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.”
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.