The following transcript of the City Planning Commission’s discussion and vote on the NYU 2031 plan based on recordings of the proceedings was provided by the GVSHP. Thanks to a loyal reader for bringing this information to our attention.
Chair Burden: Today the City Planning Commission is voting on four actions to facilitate the growth of New York University’s main campus in the Washington Square area. NYU is proposing to construct four new buildings to include academic space, a new athletic facility, student dorms, NYU faculty housing, and approximately four acres of public parks and publicly accessible open spaces. Throughout the public review process, including more than 10 hours of testimony at the Commission’s public hearing, we heard strong support for NYU’s need to grow and modernize its academic core in order to remain a globally competitive institution, an economic anchor for New York City. We also are deeply concerned about many stakeholders, including community members, local elected officials, regarding the scale of the proposal and the project’s potential effects on residents’ quality of life. Our challenge has been to determine how best to accommodate NYU’s physical space needs while at the same time addressing the land use impact and implications of the proposal.
Accordingly, careful consideration has been given to the proposed uses, to the site plan, to the massings of buildings, to the open space design, and to the construction phase. Today the Commission will be voting on the applications with a number of modifications. To make the buildings a better fit for the neighborhood, the modifications include: reductions in the heights of both the Mercer and Bleecker buildings, and require setback for the bulkheads on both the Mercer and La Guardia buildings. We believe these modifications will make the buildings better relate to the surrounding [buildings around it].
NYU has made a strong case for its academic programming needs, including classrooms and study space, dormitory space, faculty housing, and faculty offices. By contrast, we do not think it has been adequately demonstrated that a hotel use needs to be accommodated within NYU’s large-scale proposal to the superblock. Therefore, the modifications include the elimination of the hotel use.
Many members of the public express[ed] concerns about the commercial overlay on the loft blocks. While NYU acknowledged that the commercial overlay is not key to furthering its plans, accordingly, the modifications include removal of the commercial overlay. The proposal includes a significant amount of new public open space, particularly on the North Block, in order to help ensure that the open space is inviting and welcoming to all. Several modifications have been made to the open space plan.
First, modifications shrink the dimensions of the Mercer building [lightwall] to better facilitate use and access into the site and into the public open space.
Second, the Commission is creating an Open Space Oversight Organization to help oversee the maintenance and management of the space and ensure that it is maximally public. Related to this, the Commission is responding to requests to allow for future modifications to the North Block open space with community input. While we believe that the plan’s open space design is successful, we recognize that future modifications may be appropriate, especially as this phase is not to be built until 15 years from now. The Commission has therefore included as part of its Report a roadmap for an expedited future open space modification process that would allow for change while ensuring that the fundamentals of what make this space successful are respected.
Third, we are eliminating the below-grade academic space beneath the park land strips. This will maximize the potential to retain existing mature trees in these areas. This elimination also protects these future park spaces as it eliminates the need for periodic inspection and repair work to the membrane of the below-grade spaces beneath these parks.
Finally, we are removing the temporary gym, which will eliminate all construction on the North Block until Phase II of the project. This elimination will also preserve the key playground until 2029, close to the end of the project, when its permanent replacement comes online. The Commission’s review of NYU’s application has been careful and deliberate, and we have greatly benefited from the thoughtful input from Manhattan Community Board 2, from the Borough President of Manhattan, from residents of the area, and from community organizations. The NYU proposal for the superblock will provide important new and needed space to one of the City’s most important institutions of higher learning, while providing significant open space and other amenities to the surrounding neighborhood.
I am confident that these applications as modified by the Commission will result in a development that will be successfully integrated into the neighborhood while meeting NYU’s significant need for new and modern space. I would like to give thanks to Hannah Fisher Baum, Project Manager, as well as from our Manhattan Office, [Eva Sue Chen] and Adam Wolf, and from DCP Council David Karnovsky, [Bell], and [Alex McCave] and from our EIRD division [Bob Dubruskin] and [Diane], and from TRD [Samarai] and [Ben Singer] for their incredibly hard work on this complex and extremely important application. I am pleased to vote yes.
