[Marxism] Speaking of big university expansionism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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 
its core.

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 
neighborhood.

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 
originally provided.

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 
directions.

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 
Village again.

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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