News | West Harlem

Columbia at a crossroads in M’ville

Five blocks from the northern parameters of Columbia’s campus, a nondescript construction site runs through 125th Street, creating a divide that extends beyond the street. Some in the neighborhood say the divide is making its way through the heart of the historic neighborhood itself.

The clutter of scaffolding, dirt, shoring, and black tarp marks the first phase of construction in Columbia’s proposed 17-acre campus expansion, a development which spans from 125th to 133rd streets between Broadway and the Hudson River­—if all goes according to plan for the University. Right now, Columbia remains at a crossroads in its project, as a bitter legal battle with two property owners in the expansion’s footprint has stalled the expansion from proceeding in earnest.

Though administrators have said that the remaining properties in the neighborhood are essential to Columbia’s vision of a new campus, the University’s project is not all that’s on the line at this stage.

Despite an effort from two property holdouts to take the battle to the U.S. Supreme Court, Columbia has continued to proceed with construction. Buildings have been abated and demolished, sidewalk bridges line the streets, and traffic has been rerouted in a slew of different directions—all before the eyes of local residents, watching their neighborhood on the brink of a transformation. So while this court battle has upped the ante of the project, many say that Columbia’s relationship with the neighborhood is also at stake.

A PR problem?

The University has long felt the backlash of local residents opposed to the expansion. Since 2003, when University President Lee Bollinger announced Columbia’s plans to build a new campus in Manhattanville, residents have protested on the streets, at community board meetings, and on Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, arguing that the school’s expansion would encroach on their homes and businesses, while driving property values through the roof.

Out of the protests arose a Community Benefits Agreement in 2004, a memorandum which details how funds for the neighborhood in the footprint of the expansion will be allocated. But despite the promises that the CBA seemed to offer, it became the source of much vitriol. Community Board 9—the local governing body of the neighborhood—nearly unanimously voted it down when it was first proposed, arguing that it did not go far enough in its efforts to provide jobs and other benefits for a community that they said would be negatively affected by the construction project.

“Issues of local job quality, access, distribution, and responsible agents must be negotiated up front, with ample specificity,” said Stacey Sutton, assistant professor of urban planning in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. “Otherwise it’s difficult to regulate accountability and ensure equitable access.”

GSAPP Professor Ward Verbakel echoed Sutton, saying that in the absence of carefully articulated ideas, substantive discussion between Columbia and the neighborhood is not possible.

“Neighborhood concerns is a tricky matter for this specific project, knowing that Columbia already controls most of the land and therefore is on both sides of the table,” Verbakel said. “Transparency in the process, of course, is key to establishing a serious exchange of ideas in which support is generated.”

Indeed, some have argued that Columbia’s failure to do this—to effectively articulate its community-oriented initiatives from the outset—speaks to their strained relationship with some local residents.

For GSAPP Professor Kaja Kuhl, who was the project manager for Columbia’s proposed expansion at the New York City Department of City Planning several years ago, much of this comes down to Columbia’s PR problem.

“I witnessed several occasions where Columbia’s leadership has shown clumsy diplomacy skills in developing a relationship of trust and cooperation in the community,” Kuhl said. “In one Community Board 9 meeting, President Bollinger said, ‘We all know that the community is much better off with Columbia University in the community.’ Yes, we all know that, but it would be great to hear community leaders perceive it this way and say it.”

She added, “The University’s neighborhood outreach program, which offers jobs, training, and an array of social services, is substantial, but at least during the four years I was involved in the project, the efforts were not well communicated.”

Reaching out

University administrators counter this assertion saying that Columbia has done all it can to keep local residents informed of the plans every step of the way. Columbia, officials say, provided several options for anyone interested in accessing construction-related information.

“Local residents request information on hours of construction,” Dan Held, a spokesperson for Columbia University Facilities, said in an email. “This information is prominent throughout the area, presented at Community Board 9, sent via our regular weekly communications, and can be accessed on our website.”

And when it comes down to developments that have a direct effect on local residents, such as street and traffic lane closures, administrators say that they make sure to inform everyone immediately.

“When they [street and lane closures] do need to happen, as per DOT [Department of Transportation] and/or DOB [Department of Buildings] requirements, we promptly notify the community of any closures and traffic pattern changes before they occur,” Held said.

Despite all the information that the University says it provides to local residents, some residents still remain clueless about the purpose of the project.

“I see the construction all the time, but I don’t know what it is,” West Harlem resident Jazz Nong said.

“I don’t really know anything about this,” Upper West Side resident Joan Hawkins, passing through the neighborhood, added.

And for those who do have some understanding of these recent developments, the hindrances of rerouted streets and bus stop relocations has become commonplace.

“It’s crazy,” West Harlem resident Kayla Mann said. “There’s no parking since they tore down lots and there’s way more traffic.”

A different view

Local residents are far from united in their opposition to the University’s plans for expansion. In fact, the recently inaugurated Community Board 9 chair, Larry English, asserted his total support for the project—defying the longstanding resistance to the expansion from people within the ranks of his own board.

