In late March 2010, after four years and 50 meetings, the Stringer task force published a 40-page report. The document contained strong language and called NYU’s “proposal to put 2.8 to 3.5 million square feet in the area, or anything close to that figure … overwhelming.”
While Stringer had formed the task force to build consensus, the closer NYU came to releasing its strategic plans, the more the group was becoming unglued as NYU and its opponents jockeyed for position in the looming public battle. Soon, confidential details of the task force were leaked to the press. A month later, Stringer disbanded it.
Stringer told me the official reason was that the task force’s off-the-record format wasn’t appropriate now that NYU had submitted its plans to the city for public review. There is a debate about whether the effort was successful in checking NYU’s growth. During the final meeting of the task force this summer, Terri Cude, a spokesperson for the Community Action Alliance on NYU 2031, repeatedly asked Gary Parker, NYU’s director of government and community affairs, what the university had changed about its plans since the task force had issued its report. NYU was pressing ahead with its bid to build the hotel and academic buildings in the Village.
“What did you change?” Cude asked.
“Well, Terri, they’ve informed our conversations, because—”
Cude interjected. “I asked you what have you done since March 25, since we gave you our recommendations?”
“The task force has been a resounding failure,” Berman recently told me. “It’s 100 percent a political effort to get them to secure the public approvals they need for this plan. They’ve made people willing to give them a chance, but people were disgusted with the process. NYU wasn’t willing to move an inch. They were unwilling to live up to their commitment.”
NYU says it did follow the recommendations, by focusing to build on its own land and seeking growth outside the Village. “Now fully half our growth will be outside the Village,” NYU’s Beckman told me.
Stringer said the opposition benefited from having NYU put its plans on the table. “The biggest contribution is we now know what the plan is,” he told me. “What was so frustrating about this development process is it wasn’t transparent. You may hate the NYU development proposal, but at least you know what it is.”
Now both sides are bracing for a messy public fight. Last month, NYU submitted its plans for the fourth tower on the Pei site to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and last week, Community Board 2 held a meeting in which attendees denounced NYU’s proposal. It’s the first step of a complex approvals process that will unfold over the next year. If NYU hoped that Pei would remain quiet—he won’t. Last week, I spoke with Henry Cobb, a founding partner of Pei’s firm. Cobb told me that Pei hasn’t made up his mind about the hotel design—there’s a chance he could speak out against it. “We will comment at the appropriate time, and our comment will be clear and concise,” he said.
NYU has made some missteps already. This spring, as it announced the 2031 plan publicly, it had to withhold more-detailed architectural renderings at the last moment, because it had yet to float the proposals by City Planning officials, according to one source familiar with the matter. (NYU didn’t comment.) NYU can’t afford many more stumbles. One of the most controversial elements of the plan is its request to gain control of narrow strips of open space along Mercer Street and La Guardia Place, among others, that belong to the Department of Transportation—land that was left over from Moses’s failed plan to build the much-derided expressway through the Village. “This is kind of a Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses fight of the gods,” Gruber says. The earliest NYU could begin building would be 2013. But both sides understand that whether this plan gets approved will determine the shape of the Village for the next generation.
Near the end of our interview, I ask Sexton what would happen if NYU is thwarted in its campaign to build. Sexton told me that NYU can build on land it owns nearby when a building restriction expires in ten years. “We can grow anyway! I mean, we grew for twenty years before. If that’s denied, we have an as-of-right building that will be five feet away. Which we’ll do! Maybe we’ll be forced to add seven stories to the Catholic Center.”
Sexton says this with a smile, but his intention is clear. “What’s good for NYU is good for the city” is a slogan that, one way or another, New Yorkers are going to have to get used to.