Sunday, May 14, 2006

Expansion and its Discontents - Getting along in the lack-of-space age.

Expansion and its Discontents

Getting along in the lack-of-space age.

From the moment President Lee C. Bollinger stepped up to the podium to deliver his inaugural address on October 3, 2002, one thing was clear: the man had a vision.

"Whether we expand on the property we already own on Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, or Washington Heights, or whether we pursue a design of multiple campuses in the city, or beyond, is one of the most important questions we will face in the years ahead," Bollinger told the crowd, graced by Mayor Bloomberg, former mayor David Dinkins, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Though this was his third inauguration in a decade, President Bollinger's welcome at Columbia had a different twist. According to former Dean of Students Roger Lehecka, a member of the presidential search committee, the 19th president of Columbia was chosen for more than just an ability to keep the university afloat.

Columbia had largely recovered from its slump of the seventies and eighties. For its next leader, the search committee wanted someone who could launch the university to global prominence. "There was a sense that the university�needed someone who could push the university forward," Lehecka said.

Since then, President Bollinger has dedicated himself to turning Columbia into an international academic powerhouse. In the last four years, he's secured economics icon Joseph Stiglitz and sustainable development superstar Jeffrey Sachs, whose Earth Institute now runs 437 projects across the world. He raided other economics departments to pack Columbia's, and put on a World Leaders Forum that brings presidents and prime ministers to Low Rotunda. He travels to Asia several times a year to recruit top students, and launched the loftily named Committee on Global Thought to grapple with the world's biggest problems. In an October 2003 Wall Street Journal op-ed Bollinger asked, "where are universities going?" His answer: "I would point to the growing internationalization of our universities."

Bollinger argues that in order to remain a top-tier university, Columbia, with only 194 square feet per student, needs access to the kind of space available to Harvard (368 square feet per student) or the University of Pennsylvania (440 square feet per student).

This is nothing new: Columbia has been looking for more space since it moved uptown 115 years ago. But expansion did take on new meaning under his leadership. Every president needs a legacy; to create his own, Bollinger needs Manhattanville.

Bollinger's grand expansion vision was only part of the square footage problem at Columbia. The University has more immediate space crunches to worry about.

Scientists in the chemistry and biology departments have said that limited lab space has made it difficult to lure top young professors to their departments. Columbia don't offer as much lab space as universities like California Institute of Technology, which just opened a new laboratory complex.

English Department associate professors share offices. Business school administrators have trouble finding space for guest lecturers. And the entire facilities department is crammed into a rabbit warren of offices in the basement of East Campus.

Former provost and University Professor Jonathan Cole wrote in an email that he, among others, had lobbied the university to expand before Bollinger arrived, giving the Trustees a full presentation "a couple of years" before the new President reached Columbia. The expansion "is critically important for the continued greatness of Columbia University," Cole wrote. "I do strongly support President Bollinger's efforts to create a new, exciting campus, with full community involvement, at the Manhattanville site."

Columbia had outgrown its 19th-century confines, and claustrophobia forced the trustees into action. Sparsely populated and only a ten-minute walk from campus, Manhattanville�the 17-acre slice of Harlem between 125th and 133rd street from Broadway to the Hudson�seemed like an obvious solution. In 1999, the Trustees began buying up land. Four years later Columbia owned 40 percent of the footprint, with plans to purchase 32 percent more.

Bollinger took that start and ran with it. In the months following his hiring, Low Library assembled a crack team of current administrators and new hires dedicated to creating a strategy for expansion.

In March 2002, President-elect Bollinger created the new position of Senior Executive Vice President for Robert Kasdin, his friend and right-hand man from Michigan, who became the project's point man. Emily Lloyd, who served as previous president George Rupp's Senior Vice President for Administration (and right hand woman) for eight years, was made Vice President for Government and Community Affairs, the plan's public face. The university began working with the City Planning Commission to rezone the area and make room for a range of residential, research, and educational facilities rather than just light industry.

The land acquisition effort continued, as Columbia approached businesses and landowners in an effort to purchase their land. Building by building, Manhattanville landlords sold to Columbia. Details of this process, however, are untraceable: each seller signs a non-disclosure agreement, prohibiting them from divulging the selling price or terms of the contract at any time to anyone. No sale documents appear on the city's online repository of public records after 2002. For all appearances, the transactions may as well have never happened.

Some have accused Columbia of resorting to less benevolent means of persuasion. One automobile shop owner with a lease in a Columbia-owned building said the university threatened shut to off the elevator he uses to move cars up and down for repairs. Without it, the business couldn't operate. Columbia said the decision to turn off the elevator was based solely on their assessment of safety within the building. "The elevator was in poor condition," a university spokesperson said, noting that the university was committed to ensuring the safety of each resident and tenant.

