On June 29 of last year, the members of the New York City Council's Land Use Committee gathered at City Hall to consider a local property holder's request for permission to undertake a substantial building project. Meetings of this sort generally produce, in onlookers and often in the participants themselves, a nearly narcotic boredom, but this one was different. The property owner was New York University, and the project at issue was a 20-year program of rolling construction that will radically increase NYU's footprint in Greenwich Village. The chamber was packed with an audience so raucous that the committee frequently had to halt the proceedings to restore order.
NYU President John Sexton acknowledged that the construction plan would have an unavoidable impact on the neighborhood, but told the council members that it was necessary to fulfill the mission of the university. "This is not a development project," Sexton insisted. "It's an academic project. We have half the space per capita of most of our peer schools." The need for the construction project was clear, Sexton told the committee. "The deans who spend their time doing this are unanimous," he said. "The trustees are unanimous on this, the university administration is unanimous, and we're the people that are asked to be the fiduciaries for the long term of the university."
There was bound to be some friction as NYU pursued its manifest destiny. There always is when the wrecking balls come out. Some neighbors are still bitter about NYU's previous fits of expansion in the 1960s and again in the '90s; in both periods, the university earned its reputation as an insatiable beast swallowing entire neighborhoods. But the current proposal goes much, much further. And it doesn't stop at the edges of New York City.
Dubbed "NYU 2031," the plan calls for 2.8 million gross square feet of new construction—slightly less than all the floor space in the Empire State Building—in the two blocks bound on the south and north by Houston and 3rd streets and on the east and west by Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place. The construction would dramatically increase local retail space, displace a dog run, and entail the demolition of the historically significant 1959 Washington Square Village Garden by Hideo Sasaki. Along the way, NYU would build—and then tear down—a temporary gym for its student athletes. It would also renege on promises it made 50 years ago, when it built the existing residential towers, to not further crowd the area.