GREENWICH VILLAGE — Affordable housing advocates have stepped into a yearslong legal showdown between New York University and Greenwich Village residents intent on stopping the school's expansion in the neighborhood — arguing in favor of NYU's controversial plan.
Three housing groups have filed a legal brief defending a recent Appellate Division ruling in favor of the university's NYU 2031 plan, which would add academic space, arts facilities and faculty and student housing.
The groups — Phipps Houses, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a collection of 99 organizations that claim responsibility for 100,000 units of affordable housing over 25 years, and the New York Housing Conference — claim that if the state Court of Appeals rules against NYU's expansion based on the current argument that the university would be building on public green space without permission, it could set precedent and threaten the construction of new affordable units across the state.
"Providing green space for recreation and environmental preservation is a worthy objective, but worthy does not mean paramount," the advocates wrote, dismissing the expansion plan's opponents as “some litigious city residents.”
Opponents, however, are holding fast to their argument, backed by Justice Donna Mills, who ruled last year that the four parcels of affected land — a playground, dog run, community garden and small green space — should be protected because the community has used them as parkland for decades.
Mills concluded that the plots fall under a state rule that mandates parkland in New York state not be used for non-park purposes unless explicitly given permission by the Legislature.
The Appellate Division overturned Mills' decision late last year, ruling in favor of NYU because the parcels were never officially zoned by the city as parks. The issue is now before the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, which is set to hear arguments on it in the coming weeks.
The affordable housing groups argue that applying Mills' logic would "privilege park purposes over other equally important city purposes, including providing affordable housing" and would lead to “a calamity, politically, socially and recreationally, and in terms of long-term city development and planning.”
However, the housing groups emphasized that they don't have a specific stake in the NYU battle and are "not here opposing (or supporting) the particular project by NYU in Greenwich Village that spawned this litigation," and "they take no position here on that project.”
The battle echoes that of elected officials in Brooklyn and residents in Harlem who are fighting Mayor Bill de Blasio's affordable housing plan, which would let developers build residential buildings that include affordable housing atop several community gardens in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Affordable housing advocates also wrote that if Mills' ruling is reinstated, it would create a chilling effect that would scare the city away from permitting future community gardens based on a fear it would never be able to take back the land.
The affordable housing groups were joined in their brief by hospital and healthcare advocates, a private colleges group, and New Yorkers for Parks, an independent citywide organization in favor of parks and open spaces that has warmed to NYU's promise that its expansion will ultimately result in more green areas in the neighborhood. The mayors of Rochester and Syracuse made a similar argument in favor of NYU.
But expansion opponents have won backing from former federal Judge Richard Holwell, whose law firm is representing a good-government group, which is led by a former city parks commissioner, who waded into the fray on Monday.
Holwell filed a brief siding with the expansion opponents, and blasting the Appellate Division's decision for letting "powerful private interests" trump "the public’s reasonable expectations."
"This requirement of express approval at the State level maximizes transparency and democratic accountability in the disposition of parkland after it has been dedicated as a park," Holwell and his colleagues Daniel Sullivan and Andrew Breidenbach wrote in their amicus brief to the Court of Appeals. "As a result, public parks are sheltered from the whims of municipalities captured by private interests or driven by parochialism."
Here are the affordable housing advocates' and mayors' briefs: