Expansion plan shaken, not scrapped

Courtesy of NYU

After nearly two years of discussion and concessions, NYU 2031 — the university’s plan to increase our campus by 6 million square feet by 2031 — has been given the green light. In late July, NYU jumped its final civic hurdle when a downgraded but nevertheless substantial plan passed a crucial City Council vote 44 to 1.

Marked by expansive press coverage, vitriol and its share of memes, NYU 2031, frequently called the Sexton Plan after NYU President John Sexton, is an 18-year-long expansion project with a budget between $4 billion and $6 billion. The entire plan targets four areas of the city: Governor’s Island, downtown Brooklyn, NYU’s health corridor adjacent to the NYU Langone Medical Center and NYU’s core in Washington Square Village, the site of the city’s most vehement debate over the last year.

During a city council hearing in June, Sexton argued that “space at a school like NYU translates into talent.” But on an island, that mindset usually butts heads with surrounding locals. And while specific arguments against the plan were presented in numerous community board meetings, op-eds and protests, most were recycled from the usual crusade-like depiction of the neighborhood little guys versus a greedy corporate developer. The project’s most controversial construction centered on two super blocks located directly south of NYU’s Stern School of Business buildings and Bobst Library (numbered 6 and 7 on map of core).

In Greenwich Village, a neighborhood overfilled with veteran not-in-my-backyard advocates, the disputes revolved around public green space, student debt, frivolous spending, invasion of historic districts and construction noise and pollution.

An almost overnight compromise before the City Council vote in July forced the university to reduce and shift the density and footprint of planned high-rises and concede to more open space access by widening entrances into inner gardens. Its largest planned building on the superblock, known as the Zipper building for its peculiar shape, shrank by 70,000 square feet and the planned Mercer building was reduced to four stories. The final approved gross square footage was 26 percent less than NYU’s original application.

Among a hodgepodge of other renovations and restorations, the final plan for the core will add a total of four new buildings, three of which are high-rises, and extensive below grade construction beneath the current Washington Square Village complexes for a total of 1.9 million square feet. Construction is currently planned to start in 2014.

But for residents of 350 of the 1,296 units in the Washington Square Village complex on the northern superblock, the fight is not over. In what is expected to be the first of a long line of litigation, residents sued the university for violating their rights by planning to destroy a two-acre park on the superblock and in the process eliminate a ‘required service’ to tenants, according to DNAinfo. In a response, NYU spokesman Philip Lentz said that NYU strongly disagreed with the arguments presented in the lawsuit WSV Green Neighbors v. NYU.

“[NYU] will vigorously defend its plan to create new academic facilities, student dormitories, faculty housing and improved public space as approved by the City Planning Commission and the City Council after a thorough and rigorous public review process,” Lentz said.

According to a letter from Sexton, though NYU is the nation’s largest private university with over 50,000 students, it has approximately half the square footage per student of Columbia, one-quarter of Harvard and less than a fifth of Yale. The span of NYU’s campus is currently 15 million square feet. The final plan can be viewed extensively here.


A version of this story appeared in the Aug. 26 print edition. Amy Zhang is web managing editor. Email her at [email protected]



  1. I am surprised at the failure of this report to note the strong faculty opposition to the NYU 2031 plan. In a survey of faculty conducted by the Faculty Senators Council, 66% of those who responded were opposed to the plan, with 40% being strongly opposed. And 37 departments and schools passed resolutions stating opposition to the plan. The Stern Business School, for example, voted 52 to 3 against the plan, as did the entire Economics Department, including Thomas Sargent, Nobel Laureate, who voiced opposition to the plan in a piece in The New York Observer by Matt Chaban, saying: “I voted against it without reservation.” Yet the WSN dismisses the opposition as “a neighborhood overfilled with veteran not-in-my-backyard advocates,” with no mention of the serious reservations voiced by NYU’s own faculty.

