GREENWICH VILLAGE — The state's highest court ruled in favor of New York University's expansion plan Tuesday, ending a yearslong legal battle waged by a group of Greenwich Village residents and local politicians who were determined to stop it.
The state Court of Appeals rejected residents' argument that because they had been used as parks by the community for years, four parcels of land involved in the school's plan are "implied parkland" and must be formally "alienated" by the state legislature before they can be put to non-park use.
In order to meet the criteria for “implied parkland,” the judges explained, the opponents had to prove that the owners of the land had done or said things that are “decisive” and “unmistakable in their purpose” to establish it as a permanent park, and that “the public has accepted the land as dedicated to a public use.”
The judges said the opponents failed to meet the first criteria, citing various city documents that explicitly stated the parcels of land — the Mercer Playground, LaGuardia Corner Gardens, and LaGuardia Park — were owned by the Department of Transportation and intended only for temporary use by the Parks Department as parks, playgrounds and gardens.
For example, they quoted a letter of approval with the permit to create Mercer Playground which stated: "It is expressly understood that in the event that [the] DOT requires the occupied property in order to perform capital construction work, [the] DPR shall vacate it and return it to [the] DOT so that such work can take place."
LaGuardia Park was one of many Greenstreet sites in the city, all of which are owned by DOT and operated by the Parks Department under a written agreement that they "will always remain as DOT jurisdictional propert[y], available for DOT purposes and uses as needed."
And the lease for LaGuardia Corner Gardens specifically says the use of that DOT property as a community garden is "on an interim basis, pending the future development or other use of the premises."
The opponents had long insisted that because the community had used the parks and playgrounds for years not knowing they were temporary, they met the second criteria for “implied parkland.” But the Court of Appeals said that because the opponents did not meet the first criteria, it didn’t matter whether they met the second.
The judges dismissed with little consideration the opponents' claim that the Mercer-Houston Dog Run, which is not city-owned and is only accessible to paying members, should be consider parkland, writing in a footnote that it "lacks merit."
The Court of Appeals was the opponents' last chance to block the project.
NYU can now move forward with construction of the first planned building as soon as the university closes down Coles gym. The school has asked the city for permission to use a building on Lafayette Street as a gym while construction on the new building at 181 Mercer St. is ongoing.
"The project not only keeps NYU academically competitive and helps fulfill our educational mission, it also benefits New York, as does today's decision," said NYU spokesman John Beckman. "The project will produce jobs and economic benefits, create public open spaces... and enable NYU to contribute to the city's idea economy and highly educated workforce by recruiting top scholars and top students."
The school is only allowed to build one building at a time under the plan approved by the City Council in 2012, and is also obligated to develop some of the plots of land as open green spaces that will then be officially mapped as parkland by the city. They will also be creating a new dog run nearby.
Beckman said the school "will have more specific information on a timetable for the closing of Coles and construction in the coming months."
The opponents to the plan called the ruling "disastrous."
“Although NYU's managers perceive it as a victory, this ruling will eventually turn out to be just as disastrous for the university itself as it will be for Greenwich Village, and the city overall,” said Mark Crispin Miller, president of NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan.
The Court of Appeals' full opinion can be read here.