2031. And, one of, if not the, most important developments in the plan's ongoing saga came this past November, with the election of the man in the room that early April evening.
De Blasio's rise to the most powerful office in New York City has become a staple of pride for New York University, but almost immediately , the alumnus has found himself in the midst of a firestorm taking place on his old campus. While NYU 2031 is one of the largest land grabs in recent New York City history, it's also one of the most controversial.
The blueprint for more academic space calls for the establishment of two "superblocks" near or around the university's epicenter - Washington Square Park - and the construction of four towering high-rises - the largest of which, the Zipper building, would be located on top of the current Coles Sports Center and could possibly reach 26 stories. The plan would drastically change the face of the neighborhood, plain and simple. But the key word in that pamphlet's declaration: may.
Since its introduction, NYU 2031 has pitted NYU President John Sexton, the forefather of the plan, against a significant portion of his own faculty, employees who call the expansion outrageously invasive of the Greenwich Village area just north of Houston Street. After Community Board 2 struck down the plan entirely, the faculty-staffed Space Priorities Working Group was formed by the NYU administration in May of 2012, tasked with finding common ground on complaints with the plan. These tensions were the major driving force behind last year's 'no confidence' vote of Sexton by majorities of faculty members from several of NYU's individual schools and, although heralding no concrete change, the gesture became a symbol of the tarnished reputation the plan continues to retain amongst professors.
While the revised plan has continued to find success, albeit limited, in the city's (ULURP) land use review process, it has fallen under siege in the courts. The most recent legal obstruction came this past January. In a lawsuit filed by 11 different community organizations, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Donna Mills struck down a major part of the project, faulting the Bloomberg administration and the City Council for letting NYU use three public spaces, deemed 'implied parklands,' for its high-rises without the requisite State Legislature approval. However, the ruling does not prevent the school from initiating construction on the Zipper Building by 2015, nor does it force the administration to redo the ULURP process, and the saga continues.
As Public Advocate, de Blasio had an issue with NYU's original expansion plan, known as the Core Project - one that called for 2,275,000 square feet of new space, or, as community activists liked to say, the equivalent of a new Empire State Building in the Village. The plan painted an unsure future for 505 LaGuardia Place, a towering, 30-story Mitchell-Lama cooperative made up of 170 affordable housing units, all with a lease that was set to expire this year. After renegotiations made with former Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, the plan's space estimates were slimmed down by 19 percent and the plank was removed from the plan, which fostered support from the local city council member, Margaret Chin, and the Public Advocate.
"With recent changes to building size, allowances for open space and additional community spaces, I believe this plan deserves the city's full support," de Blasio said in July 2012, just as the City Council, amidst boos and sneers from community activists, overwhelmingly passed the expansion plan in a 44-1 vote.
"Mayor Bloomberg wholeheartedly embraced Sexton's plan, and made that very clear," Mark Crispin Miller, the head of NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, told me. "Mayor de Blasio appears to embrace it more quietly. But it's our hope that we can persuade him to change that position." With that said, Miller also contested the truth of that particular line, "NYU in the New Millenium," arguing that the recent state Supreme Court decision places the entirety of the plan - 1.9 million square feet and all - in a subsequent legal limbo.
Since his inauguration as mayor, de Blasio has remained relatively quiet on the issue, only mentioning it publicly once, on the day of Mills' decision this past January. And, even then, his stance on the issue appeared a bit murky. "I think a lot of the community concerns were valid, and we're going to work with the community going forward," the mayor reiterated. He told reporters he reversed his position as public advocate after changes were made, but would "withhold legal judgment" until the court process was over. Now, sources say his administration has been in talks with both the NYU administration and its opponents, and would implement the land use actions as approved by the courts.
But, to Miller, just the fact that the City recently filed a notice of appeal for the ruling symbolizes the mayor's ultimate support for twenty years of construction in Greenwich Village, especially as it runs in conjunction with the NYU administration's own notice of appeal. The written filings were due this past week, and oral arguments for the appealed case are expected to be scheduled in September.
"I will leave it to the City to address their reasons for also filing a notice of appeal, but clearly there were some serious public policy implications in the ruling that could have a major impact on city-owned open spaces that are not parkland," NYU spokesperson John Beckman said in an email. Beckman, however, had no comment on the mayor's position, saying the school's principal source of contact with City Hall is through de Blasio's Law Department.
