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November 16, 2007, 10:33 am
When the Gown Devours the Town
By Sewell Chan
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Are universities gobbling up New York City?
Town-gown disputes have flared recently at such diverse schools as Columbia University (where hunger-striking students are protesting a campus expansion in Harlem), New York University (which is steadily developing more and more of Greenwich Village) and even Queens College (which is building its first dormitory).
Some critics — like Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute — say that as universities and hospitals have emerged as some of the city’s biggest builders and landowners, they have built huge developments that do not necessarily conform with the streetscape.
A panel discussion organized by the Municipal Art Society tackled this subject last week: “When the Big Get Bigger: New York’s Universities and Their Neighborhoods.” James Traub, a contributing writer for The Times Magazine, moderated. The discussion was contentious at times; at one point, a man tried to interrupt Lee C. Bollinger, the Columbia president, as he was speaking. The discussion, held on the evening of Nov. 6 at Rockefeller University, was part of the society’s exhibition “Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York,” on view until January.
Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation and the author of a new book, “The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets,” based on her experience as president of the University of Pennsylvania, was the first speaker.
Dr. Rodin argued that universities play a critical role in cities as engines of economic development and as major employers. Sadly, she added, “in the name of redevelopment,” universities have often contributed to “the destruction of the neighborhoods around them.” She added, “This was extremely true of the University of Pennsylvania and it was true for many in the era of the ’60s and ’70s when there was a lot of urban renewal money and universities used that to benefit their own expansion.”
Universities have “a lot of great potential” to be partners with cities, but too often are more like “the 4,000-pound gorillas, exercising their interests in a way that isn’t always neighborhood-friendly.” Finally, Dr. Rodin suggested that universities should engage with their communities as part of their responsibility to train responsible citizens.
Mr. Bollinger, of Columbia, spoke next. He recalled attending Columbia Law School in 1968, the year that the university was wracked by tumultuous student protests over the Vietnam War and Columbia’s plans to construct a gymnasium in Morningside Park.
Mr. Bollinger described that moment as, in some ways, “a flash point in the collision” between the visions of Robert Moses, who was known for his disregard of citizen participation, and Jane Jacobs, a defender of varied, diverse neighborhoods with a mixture of scale and uses.
“When I returned to Columbia as president just a little over five years ago,” Mr. Bollinger said, “I knew that Columbia had to expand and had to grow really significantly.”
Columbia’s history began in Lower Manhattan, and a century ago the school moved from Midtown to Morningside Heights, before the creation of “the modern American university,” as Mr. Bollinger put it. By the 1970s and ’80s, Columbia had “really used up” its original campus area and was “under intense pressure to find new space.”
Instead of building new university facilities, in Midtown or the suburbs, “my decision very deliberately was to try to grow within” Morningside Heights, Mr. Bollinger said.
There are many issues that we face. One of them is the so-called problem of
gentrification. And the point that I will want to make in the discussion is that
of all the institutions that can help deal with the problem of gentrification —
however one wants to define that — universities are really critically important
as a solution to that, and not really as a contributing cause.
He continued, “As long as we can do this kind of growth in the right ways, with the right interests of the neighborhood taken into account, it should be a great thing for everyone.”
Hilary Ballon, an architectural historian at New York University who organized a major retrospective on Moses this year, spoke about the role universities played in the urban renewal program that began with the federal Housing Act of 1949. She said:
In thinking about the conflicts between universities and their
neighborhoods we unduly narrow the frame, because the most powerful force in the
shaping of our neighborhoods and our urban fabric is the private sector, is
private development, and universities are playing a moderating role in
relationship to the effects that private developers have on our cities.
Urban renewal began with the expectation that the private sector would take the initiative, but by the 1950s, Moses and others had “stretched the framework of urban renewal” to allow universities to expand. Perhaps the best example, Dr. Ballon said, was Morningside Gardens, a limited-equity cooperative just north of Columbia’s campus. Since its creation, it has been a racially integrated, middle-class development.
Kent L. Barwick, the outgoing president of the Municipal Art Society and an expert on urban planning and historic preservation, said that university-community relations in New York City were at a critical period. “The balance between town and gown, and the implications for each have shifted and I think brought us to a new uncomfortable, potentially perilous and potentially promising place,” he said.