Columbia currently owns about 80 percent of the land it needs, and still has one more tool at its disposal: eminent domain, the state's power to forcibly take private property for public use. A 2005 Spectator Freedom of Information Act request revealed that Columbia had paid the Empire State Development Corporation, a semi-public entity, $300,000 to research the use of legal land appropriation in Manhattanville. The University said it will not take eminent domain off the table, but that it will only use it as a last resort.

With land acquisition proceeding briskly, the university began to conceptualize how to get and spend the seven billion dollars�the projected cost of the new campus (and three billion more than the university's current endowment). In February 2003, Bollinger retained the 1998 Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Renzo Piano, who has designed projects from Italy to Australia, to put his vision on paper.

In fine Modernist form, his campus resembles Lerner Hall on speed: 14 new buildings constructed around an open courtyard, an extravaganza of glass and steel that stands in stark contrast to the surrounding architecture. It will house the new, $200 million Center for Mind, Brain, and Behavior headed by Nobel Prize winners Robert Axel and Eric Kandel, as well as the School of the Arts, faculty and student housing, and additional space for other departments. It will not, as many community activists continue to allege, include a high-level biotech facility. Though the level three center will include research on live HIV and other deadly diseases, the procedures will be similar to those performed at NYU's hospital downtown. It will also not include the 150 or so families who still call Manhattanville home.

With the land in its sights and a design in to match, the expansion team now needed to convince the community that Manhattanville is a Good Idea. On April 20, 2004, Bollinger and a group of administrators strode down to Community Board Nine, one of the 12 local representative bodies around the city that deal with issues ranging from potholes to renters rights, to make its case for becoming Manhattanville's primary resident. "Our area of Manhattanville is better off for Columbia being here," Bollinger said at the meeting. "This is our home, this is where we want to be. We want to grow with the communities in this area."

Bollinger has said that he will only expand if he can have everything.

"If we cannot really have the opportunity to develop the entire site, then we won't do it at all. It's really that important I think," he told Spectator two years ago-�and the business-oriented Mayor's office seemed inclined to give it to him.

But despite the posters and PowerPoint, Columbia failed to sell the community board's 39 members on its project. Community members, skeptical and often angry, complained about building height, size, and the potential for design blunders. A central concern emerged: the expansion might be good for Columbia, and maybe even for the world�but what would it do for Manhattanville?

A ripple of trouble surfaced when Lloyd, well liked by residents but rumored to have been increasingly marginalized in the Columbia boardroom, retired in June 2004. In February 2005, she was appointed commissioner of New York City's Department of Environmental Protection. Her departure marked the end of an era of trust within the neighborhood. "Emily Lloyd had gained the confidence of the community," said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chair of Community Board 9, at the time. "for the last year or so, the whole system undermined what Emily Lloyd did."

Fourteen months later, after her replacement Loretta Ucelli jumped ship to become a Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications at Pfizer, the university found its new face in Maxine Griffith. Her resum� seemed written for the job: African American, Harlem born and raised, and a former Executive Director of the Philadelphia Planning Commission, Griffith would be the perfect ambassador.

Griffith would need every skill she had gained over a life spent in public service and community planning to reassure the neighborhood. Several groups had been created to oppose the expansion. And, on top of the public nervousness created by eminent domain, fear of a biotech center quickly made enemies out of those on the fence.

Soon after Columbia's announcement, CB9 released and unanimously approved an alternate proposal: the 197a plan. The body had been working on a development plan for 14 years, but with the support of the Pratt Center for Community Development and an infusion of cash from the city, it finished the 98-page document six months after Columbia revealed its designs. The 197a plan, which covers the area from 110th Street to 155th Street west of Morningside Drive and St. Nicholas Park, has little in common with Columbia's plan (197c). It consists of broad recommendations for the entire district (not just Manhattanville), and calls for more sports fields, farmer's markets, historically preserved buildings, and improved public transportation. Should its zoning recommendations be adopted, Renzo Piano's glassy, steely vision would be impossible; the Manhattanville campus would resemble something more like the low profile of New York University, with affordable housing and local businesses interspersed between academic buildings.

CB9's 197a plan passed the City Planning Commission's "threshold review" in late October 2005, meaning that in future deliberations the Commission and the city council will consider 197a and 197c side by side, giving CB9 a fighting chance. 197a's success has given Manhattanville's diverse constituencies a basis for collective action.

With a handful of businesses refusing to sell, Low Library's determination had engendered more distrust than anticipation.

