This is probably a thought that has already occurred to a great many out there. But in recent months, as I watched events unfold in Greenwich Village, Noho, Harlem, the East Village and South Brooklyn, I've often thought that the greatest battles over New York City's soul that are to come won't be between the public and commercial developers like Bruce Ratner and the Joe Sitt. They will be with private institutions that, on the face of it, are benevolent forces, dedicated to the public welfare. That is, hospitals and universities.
Last week, St. Vincent's—longstanding preserver of Village life—laid out its whack-attack plans to take a buzzsaw to a largish portion of Greenwich's landmarked district—some to make a better (and bigger) hospital building, some to make a big residential building that will generate money to make a better (and bigger) hospital, and all of it to make St. Vincent's bigger and better and huger. "Me mighty hospital! You tiny bohemians! Me crush you, then later patch you up!"
Meanwhile, several blocks east, New York University, a past master at gobbling up real estate, has been up to its usual tricks. The august institution—which bestrides the blocks between Houston and 14th Street, and from Sixth Avenue to Second—is a behemoth that won't be gainsayed. It has an appetite and lack of scruple any rapacious developer would admire. Many still fault the bastion of higher learning for a host of crimes against nature, including: ruining the view from lower Fifth Avenue by building a boxy student center of the south side of Washington Square Park; and the abomination built on top of St. Ann's on 12th Street. (Thanks to Curbed for the photo.) Their latest shenanigans include plans for some zany "superblocks" just below the park, and a jacking up of rent that will possibly force Second Avenue's community-serving Met Food supermarket onto the street. N.Y.U. anticipates the need for a total of 6 million additional square feet of space by 2031 for academic uses, housing for undergraduate, graduate, professional and faculty personnel and for student services. Say your prayers, Villagers.
For all of NYU's chutzpah, Columbia University is perhaps even more gloriously arrogant and hard-hearted. The university recently ate up is East Harlem but good! The chowdown was part of its $7 billion expansion program. The school spent $1 million in lobbying fees, and had lots of fun abusing eminent domain to kick out plenty of teeny local land- and business-owners, and get a 17-acre swath of Manhattan's green earth renamed Columbialand. (Will they ever teach this case in Columbia Law?)
As for other instituions that are supposed to do the public good, but just as often do them ill, I've complained before about Long Island College Hospital's deleterious effect on the life of South Brooklyn. (Thanks for the new Clarett building, LICH!) Part of the reason these corporations—let's call them what they are—get away with the amazing shit that they do is they pose as beautiful, shining beacons of near-altruistic goodness. They feed the very life of the City, they do. NYU and Columbia educate, improving our young 'uns' minds and creating generation after generation of thinking, productive citizens. St. Vincent's and LICH keep us in fine fettle, deliver our babies, watch over our old folks, and fix our broken bones so we can live to walk another mile. They wouldn't hurt us. Why, they wouldn't hurt a fly! They're all for the greater freakin' good, you insignificant ingrates!
Don't believe it. NYU would build a dorm on your sainted grandmother's grave, and St. Vincent's would sell a penthouse suite to the rat bastard CEO who's responsible for your high prescription-drug bill. They're bullies and connivers and moustache-twirlers. It's time City Hall gave them the same fish-eye they'd give a Wal-Mart or a relocating Virginia gunseller. Our healers and teachers are stuffing dynamite under the feet of New York's renters, landowners, small businesses, history and heritage.