NYU Faces New Litigation If Expansion Begins, Foes SayChris Dolmetsch, Christie Smythe and Janet Lorin
Opponents of New York University’s proposed expansion said they’ll return to court to stop the school from trying to carry out any part of the project after a judge blocked most it from proceeding.
Justice Donna M. Mills of state Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled on Dec. 7 that portions of the proposed 2-million-square-foot (186,000 square meter) expansion would interfere with public parks and consequently require approval by the state legislature, not just city authorities.
John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, said Mills’s ruling set up “no impediment” to the university proceeding with the part of the project that would replace an existing gym with a multitower structure called the Zipper Building.
Moving ahead with any part of it would violate the judge’s order, said Randy Mastro, an attorney representing community groups that sued to stop the plan. All changes must be resubmitted to the city for a new environmental impact review, he said.
“There simply is not any wiggle room to go forward with a fundamentally different project under the guise of being a piece of a comprehensive project that has been enjoined,” Mastro said in a phone interview. “We would go back to the judge about that if NYU were actually to pursue that course.”
Beckman said the school is consulting with lawyers for the city and will make any announcement about an appeal as soon as possible.
NYU’s intended expansion, known as the Sexton Plan after university president John Sexton, is a $6 billion project, according to court filings. It’s 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.
NYU, one of the largest private nonprofit universities in the U.S. by enrollment, said it needs more space to accommodate a student body that grew by 25 percent from 1990 to 2005 and is projected to increase as much as 0.5 percent annually for the next 25 years, according to Mills’s ruling.
Neighborhood groups, arguing that the plan would overwhelm a cramped historic area, filed two suits in 2012 to block the expansion.
State Supreme Court Justice Ellen M. Coin dismissed the first complaint, brought by tenants of a group of high-rise buildings in Greenwich Village. Her March ruling has been appealed.
As originally proposed, the project included 2.4 million gross square feet of development that would take place over about 20 years. A modified version approved by the New York City Council would total 1.9 million square feet of new buildings on two areas described as “superblocks,” according to the ruling.
One of the “superblocks” encompasses Mercer Playground and LaGuardia Park, both deemed public parks by Mills. The other, where the university’s Jerome S. Coles Sports & Recreation Center is located, has one park, LaGuardia Corner Gardens, and a membership-based dog run, which the judge found didn’t qualify as a public park. The Zipper Building, composed of a base and towers, will displace the dog run, according to the ruling.
The opponents of the plan, which also included state Assembly Member Deborah Glick, asserted five additional claims to block the project that were struck down by the judge. Among them were arguments that the proposal entailed the unlawful lifting of deed restrictions, failure to adhere to review standards and violations of state and local environmental laws.
Mills allowed a single claim, for violation of the public trust doctrine, to stand. She said in her ruling that it doesn’t mean the school will be stopped from moving forward with the project as approved.
“Rather, it means that NYU must obtain the approval of the New York state legislature if it intends to substantially interfere with the parcels of land which are now used as parks, either by using them as construction staging areas, or by altering them by incorporating them into larger areas of public space,” Mills said in her ruling.
Paul Boghossian, a professor of philosophy at NYU, said he understands the strong feelings both of faculty who live around the proposed construction site and of neighbors in the community.
“I do believe NYU has an obligation to ensure that the Village remains the historically attractive area it has been,” Boghossian said in an e-mail. “On the other hand, the city as a whole stands to benefit from NYU’s striking progress as a research university, and space issues are an inevitable part of that progress.”
The ruling means NYU won’t be able to execute the project as Sexton envisioned, said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
“It’s a permanent mark on his legacy,” Berman said in a telephone interview. “This was his grand plan and it’s turned out to be illegal.”
Sexton is traveling and unavailable for comment on the ruling, Beckman said.
Berman said his group and other community members have been willing to sit down with the university’s administration yet the school won’t listen to them or its faculty.
“I’m hopeful and will keep an open mind, but I’m not overly optimistic that this leopard can change its spots,” Berman said.
Glick said in a statement that the ruling “reaffirms a crucial tenant of parkland preservation” and that she won’t support any legislation that would approve the use of parkland for the project.
“I do not expect that this will be the end of our development concerns, or even our legal battles over the NYU 2013 Plan, but this is a huge victory nonetheless,” Glick said.
The city’s Law Department said it’s reviewing the decision and plans to discuss it with NYU.
New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, who earned his undergraduate degree from NYU in 1984, supported the final plan in 2012, when he served as the city’s Public Advocate, although his City Planning Commission appointee voted against it.
Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for DeBlasio’s office, referred calls for comment on the case to the city’s Law Department.
The cases are Weinstein v. Harvey, 103844-2012, and WSV Green Neighbors Inc. v. New York University, 15550-2012, New York State Supreme Court, New York County (Manhattan).