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The School That Ate New York

By charm and brute force, NYU is planning to add 6 million square feet to its campus across the city. Is John Sexton the new Robert Moses?

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Near the NYU campus last weekend.  

John Sexton, NYU’s president, is doing what he does best: selling. “You want to contrast the way NYU is in the city and Columbia is in the city,” he tells me. Columbia’s campus, sitting at the southern edge of Harlem, is a walled city, the more-than-metaphorical ivory tower. But at NYU, there’s “not a single gate, not a single blade of grass,” which isn’t strictly true, but close enough for a great salesman burnishing his brand.

Sexton is seated at a conference table in his office on the top floor of NYU’s Bobst Library, wearing rumpled navy slacks and a sky-blue sweatshirt from his alma mater, Brooklyn Prep. “Frankly, I dress this way anytime I have an excuse,” he says. When Sexton became president, ten years ago, many believed his drive was to elevate NYU to compete with the Ivy League. In fact, his ambition is grander. He sees the city and the university as a single unit, a node of talent and creativity and, of course, money. And he’s not marketing only to the country’s bright high-school students but also to the global meritocracy. “The analogy that I use is to the Italian Renaissance, when there was Milan and Venice and Florence and Rome, and the talent and creative class moved among those points,” he says, tracing circles with his hands for emphasis.

New York, with its population of immigrants and transients of all races, creeds, and socioeconomic categories, not to mention its global reach, is the perfect city to build such a vision, but some changes will have to be made. Big changes. NYU is proposing to add 6 million square feet of new space across New York City in the next twenty years, with half the growth taking place in the historic blocks of the Village—the equivalent of three Javits Centers. The proposal, known as NYU 2031, is the culmination of four and a half years of design work by a team of world-class architects that included Toshiko Mori, a Harvard professor and former chair of Harvard’s architecture program. In the Village, NYU is proposing to build four new buildings, including a 38-story hotel and residential tower and a 1,400-bed freshman dorm alongside the I. M. Pei towers that the university owns. Sexton’s vision, and his argument, bears some resemblance to the famous G.M. adage of the fifties: What’s good for NYU is good for New York City, and vice versa. And what it means in practice is that the core of downtown New York is on its way to becoming a college town.

Sexton’s pitch to me is that NYU needs this space if it is to compete for top faculty and set the agenda for cutting-edge research in emerging fields like neuroscience and genomics. But the university’s plan to double its rate of growth over the next two decades has sparked a bitter turf battle with neighborhood activists who have mobilized to block NYU’s moves. NYU’s expansion and the conflict it inspires expose a deeper debate about the changing nature of the city and NYU’s role in it. A generation ago, New York was a place you went when you graduated from college. Columbia, and especially NYU, were urban afterthoughts.

But in the span of 30 years, NYU transformed itself from a regional commuter school to a national university that attracts 90 percent of its students from outside the city. NYU now has more than 40,000 students, making it the largest private university in the country. The university’s view is that this growth has been a boon to the Village and the city. “Having 40,000 students is like having year-round tourists,” says Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at NYU. “They spend their parents’ money and don’t consume too much of public service and add to the nightlife.” The Bloomberg administration welcomes this growth. “The city has more students in colleges and universities than Boston has people,” says Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. “What’s important about the educational sector is that it allows us to showcase the city to the leaders of tomorrow. It helps increase the intellectual firmament of the city. The thoughts and research that take place inside our university campuses help us seed business outside the university setting. It provides a double whammy.”

Universities—and this is an argument that Columbia makes, too—are a recessionproof employment engine. But this may come at a cultural cost, with the university culture smothering the things that have always been most distinctive about downtown. Harvard Square is lovely—but it’s also not the vital center of a real city, nor are the main drags, for instance, of Ann Arbor or Berkeley. Universities create their own gravity: the more massive, the more dominant.


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