The absent party in NYU’s expansion plan: a dispute systems designer

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.

NYU certainly scored a “win” under a rights-based approach, the value system typically reified by our judicial system.  But under an approach valuing the interests of the parties and their ongoing relationships, things start to become less clear.  One main interest of those opposed to the expansion is the preservation of the character of the neighborhoods affected, as well as community park space.  To that end, NYU spokespeople have been present at community meetings and hearings to discuss their plans and field questions and critiques.  But it seems that these NYU spokespeople have at the same time made themselves clear that their goal is less to meet stakeholder interests in an consensus-based process and more simply to be open and transparent about their reasoning for moving forward with the construction.  Transparency is a worthy goal and a step in the right direction; but “informing and explaining” is vastly different from genuine consensus building. When engagement efforts begin and end with meeting participation, Powerpoint presentations, and answering questions, it is hard to see NYU’s efforts with regard to the community as anything more than token.

It is also hard to see how that kind of engagement builds the kind of relationships, buy-in, and goodwill that NYU will need to be successful going forward. With decades of construction ahead, there are countless ways unhappy and disenfranchised neighbors can make life miserable for NYU through delay, complaints, and lawsuits every time a contractor makes the slightest error or mistake. The cost of resolving a myriad of mini-disputes for 20 years and the attendant stress and ill will they create can hardly amount to a victory. It’s just a cost that will be deemed “inevitable” even though I would argue that a true consensus-based process that creates positive energy, neighborhood feeling, and genuine engagement might stave off many (though certainly not all) of the future downstream mini-lawsuits and disputes. It is no surprise that after years of dealing with NYU’s insistence on using its leverage instead of building real consensus, that opponents of the plan finally resorted to the only method they felt they could to counter the enormous financial power of the university:  filing a lawsuit in court.

In disputes as fraught, long-term, and high-stakes as this one, there is a real place for dispute systems designers and negotiation experts to play a role in the process.  Skillfully managing all the dynamics present in a complex negotiation – relationships, power and status differentials, interests – is a critical element of a durable and satisfactory resolution.  By designing collaborative ways for parties to engage with one another, over an extended yet structured period of time, third party neutrals can liberate the stakeholders to listen to one another without those stakeholders fearing that their own views are not being heard.  Dispute systems designers take on the task of designing a process that will be meaningful to all parties, allowing the parties themselves to think creatively about options.  Such processes rarely result in substantive outcomes that meet everyone’s interests perfectly, but they frequently lead to outcomes that everyone can buy into, at least in part because they can report that the process by which the outcome was achieved was inclusive and fair.

NYU and its opponents in the expansion have not missed their chance; there is still room for an effective process to now manage the transition from planning the expansion project to implementing it.  But engaging a negotiation expert will require a good-faith willingness from all parties to move forward constructively from the current situation – a willingness to promote healthy and meaningful dialogue that NYU, in particular, as an educational institution should champion.  Managed poorly, NYU’s “win” in court will truly be an empty one – a victory under the law, but a loss when measured by the bitterness and broken relationships left in its wake. 

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