As one of the last remaining areas zoned for light industry in the city, Manhattanville at first appears to consist of little more than a few industrial plants. Unlike Morningside Heights, the area has few residents and harbors factories and autoshops instead of caf�s and boutiques. In several public statements, Bollinger has cast Manhattanville as dormant and unproductive: "There are very few people who live there," Bollinger told a meeting of the Columbia College Student Council in December 2005. "It is a very distressed community in many ways."

People who work there say they couldn't do business anywhere else. Anne Whitman, owner of Hudson Moving and Storage, has been in the neighborhood for the past 30 years, ever since she learned the business from her father. The nearby Harlem Piers allow her easy access to all five boroughs, an asset to her clientele (mostly artists transporting work). Having so far weathered Columbia's onslaught of land purchasing, she says the location is a key to her success, and has no intention of giving it up.

The autoshops need space and proximity to major roadways. Amrik Singh, who manages a car wash and gas station on 125th and Riverside, says his boss bought the land soon after he first started the business in 1971, and isn't planning on moving. "Columbia bought a lot of places. So many people over here now, they no like to sell, but we tell so many times, we no like to sell," he said. Singh has been working at the car wash for the last ten years, along with six other employees. "This place give food to a lot of people," he said, his meaning crystal clear despite his stilted English.

Maritta Dunn, former chair of CB9 and current head of the Manhattan Area Consortium of Businesses, is something of a spokesperson for Manhattanville's holdouts: she's attacked Columbia's expansion in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous smaller publications. For Dunn, who works with area businesses, coordinating within the community is very much about protecting against the most immediate threat: eminent domain, which would render all objections moot. "Every property owner has the right to sell or stay [but the government] should not take someone's property to give it to a private entity," she said firmly. "That is the way they joined, that is the way it should remain."

For residents, the stakes are equally high. In the case of eminent domain, the city is required to provide relocation benefits, and Columbia has promised to help residents regardless. Some may very well choose to take the cash and leave for better opportunities�but since the city keeps no records on those who leave condemned areas, there's no way of knowing how they fare. Certainly, leaving a long-term rent-controlled apartment for the open market bodes ill for these potential urban refugees.

And to those who've gotten used to the geography of a neighborhood, the shift can prove difficult. "The disruption in peoples' lives is not quantifiable in terms of financial benefits," said Hunter College City Planning Professor Tom Angotti. "They [developers] can take out a checkbook and write a check, but they're not necessarily covering the social cost."

Assuming they are not just holding out for a high enough offer, Whitman and her coalition may prove the true obstacle to expansion. Bollinger's vision, contingent on having free reign to rebuild, is vulnerable to a few stubborn outposts. "I'm suspicious of anyone who purports to represent any whole community," cautioned longtime neighborhood resident and local historian Eric Washington, who noted that Manhattanville has always been a neighborhood of diverse concerns, "never predominantly anything."

For some expansion opponents, the story begins, like all good tales of anti-Columbia activism, with 1968�the year that students locked themselves in Low and barricaded Hamilton Hall until the university agreed not to build a gym in Morningside Park.

Tom Kappner, C '66, an immigrant from Peru, fell in love with Morningside Heights when he came to Columbia in 1962. After graduating, he decided to rent an apartment on 123rd Street off Broadway. When the university tried to take over his building a couple years later, he organized his block to fight the prospective landlord. And he won, thanks in a large part to the protests.

Kappner said he has been protecting himself and his friends from Columbia ever since. With the help of fellow community activist Tom DeMott, he stepped up his efforts and formed the anti-expansion Coalition to Preserve Community in 2003.

There is no typical member of the 150-person strong CPC. Some are residents and businessowners in Manhattanville. Others live in Morningside Heights. Meetings are filled with middle-class white professionals, immigrants working construction jobs, and errant children. Every speech is interrupted periodically for Spanish translations.

Like CB9, they support the 197a plan, and for Columbia to take eminent domain off the table and provide affordable housing. But the CPC stakes out more ground than its municipal counterpart. They're frustrated with Columbia's tactics, cold exterior, and inability to be a good neighbor. The university is "creating their own world there, and that world will keep us out, that world will keep us excluded," De Mott boomed at a recent meeting.

Nellie Bailey, president of the Harlem Tenants Council and member of the CPC, is defensive about her opposition to Columbia. "It isn't that we are against the university," she said. "We understand Columbia has needs...but I don't accept that they have to expand here."

Dhiren Patel, the white-coated owner of Hamilton Pharmacy at Broadway and 133rd, wants the same thing: a good neighbor. He opened his business two years ago, serves a mostly Hispanic clientele, and employs five local residents. He knows that his landlord has been propositioned by Columbia, but doesn't lose sleep over it: he holds a ten-year lease, which he thinks will protect him from university encroachment. "It's about our survival," he said. "As long as Columbia is not putting pressure on the business community, it's no problem."

