The U.S. Green Building Council awarded Columbia’s Manhattanville campus a LEED Platinum rating in Neighborhood Development last May, a decision that has drawn praise from school administrators and criticism from opponents of the expansion, who say the new campus will still do significant damage to the surrounding neighborhood.
Although LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the industry benchmark for measuring sustainable development in architecture and structural engineering, the neighborhood development component of the rating system is relatively new, beginning as a pilot program in 2007. The Manhattanville campus was the first project in New York City and the first campus in the country to receive a Platinum rating in the new category.
“The University is extremely proud to be in a position where, at the very beginning of the expansion in Manhattanville, we’re recognized for superior planning and campus design,” Philip Pitruzzello, the University’s vice president of Manhattanville Capital Construction, said.
The neighborhood development category rewards progress in urban planning. Still, critics of the expansion questioned how the sometimes David-versus-Goliath battle between neighborhood residents and the University could be representative of an achievement in urban planning.
Meeting the criteria
The evaluation process for LEED in Neighborhood Development revolves around four major criteria: location, neighborhood pattern and design, design process, and green infrastructure. In interviews last week, administrators said that while achieving LEED Platinum was never an explicit goal during the design process, notable features of the project fulfilled each of these four areas.
Joe Ienuso, executive vice president of facilities, said Manhattanville’s proximity to public transportation—including the existing infrastructure of the subway along Broadway and future ferry access on the Hudson River—made it an ideal location in terms of convenience and sustainability.
Ienuso also emphasized the openness of the campus, saying it will allow the free movement of students and local residents throughout the neighborhood. He said the goal was never to mimic the gated Morningside Heights campus, which he described as a “superblock” that acts as an obstacle for non-students living in the area.
“From the earliest moments, Manhattanville was never conceived of to have gates and walls,” Ienuso said. “It was always meant to complement the community and encourage free movement, and make it quite easy to move through the campus from east to west.”
Pitruzzello said that he hoped those living around the campus would not consider it solely a Columbia property, but also “a part of the neighborhood and a part of the city.”
In addition to working on making the campus more accessible, the University also worked closely with the Environmental Defense Fund, a national environmental advocacy group, to recycle the building materials from demolished structures. According to the USGBC, the combined effort managed to salvage roughly 90 percent of the waste materials from neighborhood buildings.
Although the University has taken a number of steps to ensure that every building on the campus will at least meet LEED Silver standards for green infrastructure, Ienuso pointed specifically to the construction of a new central energy plant for the entire campus, which would make energy consumption more efficient than if every building were to have a standalone energy source.
For Columbia, the LEED rating also affirms its efforts to show the neighborhood the benefits of the expansion. Apart from these measures—which have been built into the expansion’s design plan —Columbia is also responsible for fulfilling the promises made in the Community Benefits Agreement, which it signed with local leaders in 2009.
The CBA sets aside $76 million for Columbia to distribute to the community for housing, education, and job initiatives in Harlem over a 15-year period.
There from the start
In addition to receiving the Platinum rating, Columbia also participated in the pilot program that helped shape the guidelines of LEED’s Neighborhood Development program itself.
According to officials at the organization, the USGBC launched a pilot program in 2007 with the purpose of creating a LEED rating system that went beyond individual buildings. They hoped to devise a system that allowed them to rank larger developments and their impact on the surrounding communities.
“Instead of looking at the typical energy issues that we look at with specific buildings, this looks more at the community and the impact the development has on it,” said Tiffany Broyles Yost, a project manager at the New York chapter of the USGBC. “The purpose of the pilot project was to see what was really successful and what was actually leading to a more sustainable community as a whole.”
Lauren Yarmuth, a professor of construction administration at Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, said LEED Neighborhood Development was reflective of a larger trend toward community-oriented projects in urban planning and design.
“The general trend in terms of a lot of urban planning now and over the last 10 or 15 years has been to open things up and have a greater diversity of resources for things that are shared in the community,” said Yarmuth, who also works as the principal of YR&G, a New York-based sustainable design consultancy.
LEED’s Neighborhood Development program was established in 2009. In the intervening time, Columbia had worked with a number of other organizations, including environmental advocacy groups like the National Resources Defense Council, to help specify guidelines for the program. The process included a trip to Washington, D.C., where Columbia administrators helped to advise USGBC officials on developing the rating system.
Despite the University’s familiarity with LEED Neighborhood Development guidelines, Pitruzzello said the design process for the campus expansion was already too far along by 2007 to allow for any manipulation of the standards.
Yost agreed that it was unlikely Columbia’s work on the criteria made achieving a Platinum rating any easier.
“I don’t think it makes it necessarily more or less difficult to achieve, but I think it helps make the rating system more effective,” Yost said. “It’s not as if they were able to say, ‘Well, this part is really hard, so let’s just eliminate it.’”
Pitruzzello said the University’s participation in the program was indicative of an eagerness to get involved with the changing area of the sustainable engineering industry.
“Some would say, ‘It’s evolving, so let’s stay away from it,’” Pitruzzello said. “Columbia said, ‘It’s evolving, let’s get involved in it.’”
A holistic approach?
Despite assertions from Columbia administrators that the award represents a victory both for the University and for Manhattanville residents, some expansion opponents have questioned whether the LEED rating system can effectively assess the way in which the Manhattanville campus will affect the surrounding neighborhood. They argued that potential negative impacts to the community include consequences beyond the campus’s ecological footprint.
“If they have a system that says this is sound, there is a problem with the system,” Mindy Fullilove, professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, said. “Columbia has never been part of helping the community of Harlem. They’ve been mopping up the spoils.”
The construction of the Manhattanville campus is a result of a long history of gentrification in Harlem, Fullilove said, and the Manhattanville campus is a notable example of this wider problem. She pointed specifically to the neighborhood’s African-American community and said the campus expansion would serve only to displace a large number of these families.
Far from working to protect the environment, Fullilove argued that University expansions in urban environments would take up already exhausted natural resources.
“How do you expand without destroying the neighborhood?” she asked. “You can compare it to overfishing or overlogging. People will say we need to log—but there are no resources. You can’t overbuild universities. That’s obviously not ecologically sound.”
Nellie Bailey, co-founder and director of the Harlem Tenants Council, a neighborhood organization that intervenes on behalf of low-income families facing possible eviction, questioned whether the campus was truly open to Harlem residents despite its physical layout.
Tom Kappner, CC ’66 and a member of the anti-Manhattanville group Coalition to Preserve Community, echoed Bailey’s concerns. Kappner, who said he had seen Columbia radically gentrify Morningside Heights over the last 50 years, pointed to the construction of the Manhattanville campus, and its subsequent LEED rating, as a continuation of that trend in Harlem.
“The real impact is in the surrounding community. The landlords in that area see the opportunity for higher rents, the neighborhood gets transformed, and a mixed neighborhood becomes homogenized,” Kappner said. “I came to Columbia because I wanted to be living in New York City, not a campus.”