Columbia's Other Drama
New York Sun Editorial
With all the focus on President Ahmadinejad's recent visit to Columbia, the other drama on Morningside Heights has taken a lower profile — the contest over whether the university is going to be able to expand its footprint into Harlem. The expansion would make Columbia a world scale university and seal its place as one of the city's crown jewels, but the university's refusal to rule out asking the city or state to use eminent domain to clear the way for its expansion has made a lot of us wonder whether it's worth the price in terms of the potential damage to property rights in Manhattan.
We have nothing against Columbia; despite our differences with some individual professors and policies of the institution we think the institution is a net asset to the city. Its decision to expand in New York is a good thing. But nothing in Columbia's history, the current New York real estate market, or the broader landscape of American higher education supports the idea that the condemnation power of the state is necessary to do what Columbia, a multi-billion-dollar privately owned institution serving private interests, wants.
Feature the example of Harvard University. It quietly assembled 200 acres in Allston across the Charles River from its main campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Instead of throwing around its corporate weight by announcing a big expansion plan before it had actually acquired the property, Harvard waited until it had bought the property before making a big announcement of its plans. While Boston isn't in Manhattan's league in terms of density and real estate values, it's not Ithaca, either. If Columbia's trustees — or its management — had been as market-savvy as Harvard's leadership, eminent domain would be a non-issue, because the land would have already been acquired.
Columbia's defenders argue that Manhattan is so unlike Boston or anywhere else that it is virtually impossible to come up with a large parcel of land without using the condemnation power of the state. Too bad they didn't have Sheldon Solow on their board. Columbia's expansion plan is for 6.8 million square feet on 17 acres in Harlem. Mr. Solow, a famed developer of high quality properties, has assembled a parcel of 8.7 acres on Manhattan's East Side — a far more desirable location — on which he plans 6 million square feet of development.
New York University has a profile similar to Columbia's — a major American research university situated in Manhattan, with an undergraduate college, a law school, a medical school and a business school. As anyone who lives in Greenwich Village knows, NYU has been snapping up real estate, and plans to buy and build even more. It has clashed with neighbors over issues of scale and historic preservation, but it has never, so far as we can tell, resorted to eminent domain or even the threat of it. Rather than leveling the East Village for a new science campus, it is in talks on a merger with Polytechnic University in Brooklyn.
For Columbia, with its roughly $6 billion endowment, to bewail the city's high land costs and despair of buying Manhattan property on the open market is an ironical turn. As a professor at Barnard, Robert McCaughey, noted in his 2003 history, "Stand Columbia," in 1850 "well over half the College's total operating budget" was "covered by income from property rentals," and the university's financial turnaround for the better in the late 19th century "was the derived consequence of the rising property values of New York City, plain and simple."
To the extent Columbia has been lagging in the sciences, it was partly a consequence of the university's attitude against Department of Defense-sponsored research in the Vietnam era, work that brought great wealth through patents and other income to some of Columbia's competitors (and also, not so incidentally, helped America win the Cold War). Why should the Harlem property owners of today be forced to bail out Columbia for not being able to control the violent anti-war protests of its students in the 1960s and 1970s?
As the McCaughey book describes, Columbia has relocated in its history, from its original campus on Park Place downtown in what is now the financial district, to a 40-year "temporary site" on 49th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, to the Morningside Heights Campus, where Columbia has been only since 1897. While the 49th Street campus was land that came from the State of New York, the state didn't seize it by condemnation; it bought it at a market-clearing price. It's a principle that deserves no less respect from Columbia today.