‘Manifest destiny’: NYU’s history of expansion in Washington Square

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Under the Arch

‘Manifest destiny’: NYU’s history of expansion in Washington Square

Throughout its nearly 200 years as a university, NYU has been in a constant state of expansion. Its plans for growth have changed drastically over time.

Illusration of 5 postage stamps featuring different NYU buildings over the years

Carmo Moniz, News Editor | Apr 30, 2023

As you walk through Washington Square Park, the unofficial center of all goings-on at NYU, it’s impossible to miss the dark red sandstone of Bobst Library’s exterior, the towering Kimmel Center for University Life building, or the scattered purple flags hanging off of more buildings than you can count.


It’s hard to imagine the park or Greenwich Village without an NYU building at every corner, but just over 50 years ago, many of these now staples of the university did not yet exist. 


When NYU was founded, in 1831, the university had no presence in Washington Square, and wouldn’t until four years later. Its first building on the Square, the University Building, was located on the east side of the park, and contained academic facilities, as well as apartments on its upper floors. The building has since been demolished and rebuilt once, and renamed twice, and is now the Silver Center for Arts and Science.


NYU now owns more than 70 buildings in the Greenwich Village area, the result of over a century of expansion. During its time in Washington Square, the university has seen some of the most quintessential moments in the neighborhood’s history, from a 1917 declaration of the park as an independent republic to the community’s fight against Robert Moses’ plan to run a highway through the park in the ’50s. 


The university’s decades-long presence has made it an integral part of the neighborhood, but its expansion efforts have often clashed, with opposition from artists and longtime residents of the neighborhood. 


In a 1985 WSN article titled “‘Grave’ beginnings for Washington Square Park,” writer Pierre Haddad reflected on the park’s history and the university’s growing presence around it. Haddad chronicled the Village’s journey, from a mass burial ground in the late 1700s to a haven of picturesque houses and gardens, to a space for offices, factories and boarding houses occupied by Bohemians.


“Washington Square regained its earlier character by the 1920s as the years pushed the limits of the city ever northward,” Haddad wrote in the article. “The area around the Square has since remained a symbol of continuity between past and present, characterized by its Gothic and Greek houses standing side by side with… Bobst Library and Tisch Hall.”


‘An Urban Space Odyssey’: NYU’s vision for Washington Square in the ’60s and ’70s


In 1964, architects Philip Johnson and Robert Foster designed a plan for university buildings on the east and south sides of Washington Square Park, under the direction of James Hester, NYU’s 11th president. The design included plans for four red sandstone buildings reaching from Waverly Place to LaGuardia Place, where Bobst Library, Tisch Hall, the Silver Center, Goddard Hall and the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development now stand. 


According to a 1977 WSN article, titled “NYU’s Master Plan: An Urban Space Odyssey,” the plan also included an arched glass structure between what are now the Silver and Steinhardt School buildings. The glass arch, named the “galleria,” was inspired by Italian designs, and was  equipped with air conditioning.


William Payne, a former NYU spokesperson, told WSN in 1977 that the university had not abandoned the 1964 plan — it was meant to give NYU a design concept and was created to be adjusted.


“Philip Johnson designed an ultimate NYU,” Payne said. “Money considerations made some plans impossible, but can’t you have a dream?”


One of Hester’s most significant contributions to NYU’s campus was Bobst Library, though the project faced stark opposition from local residents at the time.


In the 1977 article, WSN editor Brian Huggins wrote that residents were concerned that the building would block the open space between Houston Street and Washington Square Park. The opposition caused construction to be delayed by a year. In July 1966, the university was able to go forward with plans for the library, and it was completed in 1973.


“Local residents claimed the 150-foot cubic structure would cast a shadow on the park and destroy whatever aesthetic appeal Washington Square had left,” Huggins wrote. “Residents in Washington Square Village claimed the monolith would obstruct their view.”


The same year that Bobst was built, the university made the decision to sell its undergraduate campus in the Bronx, which it had opened in 1894, due to financial hardship. The space, which NYU previously considered its main campus, was acquired by Bronx Community College. 


As a result, the ’70s saw Washington Square become the center of the university, where, according to NYU spokesperson John Beckman, there were few dorms and no central library. Beckman said that the university then embarked on a decades-long development plan, in which it built new residence halls, repurposed existing buildings for teaching and laboratory uses and obtained housing for faculty.


