Friday, October 17, 2014

The Absent Party in NYU’s Expansion Plan: A Dispute Systems Designer

NYU Flag

The past fifteen years have witnessed massive expansion, growth, and re-development throughout New York City – from Williamsburg and Prospect Park in Brooklyn to Times Square and the Meatpacking District in Manhattan. If a court decision on October 14 holds, Greenwich Village will become the latest neighborhood slated for a makeover. Last Tuesday, New York University received the green light to build out 2.45 million square feet of new classroom, office, and residential space in the Village by 2031.

Tuesday’s decision by the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court closes (for now) one chapter in a bitter and contentious dispute between the NYU and its neighbors. But make no mistake. The decision will bring neither peace nor an end to the conflict. Since unveiling the plan in 2008, NYU has met with fierce opposition from community groups, preservationists, and activists who charge the University with heartlessly trampling the distinctive character of neighborhoods in Greenwich Village and replacing it with generic corporatism. In turn, NYU has responded by articulating its educational vision for the new space, releasing comprehensive and complex renderings of its plans. The State Supreme Court’s Tuesday opinion allows NYU to expand into Greenwich Village, including its park space, which the court has found is not “exclusive”, meaning that although these spaces have been maintained as parks for decades, that use was “understood to be temporary and provisional.”

Reacting to the news, NYU quickly claimed victory. Indeed, it appears—for now, at least—to have achieved the outcome for which it hoped.

Claiming victory here, though, feels hollow and premature, reminiscent of George W. Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the U.S. Aircraft Carrier Abraham Lincoln in May of 2003. Indeed, in a situation like this where all the players will need to live and work with each other for years – perhaps decades – to come, a third-party declaration by a court may vindicate a right, but will also add salt to a wound.

A core principle in conflict management is that process matters—the steps taken towards coming to a resolution are just as important as the resolution itself. This is because a poorly-managed process that does not include good-faith engagement with all stakeholders can threaten and, at times, even doom what seems to be a stable and “legally sound” resolution.

With this possibility in mind, it is worth digging deeper into NYU’s claims of “victory” after the favorable court decision this week. In my view, NYU’s expansion provides a case study in why meaningful community engagement and collaborative solutions are crucial—and how dispute systems designers and negotiation experts can play a valuable and unique role in the process.

Robert C. Bordone ’97 is the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor and the Founding Director of the HNMCP.