Saturday, November 10, 2012

While We Were Sleeping: voices on NYU expansion question the character of change, the corporate connection, and the notion of "opposition"

While We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York, available via McNally Jackson Books, is billed as a "collection of pieces in protest," and while the "destruction of New York" seems hyperbolic when we compare changes in Greenwich Village to Superstorm Sandy, there's much worthy of reflection.

Consider this book an ally of the "NIMBY" efforts outlined in the Rea Deal. After all, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has joined New York University faculty members, residents, and other community groups to sue to block the NYU expansion.

(Here's the web site NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan.)

From the NYT

One essay is a reprint of Expand Minds, Not NYU's Campus, which appeared in the New York Times 4/25/12, as the NYU expansion was being considered by the City Council. It's notable, in my eyes, because no op-ed from an Atlantic Yards opponent appeared until after the project was approved.

The essay raises questions about 20 years of construction and demolition, the financial risk, and the impact on faculty.

The corporate connection

NYU professor Andrew Ross, in his essay, points out that NYU's board includes "some of the city's biggest land developers, Wall Street's wealthy financiers, and a bevy of corporate tycoons"--the "governors of the city's growth machine."

NYU's $6 billion in construction is naturally a huge boost to the construction industry, and even though it won't add to affordable housing, the "result is assumed to be in the public interest," Ross writes. "Why Because it is cloaked in the public goodness which is the stock-in-trade of any educational institution."

What kind of change? What kind of neighborhood?

Urbanist and author Roberta Brandes Gratz observes, citing public testimony by Matthew Broderick, the issue isn't opposing change, it's "about the difference between appropriate change and cataclysmic change." She writes:
Today, NYU is all about real estate and money. Does the Village have to be that too just because NYUs board is dominated by developers?
Author Kevin Baker writes:
It is the Village that lends enchantment to the university, not the other way around. You would think that, after 200 years, the university might have figured it out.
Playwright John Guare writes:
Greenwich Village is an idea NYU should not be able to buy.
Architect and writer Michael Sorkin challenges the argument, based on seemingly compelling statistics, that NYU lags behind peer institutions in terms of square footage:
The peer-footage argument neglects, of course, that a great neighborhood is the extension of a campus by other means, that a cafe can be as valuable as a classroom... From a purely planning perspective, NYU is also at a tipping point and risks what has historically made it great as an urbanism. 
Beyond NYU: who are opponents? how find balance?

Several contributors take a broader look at the issues raised in this real estate fight.

Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn writes:
Now, I take great offense at the public and private officials (and media) who, with every controversial project, consistently work to belittle and diminish the stakeholders in the community who dare to raise their voices. We're always called "opponents," when in reality it is the behemoths--be it big-footed, connected institutions or corporations--who oppose the idea of communities having a substantial voice in their futures.
Research psychiatrist and author Mindy Thompson Fullilove writes about the conflict between the benefits of growth and harm caused by overexploitation of the ecosystem:
Unfortunately, universities, so often the site of the production of new knowledge, cannot be allowed to answer these questions--the conflict of interest is too great. Instead, we need new kinds of institutions--free universities, book groups, ethics clubs, debate forums--to bring all sectors of the population together to think through to solutions that offer the best possible future for us all.
That's an admirable goal, but without an infrastructure of funding and institutional support--where's the George Soros of "NIMBYs"?--that won't be easy.

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