Dear Chair and Commissioners:
I write regarding the New York University’s proposal to construct roughly two million square feet of mixed-use office and residential floor area around Washington Square. NYU’s 2031 plan is, of course, controversial with the community and opposed by Community Board 2. I do not express any opinion about the ultimate merits of the plan.
Instead, I offer only the observation that the various alternative proposals floated by opponents of the 2031 plan to locate NYU’s office and residential space south of Canal Street in the Financial District are ill-advised. Universities depend on the physical concentration of academics and students within close proximity of each other, to facilitate the informal and cross-disciplinary interaction that distinguishes a residential program from a correspondence school. Sprawling NYU’s departments across New York City without regard to the benefits of this interaction destroys the whole point of a university.
My opinion is based on my experience as a law professor at two major research institutions. I am the William T. Comfort III Professor of Law at New York University Law School where I have taught local government law and land-use regulation (among other courses) for the last six years. Before 2006, I was a Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School. My research has been on topics in constitutional law, statutory interpretation, land-use regulation, local government law, and administrative law. At both institutions, my teaching and research have been focused on land use and local government law.
Based on my personal experience as a member of two academic communities as well as my research and teaching of land-use law, the dispersion of faculty and students away from the central campus destroys what Harvard economist Edward Glaeser calls “agglomeration economies” – the increased productivity and creativity resulting from interaction with other workers. People learn from each other most when they can interact informally through close physical proximity. E-mail and skyping are simply no substitute for the serendipitous collaborations resulting from informal meetings at afternoon workshops, over dinner following a seminar, or in study groups before an exam.
My personal experience with my students and colleagues has brought home to me the real costs of physical dispersion. I simply do not interact much in person with academics in field up at Columbia Law School, because I cannot make time for a regular 80-minute roundtrip commute just to have coffee, brainstorm informally over lunch, attend workshops, or just run into my fellow land-use and local government scholars on the sidewalk or in a café. Dispersing colleagues to (for instance) the financial district will destroy the informal interaction that is the whole point of a university.
Of course, preservation of the existing neighborhood’s ambience is also an important goal. I do not express any ultimate opinion about whether adding two million square feet to the West Village will impose costs in excess of the benefits of agglomeration. Given that New York City expects to add roughly a million people to its population by 2030 – an increase of 18% -- one might expect that neighborhoods like the West Village that are close to transit infrastructure would expect to expand their zoning envelope to accommodate the additional population’s need for employment and study. On the other hand, I am a resident of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, not Community District 2, and I will not experience the loss of light, increase in sidewalk densities, or other erosions of aesthetic values that NYU’s proposed buildings might impose on residents living near to Washington Square.
Instead, I offer only the observation that it is not costless to exile a university’s academic offices and their occupants away from that university’s central campus. Acknowledging that the balance is difficult to strike, I urge that you do not lightly dismiss the benefits to the NYU community of a central campus that facilitates collaboration and interaction.
Roderick M. Hills, Jr.