“Broadly speaking, the NYU that we know today started in the early 1970s,” Beckman said. “The then-board of trustees and the senior leadership of the university made an important strategic decision: to transform NYU from a good regional university into a strong, highly selective, top national research university.”


Hester’s additions to the Washington Square campus had followed a number of developments that came after many factory lofts and residences south of the park were demolished by the city in the ’50s, according to Huggins. What came after was an increase in student and faculty housing on campus.


As more students moved into the Village to attend NYU in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, many residents were displaced, according to Andrew Berman, the executive director of the nonprofit Village Preservation.


“When it built those huge dorms on Third Avenue and the East Village, that had a secondary effect,” Berman said.


In 1964, NYU purchased Washington Square Village, now a graduate and faculty housing development which houses more than 1,000 families. Only three years later, it finished building the three buildings that make up the Silver Towers development, two of which house students and faculty. 


Another project, the 14-story Warren Weaver Hall, was completed the year after Hester took office. Loeb Student Center — which the Kimmel Center has since replaced — and Weinstein Residence Hall had been built under his predecessor, Carroll Newsom.


Joseph Roberto, who was formerly NYU’s official architect, said that future university construction near Washington Square would focus on improving already existing buildings.


“Considering the world you’re faced with, you have to have imagination and far-fetched ideas to attract publicity and attention,” Roberto said in the 1977 article. “Even though the galleria was beyond our means and no one had serious thoughts of constructing it, it served the purpose because it showed NYU had ideas and a master plan.”


NYU’s $6 billion expansion plan and the Greenwich Village community


In 2007, another plan for NYU development was announced, although this time with a projected 6-million-square-foot expansion. John Sexton, the university’s 15th president, wrote in a letter that the plan, called NYU 2031, was meant to ensure that the university’s facilities could keep up with its growth.


The project also envisioned NYU spaces in Brooklyn and on Governors Island, but the largest part of the expansion — which included 3 million square feet of construction — was to take place in Greenwich Village. Like other expansion projects before it, the 2031 Plan was met with opposition from Village residents, but the backlash was on a larger scale. 


One of the project’s biggest opponents came from within NYU. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, a group of around 400 professors, were vocal critics, saying that it would increase tuition costs and that it disregarded faculty input. In 2008, two years before the plan was announced, the university had said that it would raise tuition and cut jobs to fund its expansion plans.


By April 2012, 23 faculty departments had passed resolutions against the plan. Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis who was involved in Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, said that many students were also against the plan, and that it faced so much opposition because it was mostly planned by the administration, not faculty or the surrounding community.


“The only people that were not against it was the NYU administration,” Ross said. “You want to ask yourself, ‘Well, why does the university have to be continually expanding in this way? What is the purpose of that expansion? What is the purpose of that growth?’ It doesn’t have to grow in that way.”


Berman, the Village Preservation director, said that in his 30 years of working on the issues between NYU and the Village community, he has found that residents’ biggest complaint against the university has been that it is misleading in its communication about development plans.


“John Sexton and the NYU 2031 Plan pretty much destroyed the university’s relationship with the surrounding community, and it’s never been repaired since, at least in terms of administration and leadership,” Berman said. “It was a kind of scorched earth policy, where they really burnt that bridge and have made no efforts to repair it since then.”


At the heart of the 2031 Plan were two superblocks enclosed by West Third Street, LaGuardia Place, Houston Street and Mercer Street. NYU proposed constructing four new university buildings on the blocks, one of which would become the present-day Paulson Center.


The plan was unanimously rejected in February 2012 by Manhattan Community Board 2, which represents Greenwich Village and other downtown neighborhoods.


During the approval process for the plan, NYU received a number of recommendations from a community task force that included members of Community Board 2. The recommendations were intended to ensure that the 2031 Plan took the well-being of the community into account. Some of the recommendations were that NYU make an effort to decentralize its development, take the character of other buildings in the Village into account in the design for new buildings and seek community input.


According to former Community Board 2 member Sean Sweeney, however, NYU did not listen to many of the task force’s suggestions.


“NYU is a real estate development corporation disguised as a university,” said Sweeney, who is the director of the community advocacy group SoHo Alliance.


