In Growth Spurt, Columbia Is Buying Swath of Harlem

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July 30, 2003
In Growth Spurt, Columbia Is Buying Swath of Harlem
Columbia University, long starved for land at its campus in Morningside Heights, is buying up a 17-acre swath in West Harlem for its first major expansion in 75 years.
The university’s long-range plan calls for removing the battered brick industrial buildings now in the area bounded roughly by Broadway, 125th Street, 12th Avenue and 133rd Street and replacing them with a new tree-lined campus of school buildings, performing arts centers, research labs, a jazz club and dormitories.
The proposed multibillion-dollar project, about half the size of Columbia’s 36-acre campus in Morningside Heights, would be built in the coming decades and could become what the university regards as a link to its health sciences complex in Washington Heights. Aside from acquiring the rest of the land, Columbia also needs zoning changes that would allow high-rise development of nonindustrial buildings.
Columbia has crowded new buildings onto campus for years and erected towers on scattered sites in the surrounding area, but officials say it needs to expand if it is to continue to attract top professors, researchers and students.
Columbia is hoping that its plans will fit well with efforts by the state, city and community groups to redevelop the Hudson River waterfront and West Harlem, which the university prefers to call by its historic name, Manhattanville.
“This is an opportunity in Manhattanville to create something of immense vitality and beauty,” said Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia’s president. “This is not to just go in and throw up some buildings. These would be beautiful, magnificent buildings on the order of what we have in Morningside Heights. Maybe not in mass, but in quality.”
Columbia has more than 20,000 students and 9,000 employees, making it the 12th-largest employer in New York City and the largest recipient of research funds in the city. The university has hired the Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Skidmore Owings & Merrill to design the project. If it goes ahead, the first phase would include a 500,000-square-foot complex on 125th Street for the School of the Arts, research space, residence halls and retail space.
Columbia hopes to avoid the kind of community opposition and campus rebellions caused by its past attempts to expand, or its effort in 1968 to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park. To that end, the university is focusing on a run-down industrial area of warehouses, auto-repair shops and a meatpacking plant, avoiding a string of apartment buildings along Broadway between 133rd and 132nd Streets, but including an odd-shaped block to the east, bounded by Broadway and Old Broadway.
The area is framed by an elevated subway line along Broadway and a highway viaduct along 12th Avenue; Manhattanville Houses are to the east and another housing complex is to the north.
The university has been meeting quietly in the past two months with United States Representative Charles B. Rangel and state and city officials about plans to redevelop the area. It has also established a task force including representatives of the local community board and various neighborhood groups, a tactic that some residents have found encouraging and a break with what they said was Columbia’s past arrogance.
“They’re treading lightly,” said Peggy Shepard, executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action, who has met with Columbia officials. “They put together a task force to show the community they want to do this in partnership. They have not really presented anything at this point. It’s mostly them listening to us. As long as their needs are compatible with how the community sees the use of the manufacturing zone, it could be a good thing.”
Over the past 50 years, Columbia has spilled down Broadway from the gates of its main campus at 116th Street. Its attempts to erect new buildings or buy old ones and squeeze out residents have generated one neighborhood battle after another.
Columbia has owned property on the south side of 125th Street since the late 1960’s, but few people have been aware of the extent to which the university has been buying or leasing property in West Harlem, particularly for the past year. It rents space, for instance, in the old Studebaker building on 131st Street and has an option to buy the six-story structure as well as the garage next door. The university owns a parking lot on 129th Street and, real estate executives said, is negotiating to buy the land occupied by a U-Haul franchise on Broadway, near 132nd Street.
According to a Columbia document prepared for government officials, it owns or controls more than 40 percent of the 17 acres for the new campus and is in talks to buy 32 percent more.
Next spring, the city and the state expect to begin a $12 million plan to rebuild the Harlem piers on the waterfront between St. Clair Place and 133rd Street for recreational use. The city is also working with the community board, Columbia and others on a plan to rezone the neighborhood and encourage economic development under Henry Hudson Parkway, just to the west of the new campus.
The university’s plans would amount to one of the largest development projects in the city and could fit in with those efforts, although there is clearly potential for friction. School buildings, laboratories and science labs would generate new jobs, university officials said, and there is the possibility that businesses could locate nearby as a result of research work.
In addition, Columbia said it would provide space for retail shops and nonprofit organizations along Broadway and 12th Avenue and would develop partnerships between, say, the School of the Arts and local artists and community organizations.
That approach contrasts sharply with what others have taken as Columbia’s view of Harlem in the past. In the 1960’s, the university built a tower for faculty apartments at the corner of 12th Avenue and St. Clair Place, it put the front door facing west, in effect turning its back on Harlem and 125th Street.
Now the university’s plans for high-rise buildings could also run afoul of efforts by community groups to preserve the low-scale character of Harlem. Housing is a pressing issue, and the university’s project may require moving a major Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus garage now on 133rd Street. Finally, Columbia would almost certainly need state help to condemn property that it cannot buy.
Jarvis Doctorow, for one, said he was having too much fun to sell. Mr. Doctorow, who is 79, owns the seven-story factory at 3280 Broadway that he converted to an office building, where Columbia is among the renters.
“I cannot prevent people from knocking on my door,” he said, “but the building is not for sale.”
Columbia has made no secret of what it says is its desperate need for land to expand. A 1998 survey by the office of the university provost found that it had less space per student than other major universities, 194 square feet; in contrast, the report said Princeton had 561 square feet, the University of Pennsylvania 440 and Harvard 368.
Columbia is erecting a 16-story apartment building for law students at Amsterdam Avenue and 122nd Street and an adjacent $50 million academic center. It is finishing a building on 110th Street, starting work on another at 103rd and Broadway, and planning for perhaps two towers on the grounds of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.
Mr. Bollinger said he saw the land in Manhattanville as an important opportunity.
“Over the long term, upper Manhattan is our home,” Mr. Bollinger said. “Columbia will never fully realize its own aspirations unless it accepts that. The question is, how do we weave together this tapestry? Any sense of a gated community or a town-gown line would be a mistake.”