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The School That Ate New York

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Purple Reign
NYU is, in terms of students, the largest private university in the country. If the current development plan, titled NYU 2031, is approved, it will have a campus to match—centered in one of the most hallowed neighborhoods in the world, with outposts in Brooklyn and Governors Island. Should downtown be a college town? We're about to find out.
Map by Jason Lee  

Some of NYU’s architects think it’s wrong to apply the terms of the old neighborhood battles to this fight. “There are people who have this leftover kind of half-baked Jane Jacobs attitude,” said Matthew Urbanski, NYU’s lead landscape architect. “They [think] she was saying ‘no no no’ to everything. She was a very positive person.”

“Jane Jacobs would be the first person on the barricade saying, ‘NYU, we can’t let you take over and build more and more,’ ” counters Andrew Berman, referring to the author who was the patron saint of small-scale Village life.

This time, NYU wanted to get the politics right. The university approached its strategic plan with the discipline of a political campaign. It hired an outside PR consultant and staged open houses to solicit feedback from residents. To appease opponents, NYU has been unsparing in criticizing its own architectural mistakes. Kimmel is an example of “what not to do,” Mori says. Some see politics in this kind of blunt talk. Kevin Roche, the acclaimed Irish-American architect who built Kimmel, is angered by NYU’s views. “That’s one way to get on in the world,” he said of Mori’s comments. “I would never comment about another person’s work like that. It’s silly. That’s a part of the tactic of trying to get the neighbors onboard.”

“Sexton’s vision seems to be: What’s good for NYU is good for New York, and vice versa.

Building on the Pei blocks brings major risks. While NYU’s architects believe adding the hotel in the middle of the block will preserve unobstructed views in Pei’s original towers, building on the landmarked site requires approvals from the Landmarks Preservation Committee. And there was always the chance that Pei might speak out against the proposal. Berman had spoken with him privately in a bid to win him over. “We wanted to make sure Andrew Berman couldn’t call him up and get a quote from him saying his site is sacred,” one person involved in NYU’s planning told me. “One word from Pei could have killed the whole thing.”

And so in February 2008, NYU scheduled a meeting with the 93-year-old Pei to present its designs. Pei sat quietly as Husser, the Grimshaw architect who designed the new building, presented the renderings for the NYU hotel. And then he spoke. To their relief, the only request he made was to clean the Picasso statue on the site.

“We kept him abreast out of respect,” Mori told me. “Historic buildings can be a dead artifact, but it gives them a longer life once a new building creates a new dialogue. In that way, cities survive.”

In February 2005, Mike Bloomberg invited Sexton to lead a two-day retreat on Staten Island for senior City Hall officials. With the mayor’s reelection campaign ramping up and agendas for a second term being drafted, Bloomberg had tapped Sexton to lead a discussion about expanding the city’s economic base beyond the traditional sectors of finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE, in the parlance of urban planners). “He asked me to talk to the commissioners about what would make New York City an idea capital in 2050,” Sexton recalls. It was a topic Sexton had been thinking a lot about. Since being appointed president of NYU, in 2001, after a celebrated run as dean of NYU Law School—where he bulked up the faculty by poaching academic all-stars and boosted fund-raising—Sexton had become something of a scholar-statesman-futurist, racing around the world giving speeches and interviews to promote his utopian vision of a tomorrowland where universities are the centers of a new type of metropolis built on ideas and intellectual capital. “There’s a way the pope and Rudy Giuliani were both right when they said New York City is the capital of the world,” Sexton says, “so how do you sustain that?”


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