New York University Expansion Opponents Try to Block Plan

New York University faculty and neighborhood organizations opposed to the school’s plan to expand in the Greenwich Village neighborhood asked a judge to block the project.

The plan threatens to overwhelm Greenwich Village, “one of the city’s most historic, cherished and cramped neighborhoods,” and one of New York’s “crown jewels,” Randy Mastro, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told state Supreme Court Justice Donna Mills at a hearing today in Manhattan.

“It’s 2 million square feet of construction crammed into two small square-blocks literally in the heart of the village,” said Mastro, an attorney with Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP and a former deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani.

Attorneys for the city argued that the four properties that the plaintiffs say would be destroyed by the plan are parts of public streets and under the jurisdiction of the city’s Department of Transportation, not the Department of Parks and Recreation.

“The public has long understood that these are not parkland,” Christopher Reo, senior counsel for the environmental law division of the city’s Law Department, told Mills.

Faculty and neighborhood groups sued New York City in September for approving the plan, seeking to stop the expansion. Land-use violations overlooked in the plan include illegal manipulation of restrictive deeds, destruction of parkland and playgrounds and failure to adequately consider the environmental impact, according to the opponents’ court filing. New York University is named as a third party in the lawsuit.

Suit Dismissed

New York State Supreme Court Justice Ellen M. Coin in March dismissed a similar suit filed by tenants of Washington Square village, a group of high-rise buildings in Greenwich Village, saying the plaintiffs first needed to raise the matter with the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal. The tenants have appealed.

NYU’s intended expansion, known as the Sexton Plan after university president John Sexton, is a $6 billion project comprising almost 2 million square feet, according to the filing.

The expansion is opposed by dozens of university departments and divisions. Professors in the university’s largest school passed a vote of no-confidence in Sexton on March 16, saying he failed to consult with them on the plan.

Locals Angered

Sexton has been at the helm since 2002. While he has raised the profile of the school, overseeing a record $3 billion in fundraising, he has alienated faculty and angered locals with the expansion plan. His proposal for construction in the neighborhood, called NYU 2031, is opposed by 39 of the university’s departments and divisions, according to NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, a teachers’ group.

More than 100 people packed the courtroom today, many who held signs and wore stickers opposing the expansion. Audience members included Padma Lakshmi, co-host of the television show “Top Chef,” who said in an interview afterward that she lives in the neighborhood and attended the hearing as a “concerned mother.”

“We don’t have a lot of parks or places to play for kids in the neighborhood,” she said.

Four Properties

The four properties at issue in the case were taken from private citizens under an urban renewal plan in the 1950s, and members of the community are “tired of private companies and private entities taking over public space,” said Jim Walden, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

“There has never been a more important land use dispute in this community,” Walden said.

Alan Levine, an attorney representing NYU, said community groups have been trying for more than 30 years to change the legal status of the properties to get them designated as parkland and have failed.

“The lawful body of city government hasn’t done that,” Levine said.

The city’s Law Department said in a statement that the plan will bring a “pedestrian-friendly mix of public open spaces and academic, residential and retail use.”

“This lawsuit is a desperate effort to block a thorough and publicly vetted plan that is good for NYU, the local community, and the City’s educational and economic future,” the law department said. “The claims are long on embellished rhetoric and short on the facts, and we’re aggressively seeking to have them dismissed.”

The case is Weinstein v. Harvey, 103844-2012, State Supreme Court of New York (Manhattan).

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