New York University is looking to add some 2.5 million square feet to its core campus in Greenwich Village as part of a strategic university expansion that would amount to a total of 6 million square feet throughout the city in the next 20 years.
The local community board has completely rejected the university's plan—following the familiar script that pits giant developer against neighborhood residents. The board’s recommendations, and the proposed plan, are now undergoing a series of reviews by the Manhattan Borough President and the City Planning Commission before they are sent on to the City Council and the Mayor.
One prominent voice supports a compromise. Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times architecture critic, who was born in the Village, has penned a scaled-down alternative to the plan, which he imagines "could actually improve that stretch of the Village, and not just benefit the university."
His version would eliminate the proposed crescent-shaped towers on the northern block of the expansion site, and redesign and reactivate that block’s closed-off, underused open space; classrooms slated to be built underground could remain. Kimmelman also supports reduced versions of the proposed buildings on the southern block. First, NYU’s new Zipper building would replace the fortress-like Coles Sports and Recreation Center, bringing new life to a mostly forgotten corner, and the proposed dormitory could complement I. M. Pei’s landmarked Silver Towers, only if the dormitory were a bit smaller.
Kimmelman joins a small group of distinguished critics-cum-activists for the Village. In the 1960s, Ada Louise Huxtable and Jane Jacobs opposed a Robert Moses plan that would have bifurcated Washington Square Park with an extended Fifth Avenue. But Kimmelman's approach to architectural criticism is a departure from more-recent predecessors. Nicolai Ouroussoff and Paul Goldberger, former architecture critics for The New York Times, rarely, if ever, touched this kind of commentary on social and urban struggles.
Other critics have found those previous Times leaders wanting. Michael Sorkin wrote "Why Goldberger Is So Bad" in the Village Voice in 1985; in 2010, Alexandra Lange followed up on the theme: "Why Nicolai Ouroussoff Is Not Good Enough." Sorkin and Lange disregarded the two for their emphasis on starchitects and architecture as object.
NYU has had a “consistent blindness to the area’s architectural and historical features,” Huxtable wrote in 1964. Sorkin wrote, in 2000, “New York universities are in the rear guard in terms of enlightened architectural patronage.” Kimmelman underscores this assertion in his critique of the NYU proposal, writing, “Everything will finally depend on vigilant oversight of the architectural details.”
“Some things never change,” Kimmelman writes about the NYU expansion debate , adding, “Some things shouldn’t.” With the return of advocacy to The New York Times architectural writing, it would seem that the more things change, the more things stay the same.