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The School That Ate New York

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NYU recognized 12th Street was politically costly. “It was a defining moment for us: How did we get this so wrong?” says Alicia Hurley, NYU’s vice-president for government affairs.

NYU took a new development tack. Historically, it had pursued a maximalist approach to real estate, buying up land whenever it became available. Now it staged open houses with Village residents to solicit feedback. Sexton pushed his architects to look for building options outside the Village. It was decided that the nursing school would move to the East Side of Manhattan, and NYU drew up plans to build a campus of as much as a million square feet on Governors Island. But NYU’s internal analysis showed it would still need to add some 3 million square feet in Greenwich Village. Architects began meeting weekly for three-hour sessions to draft a long-range plan. The focus of development began to center on the superblocks south of Washington Square. The blocks were a creation of Robert Moses and the urban-renewal campaigns of the mid-fifties. In the early sixties, NYU bought the land for just $10.50 per square foot from the struggling developer and commissioned I. M. Pei to build three Le Corbusier–inspired towers. The blocks were initially derided by Village residents but have since been reconsidered; in November 2008, the Pei towers received landmark status from the city.

Meanwhile, relations inside Stringer’s task force were becoming strained. NYU officials felt they were making concessions and grew frustrated that their new openness wasn’t being rewarded; Village leaders felt NYU was ramming through its plan and ignoring their calls to consider building in the financial district, where lower-Manhattan community leaders have sought out NYU to build. Sexton told me there are certain buildings that just have to be in the Village. “If students have to walk between classes, you can’t have those outside of a zone,” he says. “Certain activities like the gym and so on have to be nearby, otherwise students can’t get to them to use. Freshman dorms, it’s much more important they be in close, simply because freshmen are typically coming from all over the world or the country and it’s their first time in New York, and you need them in a protected environment.”

“We’re not talking about putting it in Staten Island or Westchester,” David Gruber, a task-force member, says when I mention NYU’s argument. “We’re talking about two fucking subway stops away. You can’t do that?”

NYU’s pitch was “like BP saying they show respect for the environment,” said Andrew Berman.

It’s a recent morning, and Gruber and I meet over coffee at a café on Bleecker Street. Gruber has lived in the Village for the past 30-plus years and has become a leading community voice on NYU matters. He’s bald, with tufts of wild hair on the sides of his head, and looks like the aging hippie that he is. After graduating from Columbia, he ran off to India. “I went to see lost horizons and meet the Dalai Lama,” he says. “Then we get up to Kashmir, and everyone is doing something—they’re either smoking hash or they’re buying carpets.” After returning to New York in the mid-seventies, Gruber spent a career making and losing small fortunes in various business ventures. Gruber’s now doing well in real estate. He tells me he came to the NYU debate with an open mind, but the university’s tactics have radicalized him. “They’re real fuckups,” he told me earlier.

The task force suffered another blow last summer when Berman got a call from a neighbor on Macdougal Street who had snapped a photo of NYU construction crews demolishing a wall at the historic Provincetown Playhouse, which the university was converting to offices for the law school. Berman was outraged. NYU had promised the task force it would preserve the original bricks of the theater in which Eugene O’Neill once worked.

When Gruber ran into Alicia Hurley at a task force meeting days later, he was incredulous. “What, was it an accident?”

“It was a mistake,” Hurley replied. “Someone in my office thought it was okay to do it because they need to support the foundation.”

“Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind?” Gruber exploded. “You could have supported that wall!”

“It’s done. What am I supposed to do?”

Gruber had a solution. “Fire your whole staff.”

“I can’t do that,” Hurley said.

“You’re saying you didn’t know about it? Your office doesn’t buy toilet paper without checking with you, and you’re telling me a wall comes down? Tell me who it was, and fire them.”

Hurley wouldn’t budge, and for Gruber the episode still stings. “When someone says some junior person allowed that to happen, that strains credibility,” he told me. “I don’t believe that’s what happened.”

Hurley told me the Provincetown controversy is a political effort by opponents. “They view the entire project as a disaster. That’s a pile-on effect,” she said. In a way, she’s right to be frustrated. NYU made concessions in the original Provincetown design to appeal to community concerns. They scuttled blueprints for a ten-story building and replaced it with a seven-story brick building that blended in with the surrounding blocks. “[The opposition] doesn’t show any proportionality. Even when NYU does something good,” says John Sutter, the Villager editor-in-chief and a longtime NYU observer. “This was almost an infantile point of view.”


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