Patel doesn't mind Columbia itself. He mused that some development might even be good for business, and living next door to an Ivy League university does have its perks. Columbia provides free health care in five neighborhood public schools, offers legal aid programs, recently opened an employment information center on 125th Street, supports arts organizations�the list goes on. And while community members suspect that some of these efforts are just PR moves�like the new science magnet school slated for the Manhattanville campus, which will serve faculty children as well as some from the neighborhood�the benefits are real.

If anyone could be an effective lobby against expansion, it's students: they do pay the bills, after all. At Columbia, where everyone is a at least a little bit liberal, the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification�founded two years ago to lobby for inclusion of the community's plan�shouldn't have too hard a time finding a sympathetic audience.

But though SCEG leaders turn up at every meeting and obsessively follow the administration's actions, they have been unable to craft a resonant message. A Spectator poll of 400 undergraduates conducted in September 2005 reported that 51 percent of students support Bollinger's claim that the university needs "significantly more space" in order to remain a world-class institution.

It's a difficult agenda to sell. Students are only here for four years. While on campus, they would like the academics to be top-notch. After they graduate, they'd like their degrees to have some value, which means that they'd like Columbia to be mentioned in the same breath as Stanford and Yale. If the university needs more space to stay on that list, it's hard to oppose expansion.

Most students don't even know what Manhattanville is about�many haven't even ventured above 125th Street. The same Spectator poll revealed a telling ignorance: 70 percent said they know "nothing" or "a little" about Columbia's expansion plans; 51 percent hadn't heard of eminent domain.

SCEG's lackluster appeal may be the result of a disconnect between theory and real-world pragmatism. For these college activists, the storyline of a corporate behemoth oppressing poor minorities motivates action. They tie Columbia's desire to build in West Harlem to campus issues like the slow response to hate crimes and an underfunded ethnic studies department. It's a global struggle, and they would fight it anywhere. Right now, it just happens to be playing out on the streets of Manhattanville.

"Myths we tell ourselves, these hegemonic myths...'capitalism and the free market are going to take care of everything,'" said SCEG leader Nell Geiser, C '06, who has been fighting expansion since she was a first-year. "If we're not being willing to take apart those stories, then we don't know how to engage with the world."

Even with education, there's no guarantee that students will fall in line with SCEG. Martha Norrick, B '07, who was recently appointed to a two-year term on CB9 as the body's only university student, is still undecided on the expansion. "The more I learn about this, the more I learn that what I don't know outweighs what I do know," said Norrick, noting that the university has not done a very good job of disseminating information.

"The truth is always in the middle. There has to be some sort of compromise," she finished. "I don't feel that I have a platform, that I can stand up and say, this is what I think."

By December 2005, the university had taken firm steps towards a rezone that would allow for construction of a new campus. In November, officials released an Environmental Impact Statement providing a detailed analysis of what potential problems may arise from the zoning changes. They hope to push the plan through the Uniform Land Use Review Process by the end of this year. ULURP allows different public officials and agencies of the city government can evaluate and comment on Columbia's proposal. If all goes according to plan, the University will completely develop its new campus within 30 years.

Finally, Columbia and a local development corporation formed by the community will wrangle over a Community Benefits Agreement, which would bind Columbia into providing certain perks, like affordable housing and programming in neighborhood public schools.

Columbia now has very little else to do but wait: for ULURP, for the Environmental Impact Statement, for the city to determine which plan is better: 197a or 197c.

Columbia's plans are perhaps most remarkable not for what they include, but for what they leave out. Though professors have pledged to end poverty by 2025, cure Alzheimer's, and stop global warming, Columbia has yet to convince the community that their move uptown will make life better for the community.

Community members have highlighted the challenge of Columbia's message. A recent protest outside the Broadway gates in late April drew upwards of 50 students and community members sporting biohazard t-shirts, chanting and waving signs. Their slogans left no room for interpretation. Fuera Columbia, one read, in big red letters. Get out, Columbia.

Flanked by police, the flock of protesters moved up to Low steps, and Nellie Bailey took the microphone. "We have had a successful day!" she cried to the crowd. "Today represents just the beginning of the days of opposition and the days of rage!"

She built into a crescendo, tying Columbia's rhetoric to her personal experience. "You want to end AIDS in Africa? It defines your compassion and your liberalism. But we want you to show your liberalism and compassion to your fellow community that lives five blocks away from you!"

�Amanda Erickson and Lydia Depillis

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