NYU’s Olive Branch

Yes, NYU is growing again. Last February, the university unveiled its plan for 6 million square feet of new space, half of it housing—a plan shaped in part by historic discussions between NYU and its neighbors, who have been locked in real-estate skirmishes for years. “It was like the Arab-Israeli talks,” says Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, who helped assemble a task force on the school’s expansion. Both sides are squabbling as usual, especially over adding a fourth building to Silver Towers (pictured), the I.M. Pei–designed complex south of Washington Square Park that opened in 1966.

There’s hope, though: In a Barack Obama kind of way, both sides seem to grasp that partisan deadlock is no way to lead one’s life, and NYU is making gestures toward détente. “We finally realized we were on an unsustainable track,” says Alicia D. Hurley, NYU’s vice-president of government affairs and community engagement. “We decided we [had] to restructure and invite the community to the table.” To that end, it’s been hosting “open houses” so Villagers can take a look and express concerns. That sounds modest, but it’s more than most such institutions do—and signals a much greater openness than NYU has shown in the past. The school has also scaled back its fight against the landmarks designation (it’s now hoping that if the towers are landmarked, the whole block won’t be). “We are trying to do this differently and be very forthcoming,” says Hurley.

Although he praises NYU’s new gestures, “there will be friction if they continue to see the Village as the place for them to expand,” says Andrew Berman, head of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Though NYU is looking at areas like Governors Island, the heart of its 23-year plan is to add much of its space downtown, where it’s most appealing to students and faculty. “It’s a huge lure—Greenwich Village, subsidized rental,” admits one professor who lives in Silver Towers. “If I wasn’t employed by them, I’d feel like NYU is a huge monster eating up the best neighborhood. But here I am.”

One irony in all this is that Silver Towers itself was an interloper when it replaced old low-scaled blocks with Brutalist concrete. Some skeptics say it’s not worth landmarking, that its only distinction is the architect’s name; others, like Kyle Johnson of the local chapter of DOCOMOMO, a group that fights to save modernist structures, argue that “these are interesting buildings as artifacts, not just because [they’re] Pei’s,” as he notes.

NYU’s final argument—and perhaps the most persuasive one—is that, whether it’s a good neighbor or not, it’s the devil you know. “What would be around Washington Square Park if it wasn’t NYU?” asks Hurley. “Do they think it would be a soft, gentle area of brownstones? Or high-end condos?” Even the most strident NYU hater probably knows the answer to that.

NYU’s Olive Branch