GREENWICH VILLAGE — The battle over New York University's 2031 expansion plan resumed Wednesday as faculty members, elected officials and community leaders who oppose it took to the streets once again.
The NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan group organized a rally in one of the areas endangered by NYU's proposal, at LaGuardia Place and West Third Street, ahead of a hearing in the case at a state appeals court Wednesday afternoon.
At stake are three green spaces in Greenwich Village — Mercer Playground, LaGuardia Park and LaGuardia Corner Gardens — which locals say should be considered de facto parks because they have been used as such for decades. Legally, however, the parcels of land belong to the Department of Transportation, and are designated city streets, not parks.
The City Council turned the land over to NYU when they approved the university's $6 billion expansion plan, but on Jan. 7 on this year, Judge Donna Mills ruled that they erred in doing so.
Mills maintained that because the plots of land had been used as parks for so long, they deserve the protection afforded to parks, which would require a vote in the state legislature to "alienate" them and make them available for other uses.
Mills' ruling allows NYU to move forward with the first of the four buildings in their expansion plan, but requires they seek approval from the state legislature for the other three buildings, plotted for the spaces where the playground, the park and the community garden currently exist.
The city and NYU jointly appealed Mills' ruling, and appeared in court Wednesday to argue for her decision to be overturned. Both sides presented their cases, and the panel of judges asked a handful of questions, largely focusing on whether the case hinges on the city's intent for the spaces or the public use and perception of them.
One judge pointed to an affidavit submitted by former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern in support of the opponents of the plan, which recounted how, as commissioner, he repeatedly tried to get those pieces of land turned over as dedicated parks, but was stymied by lobbyists for NYU over and over again, who claimed there was no need to make it official because they were already park land.
Noting that the "thrust" of Stern's affidavit paints NYU "as Darth Vader," the judge said Stern's testimony supported the city and NYU's case, as it indicated that the city's intent for the spaces was specifically not to designate them as parks.
Stern appeared at the LaGuardia Park rally before the hearing, along with Community Board 2 Chair David Gruber, State Sen. Brad Hoylman, State Sen. Daniel Squadron, Public Advocate Letitia James, and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, who is the lead plaintiff in the case against NYU and the city.
Glick, among many others, called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to drop the appeal, insisting that the mayor "in his heart knows that we are correct and our efforts are on the right side of history."
"Put the people first, put the parks first, withdraw your support of this appeal," Glick said, directly addressing the mayor. "Stop using our taxpayer dollars to maintain an appeal against us."
In a statement, de Blasio spokesman Wiley Norvell said of the appeal: "Our position here is sound, and defends the public sector’s rights and responsibilities."
The rally concluded with a performance by members of the performance collective STOMP, which has been based in the East Village for 20 years.
"We heard about what's going on and we wanted to come make some noise," said STOMP member Dustin Elsea, 31. "We love the neighborhood, we're passionate about it. Change is inevitable, but we want to keep the character [of the Village]."
University officials dismissed the protest as a publicity stunt.
“Protests like this make for a good photo op, but NYU will remain focused on the court case," spokesman John Beckman said in the statement. "As we did in the lower court — which ruled that we should be allowed to proceed with the initial and largest phase of the 2031 core plan — we will make the case to the Appellate Division that on the one outstanding issue — the lower court's holding that some of the DOT strips should be treated as parkland — the court was in error."
The Appelate Division is not expected to come to a decision for a few weeks.