City Council Hearing Over NYU Expansion Gets Heated
President John Sexton defends plan to the community, and city council members By Alissa Fleck City Council members struggled to quell boos, hisses, applause and chants at a hearing on the NYU expansion on Friday, June 29. Even Greenwich Village resident and actor Matthew Broderick showed up to voice an opinion on the controversial proposal; Broderick said NYU 2031 would "destroy the village" by hurting the "quirkiness and humanness" for which it's known. Council members largely agreed with Broderick, expressing concern over the plan, which would add 2 million square feet for academic and residential uses. One of the greatest sources of debate was how much community green space the plan would ultimately allow. The hearing, the last expected before the City Council votes on the expansion proposal in July, incorporated presentations and testimony from opposition and proponents alike. Elected officials, NYU faculty members, community advocates and others came together to debate the highly contentious NYU 2031 plan also known as the "Sexton Plan." Two morning rallies proceeded the hearing outside City Hall, with plan opponents having a significantly larger turnout than supporters as people scrambled for space inside to attend a pre-hearing. Opponents held colorful banners that read "NYU 2031 is Wrong for NYC, Wrong for the Village and Wrong for NYU" and appeared to fill the majority of seats in the chambers. Security struggled to allow an even number from both camps to enter as people flooded into chambers. The proposal, which was announced publicly in 2010, was approved by the City Planning Commission (CPC) on June 6 of this year after receiving feedback from Community Board 2 and Borough President Scott Stringer. The CPC passed the plan along to the City Council with several modifications, including the elimination of a hotel and commercial space. The hearing opened with a presentation from supporters affiliated with NYU, including university President John Sexton, Tisch Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell, Senior Vice President Lynne Brown and Vice President Alicia Hurley. Council members then thoroughly questioned aspects of the NYU 2031 plan. Councilwoman Margaret Chin, representing the area contained in the proposal, roused excitement from plan opponents by calling the expansion "unacceptable" and urging for greater balance. "This plan tries to shoehorn too much into too small a space," said Chin to wide applause and jazz hands. The issue of scale was a hot topic. Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, representing parts of the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island, agreed with Chin, calling the plan "too dense, too big, too tall and too much." She added it could be made significantly more contextual with its surroundings, agreeing with many dissenters' arguments against the plan. Lappin also pointed to the contradiction in the university's choice to grow the undergraduate student population in the past and its current insistence on resource expansion to meet those needs. Lappin said community members' wariness about the plan was evident in the overwhelming contact she has received, even as a representative outside the relevant district. Supporters affiliated with the university said there is a direct correlation between space and the ability to stay competitive with peer universities, while community supporters added that the plan will create jobs and benefit the local economy. NYU representatives have stated the plan will create 18,200 construction jobs and 2,600 opportunities for long-term employment. Sexton, a lifelong New Yorker, said the university is desperately in need of space, which "translates into talent." He pointed to the growth of new disciplines-the study of genomes, for instance-and the resulting need to attract the fields' top researchers. Currently, according to evidence the school put forth, NYU's science facilities are outdated and not adequately sophisticated to keep pace with other top research institutes. Up-to-date science labs require additional space and flexibility over the average classroom. Without the necessary facilities, attracting top experts would be near impossible, said Sexton. Sexton and other supporters continually reiterated that the school has no intention of growing the student body or viewing this as a real estate or corporate development project; it's about academic necessity and meeting current needs and demands. The students themselves are "the loudest voices" calling for more space, explained Sexton. Opponents of the plan granted that NYU may be in need of additional space, but encouraged the university to consider development elsewhere, like the Financial District, which would welcome the development, according to downtown District Leader Jenifer Rajkumar. Plan opponents overwhelmingly argued the proposal would change the character and ambiance of the Village, including decreasing green space, and some say it would force residents to live in a construction zone for at least 20 years. It's essential for facilities to be developed near the school's core for many reasons, explained Brown, including efficiently delivering curriculum to undergraduates, creating community, decreasing university costs and not having to duplicate crucial facilities. Proposed changes, NYU claimed, will be built entirely on the school's existing footprint or space currently owned by the institution. Hurley responded to accusations against the school by providing a breakdown of space allocation, saying the university is dedicated to transforming current private space into public open space, including increasing open green space. The debate over whether the plan will increase or decrease public green space is still highly contested on both sides. Council Member Robert Jackson put Sexton on the spot, asking whether he and his other representatives, were being as honest and forthcoming as they possibly could. Audience members' hisses indicated their opinion as Sexton affirmed he was being truthful. Some opponents believe the university is being deceptive about its motivations for the project. Many say the school is acting as a corporation rather than a university, with an eye toward taking over its "backyard." Protesters pointed to a law firm hired by NYU to advocate for the plan, construction worker union members in the crowd who had little understanding of what the plan entailed and the many faculty members against the plan choosing who chose to remain anonymous as evidence of the school's deceptive tactics. NYU maintained it has tried to engage the community and remain transparent about the plan for the past five years. While the plan is projected to cost from $3 to $4 billion in total, Sexton asserted it would have no financial impact on NYU students. The City Council is expected to reach a decision by the end of July.
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