Columbia University’s Expansion and the Struggle for the Future of Harlem

By Brian Paul

In 2003 Columbia University announced its plan for a new campus in West Harlem and promised a collaborative partnership with the local community. Looking back at Columbia’s troubled and racially charged relations with Harlem, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger proudly proclaimed that “Columbia is a different neighbor now…We want to stay here and be a great world university and be part of building the community.”

But when Columbia rolled out the details of its plan for a $6.38 billion research campus spanning seventeen acres, the West Harlem community was outraged at the scale of the project and the university’s duplicity in cloaking a top-down, self-serving and discriminatory expansion in the false rhetoric of community partnership. In response to this criticism, Columbia claimed that it must expand on a grand scale in order to remain a competitive world-class Ivy League research university and that the development would revive a “blighted” area and create thousands of new jobs for Harlem residents.

The Community Plan versus Zoning

At first glance the conflict appears to be the typical fight between local community and big developer, or town and gown. But instead of just protesting against Columbia, the community attempted to develop an alternative vision for a more contextual and balanced university expansion. In collaboration with the Pratt Center for Community Development (PCCD), Community Board 9 (CB9), a body representing West Harlem in the city’s land use review process, completed an alternative plan in 2007. The community plan calls for Columbia to work with the community to expand without displacing any businesses or residents who wish to remain and to preserve the well-paying industrial and artisan businesses that were growing in the neighborhood before Columbia began to acquire real estate for its expansion project.

Columbia has had a history of segregating itself from the Harlem community. CB9’s attempt to develop a collaborative, contextual compromise offered an invaluable opportunity for Columbia to right its past wrongs and pursue a new future of integration and social justice. Unfortunately, the university instead continued to pursue its unilateral plan, exercising its potent economic power by hording property in the area and hiring political insiders and public relations experts to win city approval for a zoning change that would allow the expansion to proceed with or without community support. Columbia’s strategy worked. On December 19, 2007, the City Council took the unprecedented step of approving both Columbia’s zoning plan and CB9’s community plan—effectively invalidating the CB9 plan without officially rejecting it since passage of the community plan did not obligate the city or Columbia to do anything.

Columbia’s Legacy of Racist and Inequitable Development

Columbia’s behavior follows a long contentious history with its neighbors in Harlem. Columbia moved to Morningside Heights in 1896 seeking a bucolic environment for the development of its new master-planned campus. The school’s vision was quickly challenged, however, by the rapid urbanization of Upper Manhattan that began with the completion of the city’s first subway line in 1904. While the university was initially able to adapt to its newly urbanized setting, Columbia saw the growth of the neighboring black community in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s as a major threat to its elite Ivy League status.

On the eve of his retirement in 1945, Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler wrote a letter to his trustees advocating that the university urgently act to “unify Morningside…and protect ourselves against invasion from the north…[for] at any time we might find an apartment house on Morningside Heights has been purchased to be occupied by Harlem tenants.” Butler’s solution to this impending disaster lay in “owning the title to all of this property” in order to “achieve the unity of Morningside Heights which I have had in mind for a half century.” To remain an elite Ivy League university, Columbia required an elite Ivy League environment—in which working-class minorities could have no place. The university pursued Butler’s vision with zeal, acquiring 108 new buildings in Morningside between 1940 and 1966 and forcibly evicting more than 7,000 residents, 85 percent of which were African American or Puerto Rican. Columbia thus maintained its ideal campus environment in Morningside Heights by conducting a virtual ethnic cleansing of the neighborhood.

In conjunction with this mass purchase of real estate in Morningside Heights and eviction of non-university-affiliated tenants, a plan to complete the “fortressing” of Morningside Heights from Harlem was also initiated. “Morningside Heights Inc.” was formed in 1947 by Columbia and neighboring institutions to lobby for construction of urban renewal super-block housing projects at the neighborhood’s northern border with Harlem. Morningside Gardens, a middle-income development, and the General Grant public housing towers were completed by 1957. As Larry Orton, then head of the New York City Planning Commission noted, these super-block projects provided “a physical stabilization of conditions to the north.” In other words, they effectively acted as barriers to the further intrusion of low-income minorities into Morningside Heights.

By the 1960s, Morningside Heights and Harlem were clearly defined as separate (and unequal) communities with borders at Morningside Park to the east and 123rd Street to the north. Needing more real estate for expansion, however, in 1966 Columbia began construction of a university gym in Morningside Park with an entrance at the upper Morningside Heights side of the ridge. The simmering tensions between Harlem and Columbia exploded in the 1968 protests at the university. Labeling the project “Gym Crow” for its taking of public space used by the black community for the overwhelmingly white Columbia student body, the Students’ Afro-American Society brought Harlem community leaders to join the students in condemning the gym. Fearing a race riot, the Columbia administration reluctantly agreed to cancel the gym project.

The experience of the 1968 protests thoroughly discouraged Columbia officials from pursuing any efforts at expansion into Harlem for more than thirty years, and the university instead continued to expand in piecemeal fashion within Morningside Heights.

The Columbia Plan and Community Alternative

Columbia’s history of inequitable racist development shows that community concern over the new expansion is not just parochial NIMBYism (Not-In-My-Backyard). When President Lee Bollinger asserts his desire for a campus expansion with a definite “Columbia identity,” this history of racial exclusion and aggressive unilateralism invokes legitimate distrust and fear among residents of West Harlem for the future of their community.

