The City Council Should Approve NYU’s Core Expansion Plan

If one were to draw a circle a mile in radius with the hub being Washington Square, and time-traveled back 50 years to 1962, included within the circle would be a low-rent failing commercial district along Lower Broadway; a darkened, empty loft factory area south of Houston Street; a bleak Hudson River waterfront in the shadow of a deteriorating West Side Highway; an industrial meatpacking district dead in the daytime and a slaughterhouse at night; an empty High Line sprouting weeds above and blighting the streets below; and a Union Square so dangerous and empty that it was one of the City’s most notorious needle parks.

New York University chose at that moment to move its Bronx campus to Washington Square, an oasis benefitting from the adjacent Italian community and the glorious housing of the West Village. NYU now calls the area closest to Washington Square its core, and wants to expand by building on land within the superblocks immediately south of the Park. The City should approve that plan.

Controversy surrounds NYU’s plan. This land, after all, is part of the battlefield on which Jane Jacobs fought and defeated Robert Moses, who nonetheless succeeded in creating the two superblocks over which the current battle clashes. The controversy has been played out in the City’s land use process which has molded and compelled alterations in the plan. The plan is not perfect and will greatly change the two superblocks that were themselves created out of misguided planning concepts following World War II that no one would adopt today. The changes will be losses, but the gains will be greater.

NYU is a colossal economic and cultural engine with a historic focus at Washington Square. Its growth stimulates good things throughout New York City and the region. Of the constellation of enterprises that makes New York City great, it is a major element. The nature of a great university is to be concentrated geographically, not scattered about the City like Starbucks. Washington Square is the core of the campus even as it is interwoven within the City fabric. By approving the plan, New York City ensures the growth not only of NYU, but also reinforces the growth and vibrancy that has altered so profoundly and successfully the circle one mile in radius around Washington Square.

Ross Sandler is the director of the Center for New York City Law, and a professor at New York Law School.

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