How to grow good cities? The answer keeps changing. Few large-scale entities in the city understand that better than the 180-year-old New York University with its ill-starred developments. When the private school first felt growing pains in the 1890s, it leapt to the far north and commissioned Stanford White to create a new campus in the Bronx. According to Mosette Broderick in Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White, Columbia also considered the site but decided it was a bridge too far. And so it ultimately was for NYU, which started moving back to its Washington Square home by 1933 but did not sell the University Heights campus until 1974 (in a dire moment of need to meet payroll).
In the 1950s, Robert Moses equipped himself with the latest tool of urban growth—slum clearance—and aimed straight at Greenwich Village and NYU, proposing to wipe out 27 blocks south of Washington Square to make way for ten superblocks with Corbu-approved “towers in the park.” We shudder now, but at the time that approach was enthusiastically embraced by the most sophisticated urban planners. One community rebellion later, with an emerging Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford crying “civic vandalism,” it was scaled back to three superblocks. NYU owned one of them and immediately hired I.M. Pei, a tower-in-park believer but with the refined abilities to finesse the inescapable chunk of a plan into something exceptional. By 1964, NYU owned the second and third superblocks, too, leasing one to the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program.
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A pattern emerges of a university fraught with financial instability trying to move forward responsibly, with course corrections along the way. (Does that jive with the institution’s buying up the Village indiscriminately as opportunity has allowed? Of course, if you factor in the most basic real estate instincts, honed over more decades than most any other resident of the area.) And now Pei’s Silver Towers, those finely executed renditions of an entirely discredited notion, are being fiercely defended. And that’s as it should be—the democratic process playing itself out in twitter-feed outrage and poster-loaded community meetings.
On reading the NYU proposal, however, it does seem that the institution is attempting to follow the most current enlightened approach to development. They hired their own triumverate of real talent—Toshiko Mori, Michael van Valkenburgh, and Grimshaw. They talk the talk of increased public accessibility, underutilized ground floors given over to non-profit or commercial uses, and a public dog run. The brochure is sprinkled with knowingly au courant quotes from Michael Sorkin’s latest and Rem Koolhaas’ indelible tomes. Political maneuvering? Naturally—the plan name NYU 2031 doesn’t echo the mayor’s PLANYC 2030 for nothing. Six million square feet, half of it within an already crowded Village neighborhood, is still a scary prospect for anyone who doesn’t want their corner of the city to be altered beyond recognition, or maybe changed at all.
But today is just a snapshot. As all designers know, change is already written in the glossy brochures. And the urban planning practices of today might well be displaced by an entirely different approach in no time. Architects, landscape urbanists, and engineers involved, therefore, all have a duty to speak up, loud and clear and not just in nerve-wracking community confrontations, to let people know now that as long as NYU commits to quality—and so far its hiring practices suggest it is—that inevitable expansion can be OK. It can, in fact, be tomorrow’s fiercely defended quality of life improvement. Call it the Silver Lining.