Students fight to block NYU’s bold plans for Greenwich Village

Just when the world thought the Occupy Wall Street movement would fade into the shadows of the New York Stock Exchange, a robust rally organised by its Occupy Student Debt Campaign herded groups of students and non-students alike to protest on Tuesday against a $6 billion New York University expansion project.

The student action has added to momentum that has been building against the project, with the local community board rejecting the NYU plan last week.

After the university’s administration launched the NYU 2031 project, to mark its 200th anniversary with an expansion project on its downtown campus, community activists who traditionally keep skyscrapers from proliferating in lower Manhattan made way for a blend of student and faculty groups in Gould Plaza south of Washington Square Park for a vocal and visual display of their dissent.

“Students and their families have a right to know how their college loans are being used,” said New York University professor Andrew Ross of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign. “NYU should come clean about the true source of funds for this jumbo expansion plan.”

Reminiscent of journalist and resident Jane Jacobs’ herculean efforts to halt Parks Commissioner and Arterial Coordinator Robert Moses from building an elevated highway through the heart of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, about 150 demonstrators stacked cardboard boxes decorated with slogans such as “a real estate empire built on students' backs”, and “develop minds, not property”.

At the rally last week, Graduate Student Government leader Ozen Dolcerocca sent a message to the university, saying: “Recognise our union and don't make construction plans that you can't pay for.”

At issue is the $6 billion price tag. That is three times the school’s current $2 billion endowment and the administration was not forthcoming about its fiscal plans, Occupy Student Debt Campaign organisers said.

The campaign’s goal is to restore free public higher education in the United States through a movement of student debt refusal.

NYU, a private university, remains among the country’s most expensive schools, costing about $40,000 per undergraduate academic year. Its students already bear the heaviest debt burden in the nation, an average $41,300, or about 40% above the national average. The expansion plan, rally organisers said, would only load further debt on students.

However, NYU spokesman John Beckman told University World News: “If we don't think a project is affordable, we don't build it. It's that simple. As a tuition-dependent university, we are always mindful of the impact of a project on tuition.

“The NYU we know today – the major international research university – was achieved in part by creating space over the last two decades. We did all that while keeping our tuition in line with that of other major research universities.”

The university had not attached a cost to the project, partly because building will take place over two decades, Beckman said.

Regarding the school’s pressing need for academic space, given that comparable schools have double or even triple the square footage per student, Beckman said: “It is not a question of whether, it is a question of how.”

He said the plan locates half the needed space outside Greenwich Village, and maximises the use of university property within Greenwich Village, which reduces costs and provides open space as well as space for a new school to the community. A key aspect of the plan is that it is long-range, Beckman continued, highlighting that it contemplates two decades of space needs, including for student and faculty housing, and arts and sciences programmes.

At the rally last week, student protestors were among a range of groups spanning clerical and teaching unions at NYU, members of the Greenwich Village community groups and residents, some of whom see the plan as a threat to the quality of life in the traditionally residential neighbourhood.

The NYU 2031 initiative includes plans to expand its Greenwich Village campus by 40% over the next 20 years.

Local resident and blogger CO Moed (53) said: “The streets are already over-saturated with campus life and ugly buildings. The Village used to have real estate available for new beginnings and art and small business, but now such real estate is being reconstructed so that large NYU facilities can be built.”

When student-focused businesses such as bars and fast-food chains follow, she said, the Village would become “a memory, not a neighbourhood known for fostering innovation and community”.

She and other residents and students also worried that NYU could be building more than it can support. Moed summed up some of their concerns: “If there is a drop or crash in higher education enrolment, then what? Their money would be better spent on teachers’ benefits, salaries, stronger departments and scholarships.”

Despite the protests, the school is moving ahead.

Last month, the Department of City Planning certified the NYU 2031 core plan to build on its own land in the Washington Square area. Subsequent meetings with university officials and the community board will decide the future of the plan.

Yet it doesn’t seem the protests will stop any time soon.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has already begun to collect signatures against the plan, and this week the lower Manhattan group, Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, will focus on the expansion project at an upcoming meeting.

In a city with scant land to expand on, with residents already protesting against similar expansion projects for Columbia University and Fordham University, NYU looks poised for a long debate before it breaks ground.