One must keep in mind who de Blasio has surrounded himself with. By the end of February, the mayor's inner circle was stacked with NYU insiders, with First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris (former NYU Langone head); head of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development Vicki Been (former NYU Law professor, wife of former NYU Law Dean, Richard Revesz, and a beneficiary of NYU's controversial mortgage program); chair of the City Planning Commission Carl Weisbrod (former chair of NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate); and Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter (an NYU Law School trustee). While the appointees' influence remains to be seen, Village activists are worried the school has an outsized seat in City Hall.
"We're hoping the merits of our case will weigh more heavily with the Mayor than his allegiances to the NYU administration," Miller said. "Will he continue to share their perception, or will he step back and take a cooler view?"
But de Blasio's choices haven't bent entirely aligned with the NYU administration. See Michelle de la Uz. When NYU 2031 came up for a vote with the City Planning Commission, de la Uz, a member, was the only person to vote against it, citing familiar, community-based concerns voiced by the anti-NYU-2031 movement. And, she was appointed by none other than Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, providing yet another plot twist in an already confusing tale. (Michelle de la Uz has been reached for comment, but has not yet responded.)
Off campus, the polarizing power of the project, charged by the Supreme Court decision, has been apparent, too, as elected officials on the local and state levels continue to take sides. For the most part, the Council Members who voted for the plan originally, including Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Chin, have kept quiet as issues surrounding its implementation have arisen. However, the list of skeptics now consists of New York State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, Council Member Corey Johnson (who recently replaced pro-NYU-2031 Christine Quinn in District 3, which includes a part of the involved area), Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Public Advocate Letitia James - in other words, some of de Blasio's closest legislative and ideological allies.
"This is a victory," James said at a March rally in support of the Mills decision. "For all of those who really care about low scale communities and really want open space and parks and a place to have a safe haven from the intrusion of these mega developers and rapacious individuals who want to build these monuments in the sky."
"As Borough President, I am committed to ensuring that the community also benefits from NYU's planned expansion and have expressed strong support for Judge Mills' ruling in favor of retaining publicly available open space," Brewer said in a statement. "My office has met with every stakeholder – the local Community Board, the NYU Working Group, NYU's project team, and we have a representative serving on the Open Space Oversight Organization."
Along with James, Gale Brewer voted for the plan while in City Council, but both have since re-examined their decisions. However, in terms of actual influence, these statements made by James and Brewer have limited levers behind them. The future of NYU 2031 lies in the offices and agencies of the Mayor, or in the courts.
Meanwhile, when the January ruling was issued, Council Member Johnson called it "an affirmation of the community's fight to preserve public open space" and that the NYU administration's process was "completely disrespectful" of that community. "We've seen too much over the past 12 years of needless overdevelopment," he added.
Of course, the election of Mayor de Blasio was meant to be a populist correction of the Bloombergian view that development always equals growth. And already, we've seen de Blasio use his pulpit to enforce his more progressive demands with the recent Domino Sugar Factory deal, in which he secured 40 additional affordable housing units, adding to the 660 established under the Bloomberg agreement on the impending waterfront high-rise. But NYU 2031 is different.
Unlike Domino, this is a situation that is much more charged with the emotions of those who already reside in the area; Greenwich Village is not as supportive to high-rises as the Williamsburg waterfront is. Also, many of the big names in the anti-NYU-2031 movement supported de Blasio's campaign for mayor, including celebrities like Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, and John Leguizamo. But, most importantly, it involves one of the most powerful real estate entities in all of New York, let alone his alma mater: NYU.
"This is a trickier situation for de Blasio than Domino was. That's because there's no affordable housing involved - the NYU administration doesn't want it, nor is there any space for it," Miller added. "The fact of the matter is that the community is dead set against the project. The faculty is overwhelmingly against it. So if the mayor is on the side of the community, he has to stand with them against the Sexton Plan."
All in all, NYU 2031's fate poses a serious challenge to a mayor who, in the eyes of the electorate and his own party, is supposed to side with the people, not the developers. It's an issue that has significant implications to how de Blasio will treat public space, real estate interests and community involvement in the post-Bloomberg years. And it's a controversy that the mayor will need to take a position on fast, as the expansion continues to divide his elected allies and his alma mater.
John Surico is a freelance journalist. His reporting can be found in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice, and here, for Gotham Gazette. He is a graduate of NYU, too.