[Marxism] Speaking of big university expansionism
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Thu Mar 22 12:50:49 MDT 2012
NY Times March 22, 2012
It Riles a Village
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
I WENT to find my aunt Ruth in Judson Church among the disgruntled
at a public hearing last month about New York University’s latest
proposal to expand its Greenwich Village campus. It was a couple
of weeks before the local community board denounced the proposal
outright. A light mist was falling. I climbed the church steps.
Beyond the long tables, where children drew with crayons, a
bobbing sea of homemade placards demanded, “Flowers Not Towers.”
I had been one of those children at the long tables years ago.
This sort of meeting felt like home, in the neighborhood where I
had grown up in a cheerful culture of endless protest at a time
when N.Y.U. was not yet one of the biggest and most ambitious
private universities in the country but still a modest school
proudly catering to working New Yorkers like my mother and Ruth.
The storm over NYU 2031, as this latest expansion proposal is
called, has escalated into one of the city’s most acrimonious
land-use battles. No wonder. The plan is so clearly oversize that
it’s hard not to see it as a stalking horse for what school
officials figure they can get permission from the city to build.
The proposal envisions constructing some 2.5 million square feet
(the rough equivalent of the Empire State Building) over the next
20 years on a pair of superblocks owned by the university below
Washington Square Park. The blocks are now dominated by midcentury
tower-in-the-park faculty residences called Washington Square
Village and University Village.
Common sense and the billions of dollars that the project would
cost suggest the university would be hard pressed to build half of
what it’s outlining during the next decade or two. The question is
which half of NYU 2031 ought to get a go-ahead, if either. The
school, meanwhile, is expanding its satellite campus in Brooklyn
and its medical center in Midtown. Universities in the city move
their campuses from time to time. Columbia did it in the 1890s,
quitting Midtown for Morningside Heights. N.Y.U.’s ultimate
development may lie beyond the Village. In any case, this latest
proposed expansion should not be the start of some new open-ended
phase of growth in the neighborhood but the end of it.
What does N.Y.U. want? Urban universities, like hospitals, are
engines of civic economies, and the best ones have to keep up with
new technologies and expanding programs in a competitive
marketplace: they need state-of-the-art facilities to attract top
talent. The city has been banking a good part of its future on
intellectual capital: Cornell’s prospective campus on Roosevelt
Island, Columbia’s in Manhattanville. N.Y.U. contributes to the
cultural lifeblood of the Village, adding, among other things,
ethnic diversity to an area that celebrates its historic
reputation as America’s bohemian capital but is increasingly home
for the super rich. The school needs to upgrade and consolidate
And what does the neighborhood need? Among other things, open
space, green space. The debate over the development of the two
superblocks has turned a fresh spotlight on the underrated urban
virtues of Washington Square Village and University Village —
examples of how tower-in-the-park architecture, descended from Le
Corbusier and widely discredited, can benefit an old neighborhood
of brownstones and low-rise loft buildings if the city is dense,
healthy and vibrant enough. The task is balancing necessary
development with a local ecosystem.
The most radical part of what N.Y.U. wants is to construct two
tall, crescent-shaped towers, 400,000 square between them (the
architecture is still notional) on the 1.5 acres of open space
between the two apartment slabs of Washington Square Village.
Beneath that open space, in lieu of the current parking garage,
the university wants to dig several floors down to create 770,000
square feet of underground classrooms.
This would entail, among other things, demolishing the raised
concrete garden by Hideo Sasaki from 1959 that is one of the
country’s earliest parking garage roof structures, beloved by
landscape historians, with its boxed crabapples, cherry and willow
trees. I used to play in it as a boy. It’s a severe park but
peaceful. The Village has notoriously few public refuges, aside
from Washington Square Park. This is one of them, though most
people don’t even realize it exists.
That’s because over the years the university has effectively
closed off the open space between the buildings with fences and
gates, obscured it behind a cheap retail strip mall on La Guardia
Place and allowed what should be accessible parkland to languish
while arguing that building the towers with fresh landscaping
around them would create an improvement. Demolition by neglect is
the term of art.
The open space on these superblocks was originally calibrated to
take into account the density of the apartment slabs. Private
developers in New York are forever seeking exemptions to get
around constraints that zoning or other forms of regulation
establish precisely to protect neighborhoods from overbuilding and
to preserve landmarks. These developers are very often successful,
the approval system for circumventing restrictions being
notoriously vulnerable to politics and influence. N.Y.U. stresses
that in this case it’s actually asking to rezone the superblocks
with a net increase, not decrease, in publicly accessible open
space, proving the school is trying to do what’s right for the
But this is tricky because the calculation has to do with where
that open space would be. It’s essential to consider that these
superblocks were created during the 1950s through a slum-clearance
program of urban renewal under Robert Moses’s authority that
justified its exercise of eminent domain as a matter of public
interest. So in a sense public interest, and not just N.Y.U.’s
interest, continues to hold a special claim over the protection
and disposition of the blocks’ open space.
