November 2017
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Looking Beyond NYU’s Expansion

Last week, the City Council voted 44 to 1 in favor of NYU’s expansion plan—with a 20% reduction in density, shorter buildings, reduced underground space, and a commitment to create an oversight organization to oversee and design public spaces.  This was the last step in a contentious public review process, with a multitude of public hearings, public programs and hundreds of voices heard.

Over the past year MAS has advocated for a balanced position that expressed support for NYU’s contributions to the city and its need to evolve and grow, while raising strong concerns about the impact of this expansion in its neighborhood.

NYU’s plan to add four buildings to their two residential superblocks drew criticism from NYU professors and hundreds of Village residents who thought the proposed buildings  too large and out of character for the neighborhood, and believed the consequent loss of public space to be unacceptable. Throughout this process MAS strived to remain an objective voice, listening to all sides of the debate.  We recommended ways to modify the proposed buildings to better relate to their surroundings and be more inviting to pedestrians as well as requested assurance that public spaces would be designed in consultation with long-standing community groups.

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Many MAS and community concerns were addressed, though not completely resolved. The Borough President, City Planning and ultimately the City Council negotiated to decrease the height of several of the proposed buildings and secured NYU’s commitment to fund the maintenance of public spaces and parkland and provisions for a community oversight organization to provide design input.  This still allows NYU to build 900,000 square feet of below-grade academic space which will have no access to natural light or air and uncertainty about the provision for a public school that NYU has offered space for but the City has not committed to build.  Nonetheless, the project is a better one as a result of the changes made.

This decision on the latest, contentious University expansion makes it clear that New York City, home to 110 educational institutions, should consider planning for these developments on a citywide basis.  This is particularly relevant now as the City works with Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology on their NYC Tech Campus, which will eventually add 2 million square feet of academic space on Roosevelt Island.

Incorporating the practices of other cities, such as Boston, that work with major institutions to determine the best possible locations for new development, would ensure that the neighborhoods that would most benefit from additional density are a focus of the conversation. Flourishing universities and neighborhoods should not and need not be pitted against one another; we can do this better.