January 03, 2003

Article at The New York Sun

A University Expands

Great cities need their great universities - and smart cities do all they can to nurture and sustain them. Yet, even as New Yorkers instinctively understand that New York's welfare is linked to Columbia University's, many have balked at Columbia's recent announcement that it plans to expand its 36-acre campus northward into Harlem by seeking rezoning of land it owns there as well as purchasing vacant and underused property.

The scholar George Steiner once pointed out that fundamental tensions are inherent between cities and universities, both of which must constantly arbitrate the competing claims of their constituents. Mr. Steiner called universities "fragile though tenacious beasts." And indeed, several were seriously constrained - perhaps nearly destroyed - by post-World War II urban disintegration.

The University of Pennsylvania, for example, fought with Philadelphia about crime and widespread housing abandonment. Harvard fought with Boston and Cambridge about blight. Both universities eventually were allowed to acquire land and redevelop their areas with relative freedom.

Yet, while many universities had troubles, no major American university was ever pounded as badly - or as publicly - as Columbia in the 1960s. Columbia had been seriously mismanaged in the 1950s under Dwight Eisenhower, according to journalist Edward Fiske. By 1966, it was starting to run huge deficits while it sought to expand beyond its fortress campus. Disastrously, it looked to the apparently cheap land available in seemingly desolate Morningside Park, where it hoped to build a gym. Few decisions could have proved more costly.

The Battle of Morningside Heights pitted students against the police, students against students, and faculty against faculty. Some New Yorkers thought the university would not survive. "Farewell, Columbia," wrote William F. Buckley in 1968.

Looking at those grim years from today's perspective, a professor of history at Barnard College and Columbia, Robert McCaughey, believes that the university was close to dismemberment. All that is long past.

Columbia is now back at the top of its game, fully restored to its former eminence. But it needs precisely that which caused it so much tribulation the last time: more land. With only 194 square feet for each student, Columbia has far less space per capita than Princeton, Penn, or Harvard, according to the Columbia provost. Of the mostly underused 17 acres in the expansion plan, which is bounded by Broadway, 12th Avenue, and 125th and 133rd streets, Columbia already owns or leases a little over 40%.

The area, which has languished for decades, has mainly auto-related, warehousing, and low-grade manufacturing uses that generate little income for the area and employ few people. Indeed, its employment dropped to 1,100 from 1,900 over the past 20 years, according to Columbia's executive vice president for government and community affairs, Emily Lloyd.

Ownership and leasing of the land has not allowed Columbia to do as it pleases. Much of the property is now zoned for manufacturing and will require community and city government approval before it can be rezoned for residential and academic use. Such a large swath of derelict property in West Harlem stands as a testament to long-term city government incompetence or indifference. The area will remain stagnant so long as the heavy hand of manufacturing zoning holds it down.

Columbia had considered moving to either New Jersey or to Rockland County, and it had also looked at Donald Trump's property on the West Side rail yards, according to Ms. Lloyd. Since Columbia is now both the city's 12th-largest employer and a major tourist attraction, the first two options held calamitous implications for New York's economy.

The Trump option, which might have worked, would have been extremely expensive. Ms. Lloyd says that they "talked on and off for four years but never really came close to agreement." The Harlem option, or "Manhattanville," as Columbia officials prefer to call it, is ideal. This marriage can benefit both partners.

As mayoral adviser and Barnard and Columbia Professor Ester Fuchs said, "The plan is inspired. Right now the area is contributing nothing to the economy of Harlem. The plan will displace blighted, abandoned industrial sites with productive uses. It will regenerate the area, which is what New York is all about."

Many of Columbia's sins of the past reflected the planning sins of the times. Yes, Columbia built a tower for faculty housing with its back to the community, in this case Harlem, and its front door to the university - but so did every other university. Now we all know better and so does Columbia. We know that street life is good, and has to be encouraged with retail services, even when the landlord is a university. This time, Columbia really is converting a neighborhood liability into a neighborhood asset.