An advisory group made up of NYU faculty and students released a long-awaited report about NYU’s controversial expansion plan today, recommending the school beef up the first building it plans to add in Greenwich Village.
In 2012, the city cleared the way for NYU’s plan to expand over 2 million square feet in the superblocks located south of Washington Square Park, but the school has been awaiting a report from its University Space Priorities Working Group — made up of 22 faculty members, two students, and some administrators — before locking in a final design.
After 18 months of meetings, that report is now in, and it backs President John Sexton’s stance that the university is hurting for new classroom space, athletic facilities, and performance space, among other things. It also confirms that NYU has adopted “reasonably conservative and prudent assumptions” in its financial planning, contrary to fears expressed by some critics that the school might be getting in over its head with the $6 billion expansion project.
In fact, the report [PDF] calls for an even larger building than what NYU had been planning at the site of the the Coles Sports & Recreation Center, recommending an additional 147,000 to 229,000 square feet to the tune of $128 to $201 million in additional construction costs. The new building would include less space for retail and for student dormitories than what NYU is currently planning at the site, and more space for faculty housing.
The Coles site, at Mercer Street between Houston and Bleecker, will be the first to see new construction. There, the report recommends a multi-purpose building for the following:
- At least 80 classrooms
- One large theater, four small black box theater and other academic spaces for the performing arts
- Student spaces, including residences for 500 freshmen
- A new athletic and recreation center, which will also double as a community center during emergencies such as Hurricane Sandy
- Housing for approximately 10 faculty families
At a press conference today, Ted Magder, chairman of the committee and an associate professor at NYU Steinhardt, said such a building — which would be anywhere from 817,000 to 899,000 square feet in size — would cost approximately $900 million dollars. Construction would be at least a year away, since the school has not hired an architect for that building or any of the buildings proposed for “superblocks.”
The working group did consider other options besides new construction, including making NYU more of a commuter campus, buying other buildings in the NYU campus area, increasing the number of classes held at off-peak hours, and reducing the student population, which would lessen the need for more space. And it did recommend more 8 a.m. classes (sorry, kids).
But for numerous reasons, it advised that the school proceed with construction. “Saying no to construction was certainly an option,” said Laurence Maslon, who chaired the stewardship and quality of life subcommittee and a Tisch arts professor. “But saying no to construction is not an opportunity.”
Among other things, the report cited the following evidence that the university is starved for new space:
- While the undergraduate student body has grown from 15,000 to 22,000 students over the past 10 years, the number of general-purpose classrooms has remained virtually unchanged at 170.
- Students in Tisch’s programs have long had to contend with performing and rehearsing in “former banqueting halls, hat factories, and repurposed lounges and classrooms, without any dedicated workspaces for design.”
- The occupancy rate for study seats at Bobst Library has risen from 53 percent in 2006 to over 80 percent as of spring 2011 (compared to the nationally recommended 25 percent)
- Graduate student housing is limited to just 451 beds available to more than 21,000 graduate students
- NYU spends nearly $34.9 million per year in rent on dormitory space. Owning the space would mean improved facilities and savings in the millions.
So why start construction at the Coles site, temporarily reducing recreational space? “It’s space the university already owns,” Magder said. “[And] the Coles site is the only large site that is close to the core.” The site is a small portion of construction that NYU is planning on the two superblocks, but the work group focused on the south block partly because construction on the north block — bounded by Bleecker and West 3rd — isn’t expected to start until 2022. (Magder said another workgroup akin to this one will likely be started to examine construction on that block.)
Another important recommendation out of the report is to establish a permanent “Superblock Stewardship Committee” which would have representation from community members and monitor quality of life and stewardship issues around the superblocks.
The working group’s report acknowledges that the Superblocks have been a “source of strain between NYU and the community for the past 50 years,” pointing to tension on both sides. “Members of the community see NYU as repeatedly breaking promises and ignoring community needs. For their part, some NYU administrators feel NYU cannot make even minor improvements without being at- tacked as destroying the neighborhood.”
Maslon said he hoped the report would “spur a renewed and much improved relationship with the university in terms of sheer communication and, also, problem solving.”
Among other things, the report recommends keeping the La Guardia commercial strip “occupied, well lit, functional, and attractive”; instituting window, air-conditioning, and façade improvements in consultation with residents; setting “high standards for architectural and design excellence” as well as meeting “high environmental standards of sustainability”; and addressing deferred maintenance projects in the area, including the Mercer Street dog run.
The report concludes that NYU’s financial calculations are on firm financial ground: “Unless there are unexpected or unforeseen developments, the proposed Capital Spending and Financing Plan is unlikely to impair the financial status of NYU,” it reads. Nevertheless, it recommends an “increase in fundraising for capital purposes, replacing the current target of $136 million [from 2013 to 2022] with a substantially higher target.”
Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, which has been a vocal critic of the “Sexton Plan,” said it was still reviewing the report and wasn’t yet ready to comment on its recommendations.
In a statement, NYU President John Sexton said the report “makes thoughtful, persuasive recommendations” and “reminds the University that it has an important stewardship role to play going forward in how we maintain and improve the superblocks for our own benefit and that of the surrounding community.”
Of course, the degree to which the report will influence NYU’s final plan remains to be seen. An NYU spokesperson said, “We expect to have a full response to the report and its recommendations soon — in the next couple of days.”