Village residents face off against NYU to keep green space

Padma Lakshmi, rendering of NYU 2031
Padma Lakshmi, rendering of NYU 2031

Community members, including model and celeb chef Padma Lakshmi, faced off with attorneys for New York University in a hearing today that focused on whether two superblocks in the heart of Greenwich Village constituted parkland — a sticking point that opponents of the school’s approved expansion hope will put an end to the development plans.

The area in question, bordered by West 3rd Street to the north, Houston Street to the south, and LaGuardia Place and Mercer Street to the east and west, is currently home to Mercer Playground, Mercer-Houston Dog Run, LaGuardia Corner Gardens and LaGuardia Park. An NYU plan, approved by the city in July 2012, aims to construct a $6 billion, 2 million-square-foot project that would take up most of the two blocks as well as other parts of the Village.

A coalition of community groups sued the university in September 2012, aiming to challenge the city’s approval of the project.

The problem, and question at hand in today’s hearing, was whether these four green spots are indeed parks. Randy Mastro, an attorney at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher who represents the petitioners, argued that they are, because the community has used them as such for decades. If that’s the case, the city illegally turned four city parks over to NYU, Mastro told the courtroom.

“In our state, the law is that a municipality cannot alienate dedicated parkland, explicitly or implicitly implied dedication, without the prior approval of the state legislature, and that was not done here,” Mastro told the court.

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Alan Levine, an attorney for NYU, argued that the legal arrangements in place for each of the four strips in question do not confer park status.

The debate stems from Robert Moses’ plans to build a ten-lane highway – the Lower Manhattan Expressway – through the heart of the Village in the 1950s. Though the plan was later abandoned, the area contested in today’s hearing was mapped as streets at the time – and remains so today, though it is not a thoroughfare for traffic.

Changing the mapping requires written consent from all neighbors of the area in question, and all have granted such approval – except NYU, which was asked to do so in 1996.

“NYU and the city participated in the mandated ULURP process in which all of the issues were evaluated and Core 2031 was overwhelmingly approved by the City Planning Commission and the City Council,” Levine told The Real Deal, referring to the public review process for the NYU expansion plan. “We appreciated the opportunity to be heard in court and are confident the court will understand our position.”

The parties have been given two weeks to make any additional submissions, at which point a decision will be made in the case.