GREENWICH VILLAGE — The state Court of Appeals began to hear arguments Tuesday in the legal battle to stall New York University's plan to expand in Greenwich Village as another major city newspaper published an editorial backing it.
The case made its way up to the state's highest court after more than a year of back-and-forth since Judge Donna Mills blocked parts of the expansion in January of 2014. Mills ruled that some parcels of land that would be affected were protected as "implied parkland" because they had been used by the community for years as playgrounds, parks and gardens.
Being parkland meant the parcels would have to undergo a formal "alienation" process by the state before they could be put to a non-park use.
The plan had been approved by the City Council in 2012 after a rigorous land use review process.
The New York Times, which endorsed the NYU plan back in 2012, ran an op-ed on Tuesday from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe who insisted the city never intended the strips of land to be formally designated as parks:
Over the 16 years I served as either the Manhattan parks commissioner or the city’s parks commissioner, we received requests from people to designate as parklands the strips of land at the center of the N.Y.U. litigation.
Each time, we said “no.”
The city and NYU appealed Mills' decision, and late last year a panel of three appellate court judges reversed Mills' ruling.
Affordable housing advocates and mayors of other cities in New York have since joined the city and NYU, insisting that upholding Mills' implied parkland decision would endanger publicly-owned land across the state, and dissuade municipal governments from allowing vacant land to be used as parks or gardens until local governments are ready to turn them into affordable housing, a practice the city's Housing Preservation and Development agency has engaged in for decades.
The New York Daily News published an editorial back on May 18 that slammed the state's highest court for even agreeing to take on the "preposterous" case.
While the expansion's opponents say they are trying to protect green spaces in a neighborhood that lacks them, the News' editorial board insisted that their case actually jeopardizes green spaces and community gardens across the five boroughs.
This week, the New York Post chimed in, echoing the News' earlier argument:
Under standing rules, the city can turn underused public spaces into temporary parks. But if doing so risks permanent consequences, it won’t dare “lend out” such space in the first place. Bye-bye, future community gardens and green spaces.
The Court of Appeals erred in even taking this case.
Mark Crispin Miller, an NYU professor who is one of the most vocal opponents of the plan, dismissed the editorial boards' argument as "straight out of [the George Orwell book] '1984'" and said they "represent a startling departure from reality."
"The fact is that the city wants to prevail so that it can give public space that's already being used for parks and gardens to developers to build on," Miller said. "That's the motivation here, so that argument is cynical to say the least."
The Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Tuesday from both sides. At one point, a judge brought up the fact that the NYU plan would officially map two of the four parcels as parkland after the expansion is complete.
But the opponents' lawyer insisted that 20 years is too long to wait (the expansion is expected to be complete by 2031) for parkland, and said that undergoing the state alienation process is easy.
"Last year, there were 14 such alienations approved," the lawyer, Caitlin Halligan, said. "It’s not a difficult process."
The judges gave no indication of when they might make a ruling.
NYU spokesman John Beckman said the school is "optimistic" that the Court of Appeals will uphold the Appellate Division's ruling allowing the plan, and insisted the city has a vested interest in the university's "academic excellence."
"The plan...is vitally important to sustaining NYU’s academic excellence and to ensuring that our university can continue to contribute to New York’s cultural and intellectual life by attracting top scholars and students from around the world,” Beckman said in a statement.
Miller said the opponents also thought the oral arguments "went very well."
"We continue to be delighted that they took the case in the first place," he said. "They were very even-handed in their approach to both sides, so we can only wait to see what they decide."