Vice Chair Knuckles: I too share the Chair’s appreciation and admiration for the work done by the Manhattan office on this particularly challenging case, certainly one of the most interesting and challenging applications that I’ve seen during my time on the Commission. I think that the proposals as enunciated by the Chair go a long way to balance the need for NYU’s obvious ability and need to expand within its footprint while taking measures to mitigate the impact on one of the most distinctive and historic communities in the City. I think that this plan is a reasonable one that allows this very important institution to grow while the surrounding community continues to enjoy the benefits of its character. I think this is a plan that I am proud to support. I vote yes.
Commissioner Battaglia: I’d like to thank the Chair and my fellow Commissioners for their time, careful thought, and hours of discussion for the proposal, and Hannah, as I’ve said before, you’re remarkable. She’s somewhere in the room. I also want to thank the public, the community board, and local elected officials for the many issues of concern brought to our attention: the project is too large, construction impacts, open space issues, why the need for commercial overlay on the loft blocks, why the need for a hotel. Issues perhaps not in our purview but nonetheless relevant and important like potential loss of affordability of university-owned 505 La Guardia place located on the superblocks.
On the university’s part, the pressing need for more academic space, classrooms, labs, meeting and study spaces, and residential space for students and faculty alike in the campus core. No testimony was more telling than one citing students having to schedule science labs at 11 and 12 o’clock at night due to lack of sufficient lab space for students to avail during more conventional hours. Many of these students would then commute home.
Would we want our children commuting at such late hours, perhaps only to travel back a few hours later for an early morning class the next day? Would increasing on-site dormitory space resolve such an issue? Possibly. Would sufficient laboratory space resolve it? Definitely. At the end of the day, to use Commissioner Cantor’s signature expression, what are the results? A proposal for increased academic space in the core. Increased university-owned dormitory space for students and housing for faculty in the core. By the way, I am a strong believer that college students should have the full experience of campus life only brought about in my view by geographically concentrated academic and dormitory space.
We also achieved the design of much improved open space with retention of such features as the Dog Run and, more importantly, the mandate of an Oversight Committee, comprised of NYU, the Community Board, and local elected officials, to ensure all commitments are kept and that the community stays involved. We achieved reduced building heights, we achieved the elimination of the hotel, allowing the construction of classroom space in the first phase, we achieved elimination of the commercial overlay from the loft blocks, and a commitment from the University to limit construction hours to 8am to 4:30pm on weekdays and altogether on weekends. A commitment from the university to maintain affordability of 505 La Guardia Place when it renegotiates the lease in 2014. I say wow. No doubt NYU is an internationally recognized world-class institution of research and higher learning. The approval of this modified set of actions helps the university and helps our city. I am very happy to vote yes.
CommissionerBesser: I also vote yes and I agree with all of the comments [that have already been said].
Commissioner Cantor: I agree with the comments of the Chair, the Vice Chair, and that lovely lady to my right. There really isn’t very much more to say. I would like to make an observation though. We’ve all heard several kinds of expressions like if an organization, a city, a partnership, or business doesn’t grow it tends to wither. New York is a vibrant, dynamic city that changes literally by the day. You’ve also heard the Con Edison comment that you can’t make an omelet without breaking the egg. And that’s part of the construction process in New York, troublesome as it may be to each of us. I trust we’ve all lived in neighborhoods where [it’s] pristine on Monday and before we knew it there were buildings around us on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. That’s New York. I think a good balance has been struck. Have we made everyone happy? Obviously not. Have we made everyone unhappy? To an extent I hope yes. By at the end of the day, I think it’s the right thing that we’ve done and I vote yes.
Commissionerde la Uz: First I want to wholeheartedly thank the public and NYU who took part in the nearly 11 hours of public testimony in our recent hearing and of course I want to echo the thanks to the DCP staff who put in countless hours on the project, the effort that everyone has made to thoughtfully participate in the public process thus far is extraordinarily important in showing that the interest and concerns and the potential impacts are fully understood before a decision is made.
It was clear from the testimony that residents love their neighborhood deeply, are committed to its preservation, and want the community to be respected in whatever the decision is. It was also clear that a leading institution in our city has a critical need for space around Washington Square Village that needs to be addressed and that they’ve expended considerable effort to plan for long term in part to address the criticisms that their growth thus far has been haphazard and insensitive to neighbors. Balancing these often competing if not diametrically opposed interests is quite challenging.
Though I think the modifications that City Planning is making go far to balance these interests, including addressing a number of issues that the community raised during its opposition during the hearing, notably does it mention eliminating the commercial overlay at the loft blocks and the hotel use in the southern blocks ensuring ongoing oversight mechanisms and real public access to the open spaces, elimination of some of the heights and bulk in the North Block buildings, and finally the rephasing of the proposed construction which has a number of positive results.
The overall size of the project has not changed dramatically. It is still over two million gross square feet and there remains less clarity in exactly how the North Blocks especially would be programmed. Finally, though it’s outside the purview of City Planning, the current lack of clarity that exists around ensuring the community’s public education needs are met and that critical affordable housing needs are preserved causes me concern, so, despite the significant modifications, and NYU’s importance to the City, and their laudable efforts to plan for the future, I vote no.
Commissioner Del Toro:Yes.
Commissioner Eaddy:I too would like to thank the Chair and the Department for their hard work on this important issue and echoing the comments of the Chair, the Vice Chair, and my colleagues, I’d also like to point out that the goal here was to enable an important New York City educational institution to continue to serve students into the 21st century while also trying to minimize negative impacts to the surrounding community. I think we have struck the right balance and I am very pleased to vote yes.
Commissioner Levin: As it was certified, NYU’s plan was to me just too much, and it didn’t get any better as I sat next to the model in the public hearing, looking at those little buildings on the board and listening to so many Village residents speak so passionately and articulately about [the proposal’s loss]. I agreed with many of them. The boomerang buildings were just too big and none of the NYU officials from President Sexton to the Parade of Deans could explain specifically how they would be used. We need it ‘cause we want it, seemed to be the argument. That’s not a planning principle, but it’s actually an honest answer, because who knows what they’ll really need in 20 years when these buildings are available. The zipper building was big too, but at least there, NYU had a clear plan, for Tisch, for Steinberg, and faculty and student housing.
For an agency and commission that has done so much to preserve the context and character of neighborhoods across the City, NYU’s plan presents particular challenges. Perhaps the question is not how can we accommodate all of NYU’s needs, but how much new development can the superblocks accommodate without destroying the character of the neighborhood that is, after all, one of NYU’s main attractions.
The modifications now being approved bring the plan to the brink of acceptability. I still think the boomerang buildings are too big above ground but at least not any bigger than the Washington Square buildings that will frame them. The strips are protected, the hotel, temporary gym and commercial overly in the loft blocks are gone. The Bleecker building is at a more appropriate scale and more readily available for a public school. In my view NYU has been a terrible steward of the open space on the superblocks and there are legitimate concerns about NYU’s ability to design and maintain the quality open spaces critical to the plan’s success.
But the new high quality open space on the Mercer strip over the cogeneration plan shows that with community input, it could be done. The Open Space Oversight Organization to be created as one of our modifications puts in place a means to ensure that today’s promises to the superblocks are delivered. In my opinion, NYU’s plans should be further reduced. Plans must be further developed to minimize and manage construction impacts that are going to be overwhelming no matter what. The affordable housing at 505 La Guardia Place must be preserved and supported. As NYU’s applications now have the votes from my colleagues to ensure their approval by this Commission, I join them in voting to send the plan on to the City Council for further improvement. I vote yes.
Commissioner Marin: Yes.
Commissioner McRae: Yes.
The reports, as modified, have been adopted under number 8, 9, and 11.