Challenge to NYU Expansion Plan Overturned on Appeal

NYU superblock development as originally proposed. Image credit: NYU.

NYU superblock proposec development. Image credit: NYU.

Coalition of local residents, Greenwich Village community organizations, and elected officials sought to prevent NYU’s development of two superblocks north of Houston Street. In 2012, the City Council voted to approve multiple actions to allow an expansion plan by New York University to develop two superblocks bounded by West 3rd Street, Houston Street, Mercer Street and LaGuardia place in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The project, projected to take 20 years to complete, would entail the construction of four new buildings to be used for student housing and faculty residences, academic use, public space, and a grocery store to replace one eliminated by the development. The largest building, the Zipper Building, would be 980,000 gross square feet. NYU claimed the project would create approximately four acres of publicly accessible open space and amenities.

Assembly Member Deborah Glick, along with coalition Greenwich Village organizations and residents filed an article 78 petition challenging the Council’s approval. The petitioners alleged the process violated the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure and the State and City Environmental Quality Review Acts. They also claimed a violation of the Public Officers Law because the City Council failed to conduct business in public meetings. They argued that the public trust doctrine was violated by City agencies because five parcels of land were dedicated parkland, used for public recreation for decades that could not be alienated without the State Legislature’s approval. Some parcels would be inaccessible throughout the lengthy construction, others would be eliminated, moved, or face reduction in resource quality due to blocking of light and air. Though the parcels were mapped as City streets, because of an abandoned 1950s plan to construct an expressway in lower Manhattan, the petitioners argued the parcels had been dedicated parkland by implication. They offered evidence that lots were maintained by the NYC Parks Department, listed on the parks website, and identified as parks in signage.

New York County Supreme Court Judge Donna M. Mills enjoined NYU, the State and City from proceeding with the development, finding that three parcels on the superblocks were parkland under the public trust doctrine, given their long continued use as parks. Mills noted that NYU could potentially still go forward with its project, but needed first the consent of the State Legislature. Mills dismissed the other claims of the petitioners. (See previous CityLand coverage here).

The respondents appealed the lower court decision, and the petitioners amended their petition to reinstate their remaining original claims. On Appeal, the First Department dismissed the petition challenging the NYU project. The court determined that, while portions of the subject property were used for park-like purposes, the use was temporary and provisional, and efforts to have the property designated parkland were rebuffed by the City. The Court further found that the approval process was compliant with both ULURP and the State Environmental Quality Review Act, and there was no basis for finding any violation of the public meetings law.

A statement from NYU Spokesman John Beckman said the decision “reaffirmed that the approvals process was properly followed,” and added that “the need for additional academic space is clear.” Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation called the decision “wrong-headed,” and vowed to continue opposition to the expansion plan.

Assembly Member Glick told CityLand that she believed the First Department was wrong and that she hopes the coalition can seek address from the New York State Court of Appeals. “It is crucial that NYU live up to the spirit and letter of past promises that they operate in the public interest. Destroying common space and public gardens is not operating in the public interest.” The Assembly Member followed up by saying the Coalition is presently discussing next steps.

Glick v. Harvey, 2014 WL 5125875 (1st Dep’t Oct. 14, 2014) (Attorneys: Caitlin J. Halligan, Randy M. Mastro, Sarah Vacchiano, for Glick; Zachary Carter, Michael J. Pastor, for City; Alan Levine, for NYU).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).

2 thoughts on “Challenge to NYU Expansion Plan Overturned on Appeal

  1. The only open issue that was still being appealed was whether the unused portions of a street officially becomes a parks without going through any of the legally required procedures (ie.ULURP and State legislation) especially when the adjacent property owner and the City of NY repeatedly showed no desire to do so. This would have a great implication on the dozens of other places where the City has turned surplus streetland into other uses, such as green streets and sitting areas. If the City wants to turn streetland into parkland there are procedures to do so, and the need to review the planning consequences of creating landlocked parcels by removing street frontage and zoning ramifications on all of the adjacent land owners. This issue goes way beyond the NYU strips of land on Mercer and La Guardia Place, as the Court has decided. The Court must handle the due process and legal aspects of creating parks, in addition to the political and planning concerns of the neighbors in all of these situations. But that is what ULURP is for, so if the City wants to create Parkland it should start there.

  2. Once again, as on the Upper East Side, OUR public land, whether used as street or as parks, is being sold off to the highest bidder. WHY? When can the citizens of NYC — especially on Manhattan, which has no more ground level space for the people to live and work here — say ENOUGH! Keep our land for us and do not sell any more to anyone for any reason without an absolute equivalent quid pro quo next door in the same neighborhood. That would be the same acreage of parks that is being destroyed in the name of yet more buildings. Buildings do not create mission. They only take up human space! PLEASE, STOP BUILDING, REPLACEMENTS ONLY FROM NOW ON!

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