Mr. Barwick spoke of the role of the government in regulating development. “We’re in an era where the best role of government is often thought to be not to get in the way of anything,” he said, adding that the Bloomberg administration “did come late to the notion that it had some responsibility for protecting communities” from growth.
With multinational companies engaged in work all over the world, the era of corporate New York-centered philanthropy — embodied by David Rockefeller, the real estate scion and leader of Chase Manhattan Bank — has largely passed, Mr. Barwick said. Interestingly, universities and hospitals are in some ways now the institutions most wedded to their communities; they lack the mobility that, say, finance and insurance firms have.
Despite the best intentions, universities and hospitals often “have inadvertently and without malice deadened the neighborhoods around them,” Mr. Barwick said.
“Universities today have the capacity today to use great powers, even the powers of the state, and the lesson of the use of great power is: The greater the power, the greater the necessity of restraint,” Mr. Barwick said, adding, “The streets of New York are littered with great visions that didn’t get built.”
Mr. Traub asked whether universities, as places of learning, should be held to a higher standard than other entities that own land and buildings.
Mr. Bollinger agreed. “I think the answer is yes, and I think it’s welcomed by people,” he said. “Universities have a mission to perform, and the mission is to take the knowledge that we’ve inherited and to try to carry it forward, generation by generation, and to try to add what we can to that body of knowledge.”
Mr. Traub asked Dr. Rodin about the University of Pennsylvania’s experience. Dr. Rodin said of her book: “It is a case study, it is not a prescription. Every institution really needs to understand what its own opportunities are, what its resources are and how deeply they are able to be engaged in this work.” In Penn’s case, the university ultimately spent or obtained hundreds of millions of dollars for programs to improve public safety, support retailers and other small businesses, build housing and improve public schools.
“I have to be candid,” Dr. Rodin said. “There were many times in which faculty legitimately said to me during this process: ‘Why are you building a supermarket? We need five more positions in the English Department.’ And that is a very real and very honest tension within.”
Dr. Rodin said that no university can ever satisfy all its neighbors. “It is never a process that will please all of the people all of the time,” she said, adding: “It takes patience, transparency, continuing collaboration, but it is not work that will ever reach deep consensus, because there is no one ‘the community.’ There is no one ‘the neighborhood.’”
Mr. Bollinger addressed Columbia’s historic relationship with its neighborhood, noting the advantages and disadvantages of having a campus:
It does have walls. It’s built so that it faces inwards, and it has gates. When
you think about building your new campus in today’s world, which is what we’re
really trying, to imagine, you cannot possibly build a campus like that today.
The street have to be open, the buildings have to be set back, and the ground
floor on major streets has to have retail and it has to be welcoming to people.
On the other hand, there is enormous value in having a campus and not just a
series of buildings.
Mr. Barwick, however, noted that Columbia was often seen as an irresponsible landlord that “contributed to an absence of diversity in the neighborhoods surrounding it.”
Ms. Ballon, returning to Dr. Rodin’s idea, noted that there is never a single “community” and that any land development project by a university — including the so-called community benefits agreement that often accompanies such a project — inevitably helps certain people and not others.
Mr. Bollinger offered a more specific defense of Columbia’s plan to expand into Harlem, arguing that the area of expansion would be greatly improved by new scientific and research plants. He said:
The place where we’re planning to build a new campus has lost jobs, has
been a declining area, economically, for several decades. It used to manufacture
pasteurized milk. It used to manufacture Studebakers. It doesn’t do that. I can
guarantee you that the Studebaker building will never be used to manufacture
Studebakers again. This is a process that has been going on for several decades.
Many people have tried to plan for the area. Plans have come and gone. The issue
for me is how do you create that sense of life — on the ground, in the area,
with all the magic that goes with people feeling, “I really love to be here.”
That’s incredibly hard to do. I don’t know of any formula to do that.
Later, he added the need to place university buildings in proximity, citing the advantages of a physical campus and the design by Renzo Piano and Marilyn Taylor, which would create a large underground space for trucks while allowing views through the ground floors of the new buildings, which will be sheathed in glass and allow users to see the Hudson River. Mr. Bollinger reiterated his position that the university would not use eminent domain to remove any individuals from their homes, but he did not rule eminent domain for other purposes.
Several audience members asked critical questions of Mr. Bollinger. One asked about the diversity of Columbia’s staff and student body. Another said that campuses create “a very deadly and unsafe space” when they are closed to their surrounding neighborhoods.