  2. I believe I echo the feelings of many, if not most, of my faculty colleagues when I say that I love NYU the academic institution — above all, our students, past and present — yet have no confidence in NYU the corporation, that is to say the relentless real estate octopus into which our current administration is rapidly turning our institution. The change amounts to nothing less than a betrayal of our academic mission. If this academically and financially unjustified expansion does indeed materialize on its present scale, the faculty believe it will come with the heaviest of costs. Not only the neighboring community that has so long sustained the University but NYU’s own intellectual community — its faculty, students and a growing number of concerned alumni – know full well what is in danger of being lost. For faculty, like myself, the greatest price to be paid is the erosion of faculty governance (the present administration does not consult or collaborate, it notifies) and our stewardship of the students placed in our trust. In light of NYU’s modest endowment ($2.8 million, compared to Harvard’s $29 billion — and even the latter is tightening its belt), a mere 18% of which is intended for instructional academic purposes in the first decade of construction? The same students already paying over $58,000 in tuition, room and board per year — and mired in debt, making NYU the nation’s 4th “Least Affordable College” in the entire country (public or private), according to Newsweek. We, the faculty, cannot let this stand. About two years ago, at Alumni Day, President Sexton told an audience of alumni and guests assembled at the Skirball Center, “NYU isn’t for everyone.” This was said in response to a question by an alumnus regarding NYU’s climbing tuition costs. Sadly, NYU indeed isn’t for everyone. Not anymore. Under the current leadership, NYU is no longer just tuition dependent. It has become debt dependent, with the average graduate owing over $41,000. With student debt now climbing beyond $1 trillion and outstripping credit card, the debt bubble is on the verge of bursting. What will become of our university when it does? As we already know all too well, student debt also happens to be the most unforgiving, punishing debt there is.

  3. I want to end by saying that the most worrying aspect of all about NYU 2031 is its actual motivation. Any time that Pres. Sexton has been asked exactly why our University has to grow – and do so this aggressively – he says things like “Space translates into talent” (as quoted in the present article). Yet, does it, really? In other words, NYU needs to grow in scale, density and student numbers – absolutely must grow – so as to compete with the smaller (in terms of enrollment) and exceedingly more generously endowed academic institutions (such as Columbia or Princeton, which admit about 10% of its applicant pools to NYU’s roughly 30%)? There’s a reason why schools consistently ranked top 10 or 20 in the nation are where they are – and NYU currently sits a good but not great 33rd in the U.S. News & World Report rankings (and an alarming 97th in the Forbes college rankings). Believe me, it doesn’t have anything to do with the scale, height or footprints of their buildings. It has to do with student-faculty ratios; student tuition; and student satisfaction. Make no mistake, in its unchecked growth NYU threatens to no longer be the peer institution of the likes of Columbia (with a student body half our size) but rather Big Ten Schools, minus the football stadium.

    In closing, if the NYU administration really does believe that it can afford its costly expansion, shouldn’t at least as much revenue ($6 billion), if not more, instead go toward instruction and student aid? That is to say, should our University not invest its greatest efforts in the retention and hiring of exceptional faculty (many of whom — and their families — will not suffer to live in the 20-year construction zone that WSV and Silver Towers will soon become); a fair but much more rigorous admissions policy; better student-to-faculty ratios; smaller classes; and more generous financial aid packages. Surely, these are the things – not square footage – that make a university great?

  4. I would appreciate the author digging deeper into the finances of this plan. Does it make fiscal sense for NYU to spend $4-$6 billion when the total cost to attend NYU annually is nearly $60K? Can NYU students afford tuition hikes to pay for this plan when they are already some of the most indebted in the nation? With even the democratic president talking about reducing the escalating costs of tuition (not to mention if we have a republican president), can NYU justify significant tuition hikes that are partially/primarily funded by government backed student debt, federal grants/etc.?

    And above all, can NYU’s Administration release the financial budget for this plan? If NYU wants to act like a corporation, shouldn’t it be treated like a business and provide financial transparency to its students, faculty and NYU community?


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