Columbia’s plan for Manhattanville was revealed as a complete tabletop model in 2004 following no community participation. Property owners and community activists were aghast when they saw their neighborhood vanish from the map of this Columbia-constructed future. Presenting the completed plan as a fait accompli helped Columbia successfully acquire more than 80 percent of the property in the 17-acre footprint. Numerous business owners who would have preferred to remain in the community were intimidated into selling by Columbia’s threats of condemnation and seizure through eminent domain. Columbia is now following through on this threat and is working with the Empire State Development Corporation (a New York State authority) to remove the final two landowners, clearing the way for construction to start.

Columbia never intended to come to a compromise with the community on its vision for a twenty-first century research campus. During the more than three years between the plan’s presentation in 2004 and its approval in December 2007, Columbia officials never made a serious attempt to engage with the West Harlem community. At public hearings, officials interacted with the community in a top-down and paternalistic manner, all the while extolling the benefits of the plan. Behind the scenes, Columbia has spent nearly $1.2 million to enlist some of the city’s most powerful lobbying firms to push for the rezoning and eminent domain powers necessary for the Manhattanville plan to become a reality. These firms targeted the city’s most influential elected officials and power brokers, including former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Daniel Doctoroff, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Councilman Robert Jackson (who represents Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights). Throughout the process, former Mayor David Dinkins—now on Columbia’s payroll as a professor of public policy—has leveraged his credibility and influence on behalf of Bollinger and could often be found at the president’s side during public hearings.

Columbia’s refusal to engage the Harlem community is especially disappointing considering it had a willing partner in CB9. The product of more than four years of intensive community engagement, CB9’s plan called for Columbia to retrofit the current building stock—or selectively demolish and construct new buildings for academic use—and for the city to encourage a diversity of development through the creation of a customized zoning district that balances production/light manufacturing, retail and community facilities. This kind of contextual campus expansion would accomplish much towards breaking down the socio-spatial and economic barriers that have historically divided Columbia’s Morningside Heights from the Harlem community. CB9 also sought to proscribe the use of eminent domain in the area, voting unanimously against this option in 2004 and again in 2009.

The most profound difference between Columbia’s plan and CB9’s is that the community plan tries to make Columbia’s expansion fit within the community context, which includes a traditionally industrial area surrounded by thousands of low-income minority residents. Indeed, the community plan’s primary goal is to promote growth “in a manner that promotes a diversity of incomes without displacement of existing residents.” The plan places a major emphasis on ensuring the preservation of industrial jobs, which currently provide 15 percent of local employment in the area and on average pay wages that are far higher than in the service industry.

The community plan points out that 90 percent of households in West Harlem are renters and that more than 40 percent of households earn less than $20,000 per annum, making rents over $1,000 a month completely unaffordable. Already squeezed by gentrification pressures and the decline of area industrial jobs (due in great part to Columbia’s warehousing of the Manhattanville district), the risk of massive displacement is a real concern if Columbia’s plan is allowed to proceed. Columbia proudly proclaims that the expansion will create as many as 6,000 new jobs for the community, but for a community with low educational attainment, these jobs will be service sector positions that will not pay enough to cover the rising cost of living in West Harlem. Thousands of people will be forced to relocate to peripheral areas in New York’s outer boroughs and inner suburbs where there are fewer social services and economic opportunities, and less public transportation.

Columbia did not even attempt to meet CB9 halfway in any kind of compromise. In both process and outcome, Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion plan continues the university’s legacy of racist and inequitable development in Upper Manhattan.

Columbia is moving forward on initial infrastructure construction for the Manhattanville expansion despite an ongoing lawsuit filed by property owner Nicholas Sprayregen challenging the validity of the city’s environmental impact review and the Empire State Development Corporation’s right to seize his property through eminent domain on behalf of Columbia.

The Need for Reform in New York City Planning

New York City’s land use regime, where undemocratic appointed bodies like the City Planning Commission and Empire State Development Corporation are endowed with extraordinary powers while community boards are mere advisory bodies, has long been susceptible to manipulation by well-connected developers like Columbia University. The lack of accountability and transparency effectively filters democracy out of the decision-making process to the advantage of those with economic and political power.

As Councilman Tony Avella pointed out, by the time Columbia’s proposal arrived for debate at the City Council, “the fix” already appeared to be in. Despite seven hours of public testimony and the concurrent submission of CB9’s plan, “Columbia’s idea to utterly change forever seventeen acres in West Harlem was not amended in any way, shape or form at the City Council level.” As long as community planning continues to lack legal authority, these participatory processes will remain dependent on the goodwill of city government and powerful developers to recognize the value of community “advice,” an especially dubious proposition when the constituency in question is a historically disadvantaged minority community like West Harlem.

Columbia’s justification for the expansion is that the university must grow in order to be able to compete as an elite research institution in the twenty-first century global economy. This is consistent with New York City government’s strategy of developing Manhattan as an elite “command and control” center in the global economy. The singular focus on this approach to economic development has led to a bifurcated labor market of very high wage and very low wage service jobs. As real estate has become more valuable for high-end commercial and residential uses, manufacturing and the working class are being pushed out.

A holistic approach to development is long overdue. CB9’s plan for Manhattanville demonstrates that a development alternative that integrates people and place and produces solutions that can balance the growth of the city as a global center with the realities of local society is not a mere pipe dream. Yet until community planning is legally empowered with a role in the process, powerful corporations and institutions like Columbia will continue to decide the fate of millions of New Yorkers and pursue inequitable and racist development cloaked in phony community partnerships and narrow conceptions of short-term economic growth.

Brian Paul is pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at Hunter College.

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