Columbia was the main target of ire, but not the only one. Mr. Barwick, speaking about New York University, said its spread-out campus, dispersed throughout Greenwich Village, is less physically imposing than Columbia’s. But he added, “Obviously, over time, if N.Y.U. continues to expand, as the great institution it is, it will reduce the diversity” of the surrounding neighborhood.
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14 comments so far...
1. November 16th,200711:09 am
As an East Villager, I can attest that NYU is bulldozing this area block by block. They recently acknowledged that their mega-dorm tower on 12th Street is too tall for the neighborhood. Associate VP of community affairs, Alicia Hurley, told Washington Square News:
“We were disappointed with our own performance and our own inability to lower the height of the building, at the end of the day,” she said. “But we learned a lot of lessons from the dialogue around the Twelfth Street dorm that we think we are now reflected in our planning process and, in general, how and when we engage the community.”
The dorm is now the tallest building in the neighborhood and it decapitated St. Ann’s Church:
— Posted by vanishingNY
2. November 16th,200711:26 am
I think it is great that the city continues to evolve and that includes expansions by universities and companies. In 50 years, there will be another small group of stagnant people protesting that a new development is infringing on the character of the old NYU dorm which once was the tallest building in the East Village.
— Posted by Rand
3. November 16th,200711:42 am
I’m a bit lost. Why are people so anti-Columbia? Its campus is one of the most beautiful, special places in New York, a place I — despite not having ever studied there — take friends from out of town, and a place where I as an outsider feel surprisingly welcome.
Regarding the university’s Harlem expansion — I don’t see why this has become such a target of rage. Isn’t it a positive development when a blighted, nearly abandoned old industrial zone is reclaimed, populated with sparkling new buildings, shopping areas, cafes and even millions of dollars in affordable housing?
What negative is there to letting Columbia use property it has purchased with its own money to advance science and human knowledge? As Bollinger noted, the area is currently dominated by a decrepit old Studebaker factory. Nobody has been able to fix that in decades, and today’s real estate market is less certain than it was a year ago.
Of course the university should be held accountable to create a vibrant, livable environment and provide interesting, progressive architecture rather than a few conventional brick-and-glass boxes. But I say, Go Columbia. Stop the hate.
— Posted by Why the hate?
4. November 16th,200712:00 pm
Interesting. In cities like Syracuse and Binghamton, people are desperate for the universities to build and keep building. In fact Syracuse University is seen as the major driving force behind downtown development, with the idea being to break down barriers between the town and the gown and not squash the poor urban residents in the process.
A completely different world, just a few hours to your north.
— Posted by Ellen
5. November 16th,200712:01 pm
They’re not expanding to provide space for more original research. They’re not expanding to provide more opportunities to the underprivleged, or to offer more to the community. They’re expanding to make more money. I think there would be a lot less ill will if their expansion plans took into account their neighbors and the urban fabric — and if they were affordable to the children of most city residents.
As it is, NYU is little more than a glorified day care center for overprivleged suburbanites who watched too many episodes of “Sex & the City” — kids who, by and large, have no appreciation for the reality of the city, and little to contribute relative to the impact of their presence.
Mind you — im paraphrasing from my best friend who went to NYU and edited their paper! There’s always exceptions to every rule, but for the most part, NYU has become a destructive and alienating force!
— Posted by Dave
6. November 16th,200712:11 pm
Why the hate: “Isn’t it a positive development when a blighted, nearly abandoned old industrial zone is reclaimed, populated with sparkling new buildings, shopping areas, cafes and even millions of dollars in affordable housing?”
Did you say affordable housing For whom? Money center bankers getting the multimillion dollar bonuses for driving down the value of my financial shares and making noises about cutting dividends?
Where would we be without the urban poor to trash property values to set the stage for gentrification?
— Posted by MARK KLEIN, M.D.
7. November 16th,20071:05 pm
I’m with Columbia/NYU. There’s no reason over-taxed professionals (of both Wall Street and non-Wall Street varieties) who want to live and work in the City need to relocate to deep in NJ, upstate, or LI, because either they can’t afford properties here or don’t feel safe in the neighborhoods that they can afford. The idea of a neighborhood as an entitlement and thus protected somehow by law is unrealistic and unenforceable.