Beckman, the university spokesperson, said that a number of changes to the project during the land use review process, including reducing the height of all four buildings on the superblocks, directly addressed the community board’s concerns. He said NYU did not, however, agree that it should be prohibited from expanding on the superblocks, which it has owned for decades.


After it was rejected by the community board, the 2031 Plan’s area was reduced by 370,000 square feet. In July 2012, it was approved by the New York City Council. The university faced a number of lawsuits after the approval, including one from various community groups and another from residents of Washington Square Village. The first lawsuit restricted the space in which NYU had city approval to expand, and the second was dismissed.


The university later rebranded the 2031 Plan as the Core Plan, with the Paulson Center as its central focus. Currently, the university does not plan to revive any other parts of the original plan, according to Beckman.


“NYU’s space needs remain acute, notwithstanding the opening of the Paulson Center,” Beckman said. “However, at this point the university doesn’t have immediate plans for the other project sites identified under the Core Plan.”


James Russell, a journalist who writes about architecture who is a critic of the 2031 Plan, said the distrust the university built with the Village made it more difficult for it to expand.


“NYU cannot help but be the 800-pound gorilla in the neighborhood,” Russell said. “As an urban campus, it should simply seek graceful integration into its physical surroundings and more opportunities for the non-NYU community to engage with NYU people, not just to be good neighbors but as a way of leveraging New York City’s great attributes.”


A supermarket, the Village and the university


Years later, the 2031 Plan continues to affect Greenwich Village residents. A Morton Williams supermarket on Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place, situated on a property owned by NYU, might be out of service for a few years due to an agreement the university made with the city, allowing it to build a public school on the lot.


The deal was made as part of the approvals process for NYU’s expansion plan, and set a deadline for the New York City School Construction Authority to decide whether to use the lot by the end of 2014. The deadline was twice extended, stretching until the end of 2021, and the SCA established a plan to build a school on the lot in November of that year. The university has once again extended the deadline for the SCA to decide if it wants the lot, leaving the future of the supermarket uncertain.


Avi Kaner, the owner and operator of various Morton Williams locations throughout the city, said that there are currently three possibilities for the supermarket’s future. The city could choose not to take the lot and allow the supermarket to stay, the university could provide the city with space for a school in future developments or the supermarket could share the site with the public school. Should the last scenario occur, the community will be left without a supermarket for at least three years.


“We are deeply engaged with NYU, the city, community groups and elected officials to ensure the supermarket is saved,” Kaner said. “There are only eight months left in the year for the city to decide on saving the supermarket.”


Karin Kiontke, a researcher in NYU’s biology department who used to live in graduate student housing near the market, said that she has been investigating the university’s role in the Village. For the last 17 years, she has been caring for LaGuardia Corner Gardens, a small community garden next to the Morton Williams. She said that if construction on the lot moves forward, the garden, which has existed since 1981, will likely be destroyed. 


“We have been threatened by NYU since forever,” Kiontke said. “There’s this resistance of the community, and then they tell you this and they do something different.”


Kiontke said that while many residents don’t like the university’s presence, many restaurants and shops benefit from the patronage of the tens of thousands of students and faculty NYU brings to the Village. This has been the case since NYU began to focus on making the Washington Square campus residential. As NYU built more dorms and faculty housing, local businesses were provided with more and more customers.


A 1985 WSN article, titled “Boutique braces for NYU,” profiled Lynn Davidson, the owner of a clothing store at 309 E. Ninth St., where a gift shop now stands. Davidson said she was against the construction of the Alumni Hall and Third Avenue North dorms because she opposed the construction of high-rise buildings in the area. Despite this, she also said she hoped the future inhabitants of the student residences would shop at her store.


“There are two sides in me,” Davidson said. “There’s the old hippie, and there’s the businesswoman.”


Berman said that while there will always be issues between any university and nearby residents, NYU’s expansion has created an unresolvable tension within Greenwich Village.


“The problem is that the administration of the university has this ‘manifest destiny’ philosophy that it believes it should take over and become the controlling presence of more and more of the neighborhood,” Berman said. “It’s not that we think that the university or its presence is inherently bad, we only think it’s bad when it becomes the only presence in the neighborhood.”


Correction, May 11: A previous version of this article misstated who built the Washington Square Village development. The article has been updated to reflect the correction and WSN regrets the error.