How Should NYU Expand?


NYU recently announced that it would reduce the size of its proposed expansion by almost 20% in an attempt to overcome the surrounding community's strong opposition to the plan. By reducing the development's size, it hopes to win approval of the Community Board and the Department of City Planning who will determine if a zoning variance should be granted.

NYU faces a unique challenge in traditional campus planning since its campus is spread around Greenwich Village, occupies a short stretch of First Avenue, has an outpost in Abu Dhabi, and has recently taken over Polytechnic University in Brooklyn. I first tried to find the Village campus many years ago when I needed housing for a summer job near Rockefeller Center. Columbia University and NYU offered dormitory rooms for rent on a weekly basis; Columbia's campus was reminiscent of my school upstate with a central lawn flanked by buildings dating back to the 19th century. NYU's was a bit harder to pin down - after finding the residence hall on University Place amidst some other non-university buildings, I walked over to Washington Square and sat down, slightly confused as to where the campus actually existed. I struck up a conversation with a graduate student who spoke passionately about the Village and why I should choose to live at NYU. Even though I lived at Columbia that summer - it was cheaper - I spent almost every weekend walking around the Village and watching the buskers, dancers, and comedians in the park. I never found a central lawn, but in that brief conversation and on those hot summer weekends, I did find NYU's campus.

Although I did not realize it at the time, the Washington Square Village housing complex is also part of the campus; anybody who has walked by these massive apartment slabs sees two buildings, not six as alluded to in the proposed development plan. These buildings, reminiscent of the sinister forces behind Robert Moses' vision for urban renewal and the Lower Manhattan Expressway, ironically bracket NYU's expansion proposal and its worthy desire to create a public park. However, emphasizing this superblock and the neighboring Silver Towers complex to the south is the very antithesis of the school's cultural character that finds its epicenter in Washington Square, so perhaps the answer lies in reconsidering how these abrupt, wildly out of scale buildings could strike a phenomenological balance with the rest of the campus and community.

We need world-class learning institutions in our city and NYU deserves to expand its programs and services; its storied history of growth, contraction, and protest created a learning institution inextricably linked with its neighborhood. Sadly, this symbiotic relationship is threatened by a consensus-driven development process. If both NYU and the surrounding community stay on this path (frankly, neither may have much of a choice), mediocrity will prevail and an opportunity will be lost to let one of our nation's leading academic institutions propose an inspired vision for a 21st century urban campus. The school has an amazing opportunity to recharge a historic section of our metropolis and, in the Village tradition, it must take risks worthy of bold institutions.

posted by David Briggs