If the universities - the engines for community regeneration in has-been towns like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Syracuse and Philadelphia - can make a place better they should be allowed to. Syracuse and Buffalo would love to have this “problem” on their hands.
However with great power comes great responsibility, and the academics should employ suitably grounded architects and designers who don’t disrespect the larger area a la Moses and LeCorbusier.
— Posted by JG
8. November 16th,20071:06 pm
I attending this panel disussion and would like to make three comments:
1) It’s interesting that no one at the event mentioned the great irony — even to explain it away — that Jane Jacobs herself in “Death and Life of Great American Cities” actually commends Columbia University for planning to build the gym in Morningside Park that would eventually cause such community and student opposition in 1968!
“Columbia Univesrity in New York is taking a constructive step by planning sports facilities — for both the univesrrity and the neighborhood — in Morningside Park, which has been shunned and feared for decades. Adding a few other activities too, like music or shows, could convert a dreadful neighborhood liabiltiy into an outstanding neighbohood asseet.
2) It’s also interesting that no one on the panel directly pointed out (although Kent Barwick’s comments hinted at it) that Bollinger’s idea of bringing liveliness to Columbia’s proposed campus annex is diametrically opposed to the Jacobs point of view. Bollinger, for instance, expressed the opinion that in order for Columbia University to create a lively new campus it had to be in control of the entire site –- while the Jacobs position is just the reverse, that such uniformity in ownership (and building types) leads to less liveliness, not more, and that genuine diversity doesn’t detract from liveliness but adds to it.
Neither did anyone on the panel (or in the audience) challenge Bollinger on his statements about the viability of the light industrial buildings in the area. As I understand it, the commercial buildings that he is trying to gain control of – by eminent domain, if necessary – are NOT derelict commercial buildings, but buildings that are actually doing quite well.
3) I think if people take a more detailed look at the history of Morningside Gardens (in both Hilary Ballon’s book and in Joel Schwartz’s book, “the New York Approach”) they might vigorously disagree with Ballon’s positive comments about it — and further about the supposed “moderating role” played by universities (as opposed to the private sector)!
What exactly is supposed to be so positive about Morningside Gardens?! Here is what Ballon says about Morningside Gardens in her book related to her Moses exhibit (pp. 260-261):
Morningside Gardens was Moses’s gold standard of how to do a Title I project.  It had responsible leadership,  proceeded without delays,  handled relocation responsibly, and  embraced integration.  It met the goal of providing middle-class housing  while coordinating with low-income public housing and  other community improvements.  What distinguishes the project above all is the role of the sponsor, Morningside Heights, Inc., and its young president, David Rockefeller. His impressive debut in urban renewal work on Morningside Heights was the prelude to a still more ambitious initiative launched in the mid-1950s to redevelop lower Manhattan, as discussed in the entry on Battery Park Title I. (The numbering is mine – Benjamin Hemric.)
Basically what she is saying here is that (a) this development was not as bad as so many other Title I developments (e.g., it was scandal free; the relocation practices were relatively humane; it was “only” economically – but not racially – segregated; etc.) and (b) that it was pretty successful in meeting the urban renewal goals that were part of the Robert Moses template – which was precisely what Jane Jacobs was criticizing (e.g., the deification of sterile open space, the income-sorting of populations, the immuring of slums, etc.)
Even the claim that Morningside Gardens helped racially integrate the area is suspect as 1) the area was already somewhat integrated before the construction of Morningside Gardens and 2) the construction of Morningside Gardens and the adjacent public housing project (General Grant?) created in some ways a new neighborhood that was now PERMANENTLY income-tagged and racially sorted. (Also some critics looking at the history of this redevelopment claim that it was constructed as a bulwark, so to speak, to prevent black Harlem from creeping closer to Columbia University.)
For more information about the history of Morningside Gardens see Joel Schwartz’s book, “New York Approach,” pp. 64-66, 151-159, 185-189, 195-197, 200, 338n29, 342n30, and 343n31.
Ballon is apparently a great admirer of this book. She praises it in the Notes to her essay on Title I projects in her Moses catalog. So it’s not that Ballon (and Schwartz, who is also a Moses fan) are unaware of the facts. (Schwartz has, indeed, done an amazing amount of research on Moses.)
