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The Village Independent Democrats Fight NYU

This is one of a series of blog posts which highlights the information found in our Village Independent Democrats collection, added to our Preservation History Archive in early 2024.

In 1953, Robert Moses announced plans to demolish a large swath of Greenwich Village, from West Houston Street to West 4th Street, and LaGuardia Place (then known as West Broadway) to Mercer Street, through the Title-I Slum clearance program. Under the aegis of Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance, which Moses headed, nine city blocks of modest and affordable housing and inexpensive commercial and industrial buildings would be razed and replaced with new, much larger and taller buildings surrounded by open space, and largely house facilities for New York University, along with some new, ostensibly affordable housing.

Greenwich Village Blocks before Demolition. Source: New York Times, 1954.

The plan arrived to the dismay of many Village residents, who did not consider the area to be a “slum,” as it had been tagged, and because the blocks already had perfectly good housing and provided many jobs. The rationale for doing so was that the existing affordable housing and commercial buildings were outdated and “blighted,” and all would benefit from replacing them those resembling architect Le Corbusier’s “tower in the park” model, consisting of a high-rise apartment complexes and other structures surrounded by open space.

1957 Plan for the site, Source: New York Times. Note that the third tower, between Bleecker and Houston Street was never constructed.

From the beginning, New York University (NYU), took an interest in this plan, establishing a partnership with Robert Moses. NYU was looking to develop additional educational facilities around Washington Square, and made an agreement to support Moses’ Slum Clearance for the area, as long as they got a portion of the land. From early on, they were to acquire approximately 30% of this land, located between West 3rd and West 4th Street in order to construct a library and other educational facilities. The remaining 70% of the land was sold to a developer who was set to build three large super blocks with ostensibly affordable housing for the public.

By the end of the decade, two out of three of these towers were completed, known as Washington Square Village, and apartments in them were being rented. The tower that was never built was to occupy the southernmost portion of the land, between Bleecker and Houston Streets, and in 1960, the developer offered to sell this piece of land to NYU.

This offer came as a great disappointment to many Village residents and community groups, including the Village Independent Democrats (VID). In 1960, then-VID President Carol Greitzer wrote a letter to Robert Moses highlighting the problems with the proposed sale, and urging him to find a different buyer, one who would instead create housing for the community, not just those involved with NYU. Here is a segment of the letter:

“On behalf of the Village Independent Democrats I am writing to protest the currently projected sale of Title I housing property in the Washington Square Village area, which, as you know, has been proposed by the Washington Square Management Corp. Under the terms of this proposal, the lower part of the area would be sold at cost to New York University, which has announced its intention of building residential facilities there for faculty and married students.”

In 1960, VID also hosted a Forum on the topic. View entire document as PDF.

The letter continues: “While we have no wish to dispute the worthwhile aspects of NYU’s proposed development of this area, we must stress that the projected sale would deny Greenwich Village a site which could provide what everyone agrees is a much-needed middle-income housing development for the community. You are probably aware that many Villagers felt considerably let down when Washington Square Village, which had been widely publicized as a middle-income project, turned into a block of apartments renting at generally prohibitive rates.” Read the entire letter as PDF.

This segment highlights some of the problems with this sale, and also reveals that the apartments that had already been constructed on the site were not providing the affordable housing they were supposed to.

Despite the hard-fought efforts of Greitzer, VID and many other Villagers, the sale to NYU for development of the southernmost site went through. As part of NYU’s agreement with the city, one third of the developed units were to be set aside for affordable housing, in three towers as opposed to the one large one originally proposed. In September of that same year, 1960, it was announced that NYU would provide 175 affordable units, ranging in size from 2 to 5 rooms, with most units being 1 bedroom apartments. Carol Greitzer, then-VID President, took issue with this, as these apartments could not adequately house families, and spoke with Miss Burmaster of NYU on this issue, and recommended that all of the apartments consist of 4, 5 and 6 rooms. Read the entire statement as PDF.

By 1962, no progress had been made on the development, as the Housing and Redevelopment Board had rejected NYU’s plan to build the apartments, finding that it had too few units and bedrooms, and would not adequately support families. These issues are highlighted in a 1962 letter written to Mayor Wagner from VID members Carol Greitzer, James Lanigan and Stanley Geller. This letter notes the problems with NYU’s proposed plan for the site, and also takes issue with the City not mandating NYU to begin development of the site, which would have included building housing. Since the plans set forth by NYU did not provide sufficient housing, the City was continuing to deny them, but not requiring NYU to do anything else — which resulted in years of back and forth, without any progress made towards building affordable housing. The letter encourages the City to mandate NYU building 175 affordable units, large enough in size to support families, even if this meant giving up additional space that belonged to the university. Read the entire letter as PDF.

In 1964, NYU began to develop the newly acquired part of the site. Known as University Village, it would feature three towers; two for university housing, and one for affordable housing for local residents. The previous year, NYU had also purchased Washington Square Village, the two other towers that had been constructed through the program, which as a result be limited to housing NYU faculty and married students moving forward. This was of course a far cry from the original plan for the site, in which these blocks of buildings were to provide affordable housing to the community. Instead, the housing, for the most part, was inaccessible to those who are not affiliated with NYU, except for the third tower of University Village, now known as 505 LaGuardia Place, which remains affordable housing for neighborhood residents to this day.

University Village today. Source: NYC Urbanism.

Much of this information comes from the latest addition to our Preservation History Archive, the Village Independent Democrats Collection: 1955-1969. Check out this collection to learn more about the group, and the important contributions they made to Greenwich Village and all of New York City.

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