Atlantic Cities

A Brief History of NYU Land Battles

A Brief History of NYU Land Battles
Flickr/Uraimo

America's most heated preservation-development battle is back for another round: the nation's largest private university campus seeks to expand in the nation's most historically conscious neighborhood. As usual, the opposition in Greenwich Village includes some heavy hitters—actors, writers, the entire community board, and most of the university faculty.

Sometime in the next few hours, a New York City Council committee is expected to announce a decision on New York University’s 2031 plan, which aims to add over 2 million square feet of space to the school’s Greenwich Village campus and cost at least $4 billion, about twice the size of the university's endowment. Over the last year, the expansion—perhaps the largest single construction project in Village history, an addition of floor space that nearly amounts to an Empire State Building—has been clearing administrative hurdles, the land use battle shifting in the university’s favor.

This isn’t anyone’s first rodeo. Village residents are an influential bunch when it comes to small-scale urbanism and preservation. Greenwich Village was the home and inspiration of Jane Jacobs, whose description of the "sidewalk ballet" in front of her Hudson Street apartment became arguably the most famous and influential passage in history on the virtues of good neighborhood planning. But it was Jacobs and many, many others who joined together to stop the planned thoroughfare through Washington Square Park, and later, to prevent NYC development czar Robert Moses from building the Lower Manhattan Expressway across what was then considered the southern edge of Greenwich Village. The failure of that early 1960s project, which would have leveled much of Little Italy and what is now SoHo, marked the end of Moses’ power in New York and a big victory for preservationists and pedestrians.

The influence of the community celebrated for Stonewall, Bob Dylan, and the Beats has proved continually ineffective against NYU, the state's biggest school and one of the city’s biggest landowners. Over the course of the last century, NYU and its neighbors have fought over almost every major expansion, and the results have been decidedly one-sided. Here we review four such instances. As Yogi Berra would say, it’s déjà vu all over again.

1947: Village Green or College Campus?

As the effects of the armistice and the G.I. Bill swelled the ranks of American university students, NYU moved to build a Law Center on the south side of Washington Square Park. The block in question, between Sullivan and MacDougal Streets, was composed of a mix of tenements and brownstones, not unlike surviving blocks of MacDougal Street farther south. Many, including former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, worried that NYU would then control real estate on three sides of a park that had long been the social and spiritual center of the local community. George Aubrey Hastings, a onetime professor of journalism at the school, asked if more construction was in store: "What we want to know is when NYU finally is going to put a stop to its expansion along Washington Square. The park was never meant to be an educational center."

The Save Washington Square Committee, along with the Greenwich Village Association and the Washington Square Association, collected over 10,000 signatures in opposition. NYU spent the next few years raising money, and served the first eviction notices in January of 1949. Construction began in 1950, and Vanderbilt Hall was completed in 1951. (For before and after photos, see here.) At the opening ceremonies, the University announced it had received a $1 million grant to construct a new residence hall south of the square.


Washington Square Village, an NYU-owned superblock built under slum clearance laws, could welcome two new buildings to its garden if the NYU 2031 plan is approved. (Flickr/Padraic)

1953: Slum Clearance

The Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance, under Robert Moses, designated a nine-block section of Greenwich Village, bounded by West Broadway, West Houston, Mercer and West 4th Streets, for slum clearance under Title I of the National Housing Act of 1949. The idea behind the NHA was that the federal government would provide two-thirds of the cost for the city to acquire "slums" that could then be sold back to private developers at cut rates. Despite community opposition, the city took over the land in 1954. This time, protesters appealed not to the court of public opinion but to the New York State Supreme Court, where a lawsuit from the owners of the Bleecker Luncheonette was dismissed and rejected on appeal. Other business owners testified before the U.S. House Select Committee on Small Businesses, on the basis that the land was not slums but of mixed commercial and residential use, but the city’s judgment was upheld. (More on this here.)

"The mellow old landmarks of Greenwich Village are rapidly disappearing beneath modern glass monuments to the bourgeois respectability against which the Bohemians revolted forty years ago," Ira Henry Freeman wrote in The New York Times in 1957. Others placed the blame squarely on the university. The paper’s architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, wrote in 1964 that NYU had a "consistent blindness to the area’s architectural and historical features."

NYU ended up purchasing all three sections of the clearance zone, some of it immediately and some of it after the developer of the Washington Square Village superblock (see above photo)—Paul Tishman, also an NYU board member—got into financial trouble. In 1966, the school completed University Village on the southern-most superblock, which included three towers by I.M. Pei and a sculpture by Pablo Picasso.

2001: The Villain of the Village?

The university had added another 3 million square feet since the completion of Pei’s Silver Towers, to expand its footprint to 9.3 million square feet. The current historical controversy--which inspired the New York Times headline above--was a West 3rd Street addition to the law school, set to destroy a row of houses renovated by McKim, Mead & White and another once occupied by Edgar Allan Poe.

NYU chairman Martin Lipton received over 5,000 emails asking the university to preserve the Poe house, and the university agreed—“As far I know,” local historian Luther Harris told the Times, “and I’ve called NYU to ask—I think that was the first time NYU has ever compromised." But when the construction fences came down, the façade of the Poe house had been rebuilt with new materials. "There were simply not enough bricks left," university spokesman John Beckman explained in The Villager. "The agreement was it would include a representation of the facade of the kind of building that would have been on that street at the time Edgar Allan Poe lived there. And N.Y.U. has done that."


NYU dormitory Founder's Hall, completed behind the facade of St. Ann's Church in 2008. (Flickr/edenpictures)

2005: God’s Dorm

NYU announced plans to build a 26-story dormitory on the site of St. Ann’s Church on East 12th Street, a gray stone church that dated to the 1840s. Under pressure from local preservationists, who tried to get NYU to alter the building design, the school pledged that the façade and tower of the historic church would be incorporated into the new building.

In the end, the school’s contracted architecture firm, Hudson Companies, built the dorm tower directly behind but unconnected to the church façade, to the amusement and derision of the public. The air rights were controversially transferred from another NYU acquisition a few blocks away. Later, according to Curbed, one of NYU’s community affairs officials told the student paper that,

“We were disappointed with our own performances and our own inability to lower the height of the building, at the end of the day. But we learned a lot of lessons from the dialogue around the Twelfth Street dorm that we think are now reflected in our planning process and, in general, how and when we engage the community.”

Top image: Flickr user Uraimo.

 

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

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