But it just goes to show how different their ideology is from someone like Jane Jacobs. And it also seems to demonstrate just how little they understand Jacobs’ criticisms of the Moses approach. It’s not so much that they understand Jacobs criticisms, but just happen not to agree with them; rather, it seems to me that they actually don’t understand her criticisms in the first place, and as a result they never really address many of them directly. They mainly address shibboleths and straw men – or straw women – instead.
— Posted by Benjamin Hemric
9. November 16th,20071:17 pm
Rodin’s mention of building a supermarket near the University of Pennsylvania’s West Philadelphia location made me cringe. I live a few blocks from that supermarket. I never go there because it doesn’t serve the needs of the community other than the undergraduate population.
Many of the things mentioned by Rodin have resulted in greater hatred for the University of Pennsylvania and its students. Her so called support of local businesses was laughable and many of the businesses that she courted to come into the area left because of absurd rental shenanigans imposed by the university.
Crime and poverty in West Philadelphia continue to be a real and ever-present part of the lives of the people who live there. The University of Pennsylvania had some ideas but lacked the follow through and the understanding that they are not the only community living west of the river.
I know less about the similar processes taking place in New York today, but I find using the example of Philadelphia, Dr. Rodin, and the University of Pennsylvania a bit disingenuous.
— Posted by sciencegeek
10. November 16th,20071:21 pm
As I was reading the article, I didn’t read one word about building ‘green’. I don’t know how universities could consider building without the buildings meeting ‘green’ specifications. Yes, I too, think universities should be held to a higher standard and not just the standard of building a profitable building and meeting building codes. I have been following Columbia’s plan, which I consider to be neighborhood friendly. But I still haven’t heard from them anything about building ‘green’Now Mayor Bloomberg puts a lot of emphasis on having a ‘greener’ city, universities should be the first institutions in any community to make sure that being ‘green’ is part of the building plans for their future.Ruth Beazer
— Posted by Ruth Beazer
11. November 16th,20071:30 pm
This discussion (and this issue) seems to be a NYC-centric thing. In many other parts of the country, universities and university research/medical center sites are the economic powerhouses of towns. These towns still worry about mega-developments that alter the character of neighborhoods or that strain resources, but I doubt the towns don’t feel ‘gobbled up’ by these expansions. It’s a codependency: universities need land and resources, and towns need jobs and the economic drive that vibrant universities bring. The poster who commented about this w/ regard to Syracuse said the same thing.
As this issue is discussed in this forum, please realize that only some aspects of it are applicable generally to town-gown relationships.
— Posted by ars
12. November 16th,20073:50 pm
I’ve lived in Morningside Heights for all of 2 years of my life, and can safely say that Columbia treats the surrounding area as its playground. Can’t count the number of mom-and-pop businesses that have been driven out and replaced by chain stores and university-backed franchises that still flip over with regularity.
As for “blighted” Manhattanville - all those shuttered gates you all see up there were auto repair and supply shops that provided employment to people in the neighborhood until CU started buying up the property in recent years and forcing those businesses to close.
More importantly, the NYT coverage of Manhattanville over the past year (even Trymaine Lee’s City section article this summer) has consistently downplayed the alternative plan put forth by Community Board 9 and completely left out strong voices of community opposition to the plan that would displace about 5,000 people, mostly minorities, from low-rent housing and replace them with upper-middle class and upper class academics and professionals (who would be by and large white, any way you want to spin it).
Lastly, no university in the city pays taxes. Giving up land to institutions like NYU and CU also deprives New York City of valuable property tax revenue, and conceding greater amounts of land to academic institutions permanently (instead of leasing the land, an option the city should consider) is fiscally irresponsible.
Thanks, Bloomberg, thanks Scott Stringer. You’re giving abrasive know-nothings like Lee Bollinger (whose behavior towards Ahmedinejad personified everything wrong with CU) free reign to drive out yet more low-income New Yorkers and whitewash the city.
Direct action, anyone?
— Posted by AW
13. November 16th,20074:19 pm
Columbia does not own most of the storefronts in the neighborhood, though it does own many. The chain businesses are almost all located in non-Columbia spaces. I’ll bet that if you checked you would find that the businesses you lament losing were all in privately-owned spaces.
— Posted by CU Alum
14. November 16th,20075:30 pm
That was regarding Manhattanville, where Columbia is pushing folks out. They did it in a subtler fashion further south.
And yes, a lot of those business are in independent buildings. They are brought in under Columbia’s franchise plan, like the old Global Ink.
— Posted by AW