Founded in 1831, New York University (NYU) has grown from a small, local college with an inaugural class of 158 students to the largest private university in the country, with almost 40,000 students enrolled in its 14 schools and colleges. NYU also numbers among the largest employers in New York City, with over 16,000 staff and faculty members on its payroll.
Originally housed in a four-story building at the corner of Beekman and Nassau, NYU has undergone continual and significant expansion to accommodate the needs of an ever-growing university community and now maintains roughly 15 million square feet of space in Manhattan. The bulk of that development, approximately two-thirds, has occurred in and around Greenwich Village, particularly since NYU sold its University Heights Bronx campus to the City of New York in 1973.
NYU now owns over 100 buildings in the Village but continues to confront the need for new space. NYU estimates that it provides only 95 square feet of space per student, compared to 194 at Columbia and 398 at Harvard, and argues that it must expand in order to remain competitive.
Some area residents oppose NYU’s growing footprint, concerned with the impact of large facilities that they feel are out of context with the predominately low-rise architecture of the Village. Various NYU construction projects have sparked controversy over the years, ranging from the law school’s Vanderbilt Hall, which displaced a group of popular local artists from their tenements along Washington Square South in 1947; to I.M. Pei’s University Village/Silver Towers, which were developed as part of the city’s widely criticized urban renewal efforts of the 1960s; to the 2001 Kimmel Center for Student Life, which opponents argued would cast a shadow over Washington Square Park and block southbound views through its historic arch.
In 2007, NYU moved forward on a plan to build a 26-story dorm on the former site of St. Ann’s Catholic Church, on East 12th Street, despite significant community opposition. A lawsuit was filed against the developer of the dorm because of concern over a transfer of air rights from the United States Post Office. The plaintiffs argued that the transfer should be considered invalid because the federal government is not bound by city zoning laws, and therefore could later disregard its agreement with the developer and construct a second skyscraper with impunity.
A judge subsequently dismissed the suit on a technicality (ruling that the plaintiffs should have first applied to the Board of Standards and Appeals to stop construction) but also criticized the plaintiffs’ central argument as a “highly questionable contention.” Dubbed the “mega-dorm” by local community groups opposed to its construction, the building is the tallest in the East Village.
In May 2007, NYU hired an outside consulting firm, SMWM, to help develop the university’s long-term growth plan. Throughout the planning process, NYU sought to engage a variety of community stakeholders in the discussions. The Community Task Force on NYU Development, formed by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer in fall 2006, brought elected officials, government agencies, and community groups together with NYU president John Sexton and the SMWM team in a series of meetings and open houses intended to set development on a course that would benefit both the university and its neighbors.
The resulting draft plan, called “NYU Plans 2031,” is focused on the following guiding principles, which were endorsed by Borough President Stringer and the Community Task Force:
• maintain the campus core in the Washington Square Park area for academic and student-services uses;
• better utilize existing resources and assets;
• respect the historic and cultural character of nearby neighborhoods;
• have public interaction and take public input on the plans;
• develop mixed-use spaces;
• protect natural and historic resources in the area;
• use high-quality urban design and architecture;
• promote sustainability;
• and develop new public green spaces.
NYU expects that it will need to add up to 6 million square feet of residential and classroom space to accommodate the needs of the University in 2031. Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, has advocated that NYU explore the possibility of satellite campuses around the city instead of solely focusing on acquiring space in the Village. The Society argues that the rate of growth proposed by NYU will be disastrous, highlighting that NYU’s 2031 expansion would match the 3.6 million square feet of expansion that the University experienced from 1964 to 2008, in half the time.
In March 2010, NYU released more details about the expansion. Of the six million new square feet, three million will be added around the Washington Square campus. The other three million include a one million square foot new engineering school in downtown Brooklyn, and additional space on Governors Island and First Avenue. Building blueprints have not been developed yet.
Nonetheless, a significant portion of NYU’s future expansion, 2.8 to 3.6 million square feet, will likely occur within its “core campus” around Washington Square Park and dialogue with its neighbors will be ongoing. Many Village residents strongly opposed NYU’s proposal to place a 40-story tower next to the 30-story Silver Towers on Bleecker Street, amongst other features of the plan.
In the months following the unveiling of SMWM’s recommendations, two NYU development projects that represent first steps towards expansion sparked extensive negotiations with community groups and government officials: the University’s decision to build a new co-generation plant on Mercer Street, which will power 30 buildings as part of its Green Action Plan, and its proposal to build a new research facility for the law school above and around the historic Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street.
Both projects were ultimately approved by Community Board 2. 94% of the Playhouse has been demolished, leaving only the Playhouse entrance and a portion of the theater standing.
NYU is also planning on building a new facility on the site of Holy Trinity Chapel, located adjacent to the Kimmel Center, on the south side of Washington Square Park. It was purchased by NYU, for $25 million, from the Archdiocese of New York. The building will be used for academic and multi-faith purposes. At just over 6-stories, the building will be below the bulk and height allowed by the zoning restrictions on the site, yet there has still been significant opposition to the building.
Both the Playhouse and the Chapel fall within the boundaries of the South Village Historic District (the proposed extension to the Greenwich Village Historic District), which NYU’s President John Sexton formally expressed support for on behalf of the University. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation contends that demolishing two buildings within the area, demonstrates the University’s wavering commitment to the neighborhood.