Despite strong local opposition, New York University won approval last month to dramatically expand its core campus in Greenwich Village. The plan was subject to extensive planning and public review, but was ultimately green-lit by the State Court of Appeals. Why was this neighborhood planning issue, like so many others, resolved in the courts?
New York City communities—from East New York to the South Bronx—invest time and effort in planning their neighborhoods. Yet, as Greenwich Village residents found, the city’s land use planning and environmental review processes offer little opportunity for meaningful public involvement.
Over the next two decades, NYU will build up to two million square feet of faculty housing, classrooms, and offices on several blocks in Greenwich Village. At the center of the “NYU 2031” development plan are two “superblocks” between Houston and West Third Streets and LaGuardia Place and Mercer Streets. Currently, they contain two NYU-owned residential developments, an NYU gym, one-story shops, and City-owned green spaces including a playground, dog run, and community garden. The gym and open spaces would be built over, and the density of the “towers-in-the-park” style superblocks increased.
The plan required special permission from the City, including zoning changes to allow larger, taller buildings and actions to permit development on public land. These actions are subject to the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and environmental review, which require public noticing and hearings. ULURP includes a rigid clock for advisory review by the local Community Board and Borough President, and approval by the City Planning Commission and, in many cases, City Council.
The ULURP process began in 2011, but NYU 2031 planning began much earlier. Based on lessons from past development battles, NYU held dozens of meetings with the public before submitting a proposal to the City. Then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer also facilitated a Community Task Force. Participants were frustrated because NYU repeatedly presented plans rather than soliciting ideas, and the task force report ignored community consultation. When the final 2011 plan did not reflect community priorities, residents set out to press their concerns through the city planning process.
Local opposition and the city planning process
Residents, NYU faculty and students, and neighborhood organizations raised numerous concerns about the expansion plan, including:
- Displacement of community-built playgrounds, gardens, and other parks in a neighborhood starved for open space;
- Environmental, social, and economic impacts of added density and twenty years of construction;
- Effects of NYU’s growing footprint and privatization of public land on neighborhood character; and
- NYU’s faithlessness to previous community agreements (NYU 2031 violated past development deals).
Greenwich Village advocates maximized opportunities to address these concerns through ULURP.
Unlike many less-privileged neighborhoods, this now-wealthy, historically activist community was well-positioned to mobilize neighbors, sophisticated advocacy groups, celebrity support, and private funds. Hundreds attended public hearings and protests and commented on the environmental review. Planning and preservation experts and seasoned local advocates analyzed the project’s potential impacts proposed alternatives. The Community Board conducted an exhaustive planning and environmental analysis that informed its unanimous vote against the plan.
Residents notified public officials of their findings but had little impact on their approvals. After one of its longest hearings on record, the City Planning Commission approved the plan with some modifications, including modest building height reductions (negotiated by the Borough President). The one dissenting Commissioner cited NYU’s “haphazard and insensitive” growth to date. City Council members—siding with the local representative, as is common practice—approved the plan with just one dissent. (Some opponents speculated that their councilmember ignored constituent pressure because an upcoming redistricting would remove Greenwich Village from her district.)
The myth of participation in public review
The public has a limited role in city planning decisions. New York City and State land use and environmental review requirements, which are rooted in the “sunshine” reforms of the 1970s, require that government reviews and discloses potential impacts of certain decisions. The City must consider public comment and alternatives, but is not required to incorporate these into their plans. As a result, residents’ painstaking research and organizing often amounts to performance. The City does have instruments for community planning, but these are non-binding.
The NYU 2031 public review met all public outreach requirements. But residents wanted more than to speak on record. They believed that “being a New Yorker means playing an active role in shaping your local communities,” as the City attests on its community affairs website. By that measure, the ULURP process failed Greenwich Village.
That a mostly wealthy, white, politically connected community could not influence the process suggests the even greater hurdles faced by low-income communities of color.
Courts as the planning entity of last resort
Ignored in the public planning process, NYU 2031 opponents (like activists in Harlem, Brooklyn Heights, and Willets Point) turned to the courts. Legal challenges, unlike planning policy decisions, are typically narrow: Did the City neglect environmental review requirements? Does a proposal comply with civil rights law? In this case, does a development violate land use law?
The courts evaluated whether the superblocks’ open spaces were parks, which cannot be ‘alienated’ (used for non-parks purposes) without special State legislation. The green spaces belong to the Department of Transportation (a quirk of the community’s defeat of Robert Moses’ plan for a Lower Manhattan highway) and not mapped as parkland. Without official designation as parks, the courts had to decide whether these spaces were parkland by implication.
The lawsuit could not address most community planning concerns. That residents helped plan, build, and care for the green spaces increased their community value, but did not legally make them parks. The area’s already minimal open space access was irrelevant. Whether a private university should expand beyond existing zoning and on public land had no bearing either. Such questions of how to best use neighborhood space have more than one answer and are seldom defined in our laws for precisely that reason.
New Yorkers want to make decisions that shape their neighborhoods. Right now, residents are organizing around major developments in Chinatown and City rezonings in East New York. The city planning process guarantees that they may speak, but not that they will be heard.
Echoing the recommendations of many planning experts and neighborhood activists, several reforms would increase community participation in land use review:
- Develop binding community-based neighborhood plans that guide all planning decisions. ULURP is designed to review complete proposals, not envision a range of possibilities for neighborhood space.
- Strengthen community boards. Though established in response to the negative impacts of top-down, comprehensive planning, board recommendations are non-binding. They should be substantively incorporated into City Planning and Council review. A proposal to require funding for planners at every board would give boards the capacity to develop sound analyses of plans and alternatives. (It must be noted that resident voices are not all represented by community boards, and community planning and engagement extends beyond these entities.)
- The City Planning Commission and City Council must vote on plans as they were presented to the public. Now, unofficial negotiations modify plans after community board review, which undermines public involvement while giving the illusion of compromise. Any plan alterations during the ULURP process should be the result of a publicly documented and participatory review by all reviewing bodies.
- End the City Council’s de facto policy of voting with the local elected official. Every land use action has citywide implications. With planners at the community boards and City Council, councilmembers have the resources to make informed decisions about neighborhoods, even if they do not represent them.
New Yorkers know their neighborhoods and want to plan for their futures. The City must invest in community-based planning and give greater decision-making power to residents.
Sylvia Morse is an urban planner and activist.