“Community Board 9 and West Harlem have two options: They can lay in front of the bulldozer or they can join Columbia in a partnership,” English said. “Their concerns are legitimate, they fought a valiant fight for four years, but when the appellate court ruled that Columbia can build the project, that fight is over with,” he said, referring to a recent Court of Appeals decision approving the use of eminent domain for the remaining property holdouts.

For English, the new campus is absolutely necessary for the neighborhood’s economic and social growth.

“In West Harlem right now and in Harlem in general, there is not a vibrant, entrepreneurial, economic class, and that is crucial to everyone living in West Harlem,” English said.

Finn Vigeland contributed reporting.

kim.kirschenbaum@columbiaspectator.com

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CU_Alum posted on

"...a bitter legal battle with two property owners in the expansion’s footprint has stalled the expansion from proceeding in earnest."

This statement implies that the project would be further along by now if those two owners weren't resisting. Is there evidence to support this claim? The neuroscience building is already going up, which seems pretty earnest to me. Do we know if other buildings would now be under construction (or finished) but for the lawsuits? Money seems a more likely explanation for any delays, at least for construction on parcels the university already owns.

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Anonymous posted on

I don't see any evidence that the neuroscience building IS going up. I assume they'd need to start digging the foundation, but there is no sign of a hole. A more significant indication of a delay caused by the holdouts is the fact that the building just east of the Tuck-It-Away building is shrouded and scaffolded (I assume for the purposes of asbestos abatement) but demolition on it has not yet started. Columbia might be waiting until the Supreme Court appeal is resolved before starting that part of the process (the idea is that it would be simpler to pull down the one that they already own if they don't have to worry about damaging the Sprayregen building.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, I noticed that they've set their docket for the upcoming session:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10...

Doesn't mention anything about the eminent domains issued raised in this case. Does that mean the appeal is over? Any court scholars able to comment on this? Thanks.

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CU_Alum posted on

The Supreme Court considers thousands of petitions every year but usually agrees to hear less than 100 cases. That process goes on year round. The docket you cite is a work in progress; it reflects only the cases the Court has accepted thus far. It will process more petitions as the term goes on. The Court has not ruled on this petition yet.

I may be wrong about the status of the neuroscience building, but I believe I saw photos of the excavation a few weeks ago.

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Anonymous posted on

Thanks for the info. I look at the site almost every day, off of the 1 train platform. They are digging holes for the utility lines in the street, but nothing in the area of where the building will be. I'm sure that will happen as soon as the construction schedule allows, though. I know that President Bollinger said there were legal impediments to that processs...

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Anonymous posted on

...check that..."NO legal impediments"...

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Anonymous posted on

Yes. The bathtub would have been started far earlier if these two owners weren't resisting. MBB needs the bathtub to work.

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CU_Alum posted on

As I understand it, the bathtub was always intended to be built incrementally. Each underground section was to be built along with the building above, except for the sections that will be underneath open space. Your comment suggests that at least some underground portions were to be built first, with the buildings above added later. Do you have evidence of this plan? Columbia has said it does not plan to demolish buildings until it is ready to replace them; I took that to mean replace them with something on the surface, but I may have been mistaken.

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Anonymous posted on

“In West Harlem right now and in Harlem in general, there is not a vibrant, entrepreneurial, economic class, and that is crucial to everyone living in West Harlem,” English said.

And the Manhattanville campus will create Black and Hispanic entrepreneurial opportunities? English is naive. Columbia will devour this neighborhood and there won't be but a scant few of the current residents remaining in 20 years. The neighborhood will be vibrant in the same sort of way Broadway and Amsterdam between 110th and 116th streets are vibrant. That neighborhood had a substantial Black and Hispanic presence in the 1950s until Columbia began buying up all the residential properties. Do you see see a Black and Hispanic entrepreneurial and economic class in Morningside Heights? I don't. I see Black and Hispanic clerks, security guards and maintenance workers.

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Anonymous posted on

And the point here is?

There is nothing inherently wrong with neighborhoods changing. In this particular area, Native Americans were replaced by the Dutch, who were replaced by the English, who were replaced by individuals born in the Colonies... who were replaced by immigrants from all over the world...

There is no right for any group to claim any part of Manhattan as their own, until the end of time.

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Anonymous posted on

The Executive Committee of Community Board 9 unanimously rejected the final Community Benefits Agreement. Columbia's proposed expansion will not result in benefits to the community. It will in effect create a company town in which every penny spent in the expansion area will ultimately flow into the University coffers. Bollinger now says it will take 50 years to complete and cost $10 billion dollars. Under the 197A land use plan created by CB9 with substantial input from the community, jobs and housing would have been preserved and more jobs suitable for the community created. Instead the University had to "have it all" but now has no idea how it will use it all or pay for it all. It's pure real estate spectulation.

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