The crescent towers devised by N.Y.U.’s team — Toshiko Mori
Architect, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Grimshaw
Architects — are nonstarters by virtue of their bulk and height,
but they do raise another interesting issue. Theoretically,
increased density is an urban virtue. The Village is not as dense
as some Villagers worry it is. Filling in some of the open space
around tower-in-the-park housing projects with retail and street
life often makes sense. The clash of different sorts of
architecture, cheek by jowl, as the crescent towers would do with
the ’50s slabs, is a defining virtue of great cities.
But Washington Square Village is faculty housing smack in the
middle of a prosperous, low-rise neighborhood where there’s no
shortage of retail. There is a need to breathe, though, a need for
the sort of open space that these tower-in-the-park layouts
Washington Square Park, a block away, is something else. A
landmark destination, crowded and bigger, it’s a place for
spectacle. But neighborhoods still need neighborhood spaces for
other sorts of personal interactions. The city should veto the
crescent towers at Washington Square Village and compel the
university really to open that space up: redesign and reactivate
it as a park for Villagers, not just for freshmen skateboarders
and iPod-engrossed graduate students.
In other words, make the whole thing a gift from the university to
the neighborhood from which the school draws so much of its
marketing muscle. Below-ground classrooms would still be fine if a
new park could be designed at a continuous grade with the street,
so that foot traffic flows easily into and out of it from all
In exchange the city should allow N.Y.U. another big part of its
plan: to replace its appalling gymnasium, a windowless brick
fortress and blight on Mercer Street from the early 1980s, when
the university’s architectural message to the city was: Drop dead.
Instead of the existing Coles Sports & Recreation Center the
university can have its proposed multitower building, called the
Zipper, not quite as big as imagined and accompanied by a promise
of public amenities along with the pedestrian thoroughfare that is
now part of the proposal, which would roughly extend Greene Street
north. This would return some life to that forlorn corner of the
Village, which has been abandoned for years to college gym rats.
The city could also approve a dormitory atop a prospective public
school where there’s now a supermarket near the corner of Bleecker
Street and La Guardia Place. A new elementary school would bring
another potential boon to the neighborhood, so long as the city
decides it actually wants a school there. (That’s not clear yet.)
The proposed school and dorm, at 14 stories, would loom over the
adjoining gardens and the buildings across La Guardia. (“Goodbye
Greenwich Village, Hello Midtown” says a protest sign on the
garden fence.) But the site needs some building to anchor that
corner and the fine 1960s landmarked high-rises of University
Village, called Silver Towers, two of which house faculty, the
third, residents of a Mitchell-Lama cooperative.
A beautiful new 1.5-acre park, an elementary school, public
amenities and a new pedestrian street to awaken a dead corner: all
that seems like a fair trade for the neighborhood in return for a
couple of the big buildings the university wants, which would
replace undistinguished ones. N.Y.U. would get about half of what
it’s proposing, or maybe more. It has an unfortunate knack for
commissioning some of the worst work from big-name architects
(Bobst Library, the Kimmel Center), so everything will finally
depend on vigilant oversight of the architectural details. But, in
principle, what results could actually improve that stretch of the
Village, and not just benefit the university.
I couldn’t find my aunt in the crowd at Judson Church that
morning. Fading vision has slowed her down lately, so when the
meeting ended, I figured I had time before she made it down the
steps to check out Washington Square Village and University
By the time I was a boy, University Village and Washington Square
Village were facts of the neighborhood. Older Villagers, like my
parents and aunt and uncle and their friends, watched the changes
with trepidation. I took them for granted.
My friends and I ran around the gardens, under the trees, and rode
the elevators to get bird’s-eye views back down onto my building a
few streets west. The glory of the Village was its diversity and
the ever-present light and sky, immediate and enveloping over all
the low buildings. But this modern world was for me fresh and
amazing. The mash-up of architectural styles went along with the
magnanimity of the neighborhood’s self-image.
Designed by Paul Lester Wiener, Washington Square Village is one
of the city’s underrated architectural successes, immense without
somehow seeming so big, its mass broken up by terraces and panels
of glazed bricks in primary colors and white, and by the generous
open space between the slabs.
Likewise, it’s partly the too-formal but generous space around
Silver Towers (the work of James Ingo Freed at I. M. Pei &
Associates) that makes those towers look elegant and almost
slender. They’re cast-in-place rectangular concrete structures,
Brutalist in concept, but with deep-set windows and a pinwheel
plan that presents to passers-by a constantly shifting series of
profiles, changing with the light of day. Stolid, sober, with
their sculptured facades, like high-rise Sol LeWitts, the towers
have helped keep the Village from becoming too cute.
Perceptions shift with generations. Some young Villagers I talked
to on the street that morning said they found it easy to picture
N.Y.U.’s proposed expansion. That was heartening in a way, but
they also said they would love more park space.
I spotted my aunt struggling down the church steps. She took my
arm, and I guided her up the street to a coffee shop a few blocks
away where she railed against the university plan. A few
protesters floated past, toting their placards. I laid out my
compromise to her, and we argued for a while, then kissed goodbye
before I walked to the subway in the drizzle.
Some things never change. Some things shouldn’t.
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