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The School That Ate New York


A rendering of the new building proposed between I.M. Pei's Silver Towers.  

Where Sexton sees a new Renaissance, many in the Village see a new feudalism, with Sexton cast in the role of domineering overlord. NYU has been growing at a rate of 125,000 square feet per year since its founding. “The institution seems to think this is about manifest destiny. Unfortunately, it’s not about manifest destiny, it’s megalomania,” says Susan Goren, a vocal community activist. “I remember the Village with Bob Dylan on the bus, Mick Jagger at the Lone Star. All it is now is NYU kids texting and walking into you wherever you go.”

Much of the anger in the Village is rooted in NYU’s poor development track record. The university’s history of overbuilding goes back two generations, to the days of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. The Times’ legendary architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable described NYU in 1964 as having a “consistent blindness to the area’s architectural and historical features.” NYU has only further antagonized the Village by constructing buildings like the hulking Kimmel Center, which towers over Washington Square, and the 26-story high-rise on East 12th Street that it bought and converted into a 700-bed freshman dorm. “They’re the new Robert Moses,” declares David Gruber, the chair of Community Board 2’s arts-and-institutions committee.

The Moses analogy can be crude in its own way—Marc Jacobs and Carrie Bradshaw, not to mention the financial industry, did their part to transform the Village into a theme park—but it is certainly true that NYU is the largest single force shaping development in the Village. When he took office, Sexton vowed that NYU would improve its approach to development and sought to communicate with community leaders. He agreed to join a task force run by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to allow the Village to influence NYU’s designs. Sexton is a conciliator. He hugs nearly everyone he meets. But he is also a brilliant debater who relishes a fight. When I ask if he’s worried about whether activists will try to block his plans, his eyes narrow. “We live in a time of slogan politics and demagoguery, and if you’re going to take that personally, you shouldn’t be the president of a university,” he says flatly, “and I never do.”

Sexton is fond of quoting the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who once said that if you “want to create a great world city, establish a great university and wait 200 years.” It’s a view shared by Marty Lipton, the legendary M&A lawyer and NYU’s board chair. “It’s been 58 years since I attended my first class at the NYU Law School, and I’ve lived in or close to the Village ever since,” Lipton told me. “What NYU has done is not just change for the better its immediate surroundings in the Village; it’s NYU that gave rise to the shift of the cultural and social center of Manhattan south of 14th Street.”

Some of the people who were painting and playing and clubbing and shopping and just plain living in Greenwich Village in the past few decades might take issue with that statement. But regardless of whether NYU is the egg that gave birth to downtown’s chicken, the university is now on the verge of swallowing the chicken.

On a muggy evening back in June, about 200 Village residents packed the floral-print ballroom inside 75 Morton Street’s Activity Center. The meeting was hosted by Manhattan Community Board 2. The board called the meeting to listen to NYU’s architects present their designs for a 400-foot-tall hotel to be built on the landmarked I. M. Pei–designed superblock in the heart of the Village. A few days earlier, NYU had leaked the renderings of the proposed concrete-and-glass tower to The Wall Street Journal. Neighborhood reaction went nuclear. Representatives from the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation circulated through the crowd, handing out leaflets. Local press lined the back wall of the room. NYU’s lead architect, Mark Husser, opened his presentation but was immediately shouted down when he explained that NYU’s planned building would be taller than the adjacent Pei towers. “In this case, we felt it should be distinct and it should be taller,” he said.

“How much taller?” yelled a voice from the audience.

Husser started to answer. “The new building is 300 and …”

“How many stories?” another cried out.

“Thirty-eight stories,” Husser responded, eliciting gasps and groans.

“What are the existing buildings?” came a shout.

“Thirty stories,” he said.

“How many feet?”

“The existing building is 300 feet high.”

“And your building?”

“Three hundred eighty-five feet high.”

And from there, things only got worse. The room exploded with applause when Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation, stood up and said NYU’s plan is “a little like BP saying they show respect for the environment.” A woman from the audience summed up the collective sentiment nicely. “This is a crime against the Village, and it must be stopped.”

To hear NYU tell it, the university has learned from past mistakes and is seeking to build in harmony with the neighborhood. “This is a really strong historic-preservation move for us,” Toshiko Mori told me. The plan calls for adding a slender glass tower that will house the hotel and faculty condos on the Pei site. According to one senior NYU official, the hotel idea, which isn’t finalized, is being pushed by NYU’s executive vice-president, Michael Alfano, who oversees the university’s finances. If the hotel gets approved, NYU plans to partner with a hotel operator to run it. It will be open to the public, but NYU is building it to cater to out-of-town faculty attending conferences on campus and visiting parents. On the block to the north, NYU wants to build a pair of bulbous academic buildings in the interior courtyard of Washington Square Village. And to the east, the plan calls for taking down the bunkerlike Coles Gymnasium and replacing it with a seventeen-story mixed-use building with a dorm, academic space, a supermarket, and an underground gym. NYU says that although it plans to build up, it will improve the open space by putting a lot of facilities underground and through better landscape design while adding much-needed retail services to a desolate block. It’s an audacious plan that will require NYU to get approval from the city to rezone the area with a commercial designation, a major bone of contention. “Most of the development would come on property we already own,” Sexton says. In NYU’s view, Moses already did the damage, so adding large structures to those blocks won’t harm the Village. “In a way, the dirty job was done by Robert Moses,” Mori says. “It’s a scar. It makes a lot of sense to frame the site where large buildings already exist. It does the least amount of damage to the existing context.”


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