History Lesson


Chances are that walking down 131st Street 30 years from now, you will not miss Pedro y José Auto Body, nor, on 130th, mourn the absence of Boiler Repair Maintenance Company. It is unlikely that you ever planned to live in a walk-up like 3289 Broadway or enjoy a “100% brushless car wash” three blocks away. And even if you have patronized the nearby paint store, pharmacy, architect, personal trainer, building-supply store, moving companies, construction firms, U-Haul yard, drug treatment facility, Gérard Duré’s salon, or any of the storage facilities, gas stations, or Pentecostal churches in the area, you’ll probably learn to live without. You may even appreciate the sprucing up of the tired-looking factory buildings and an end to the stench that rises from the Twelfth Avenue sidewalk after a delivery of meat or poultry to a wholesaler there.

What’s more, you could end up working or studying in what will take their place in Manhattanville: nearly 7 million square feet of offices, research space, and housing for Columbia University. With scant wiggle room at its main Morningside Heights campus or uptown medical center, Columbia wants to move onto 18 acres roughly north of 125th Street and just east of Twelfth Avenue. To do it, the state’s oldest college is asking the city for a special rezoning, scooping up parcels of land, and preparing to ask the state to invoke eminent domain if necessary.

Needless to say, not everyone in the area is thrilled with the idea. Residents, business owners, and some Columbia students have banded together to oppose the plan. The local community board is pushing an alternative development scheme. Civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel has signed on to resist eminent domain. A sign on a door in the area reads, “Dear Columbia: Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.”

In the constant evolution of New York neighborhoods, this sort of fight isn’t anything new. And for Columbia especially, this is not a first. Thirty-eight years ago, the university’s bid to expand into Morningside Park—coupled with outrage over the school’s military contracts—touched off days off unrest on campus in which students occupied five buildings and, in some cases, clashed violently with cops. After the bloodshed, that expansion plan died. Columbia has pursued projects in the years since, but none were as ambitious as the vision for Manhattanville.

Some opponents of the plan claim the resistance to the new proposal is the stiffest Columbia has faced since the student uprising. Folks caught in the middle think the university is applying lessons learned. “Columbia sees shadows of 1968,” says Steve Stollman, a local businessman who says he’s been offered a very attractive relocation deal. “They have to be very careful how they treat people when it’s conspicuous like this.”

But the parallel only goes so far. Last time the battle was over race and war. Now, the debate is about what makes a 21st-century city tick.

Columbia is the quintessential great urban university and the most constrained for space,” the school president, Lee Bollinger, said when he took the job in 2002. The school has developed more than 2 million square feet of new space since 1994, but Columbia still has only “one-half the square foot per student as peer institutions such as Yale, Harvard, and Princeton,” according to planning documents. “The absence of space really had started to affect the university’s intellectual agenda. Faculty didn’t have space for facilities to pursue research,” says Robert Kasdin, Columbia’s senior executive vice president. For instance, the neurology department, which is working on autism and Alzheimer’s, was feeling squeezed.

That’s why Columbia now wants to rezone 35 acres in Manhattanville for an 18-acre campus to include academic buildings, labs, support services, graduate and faculty housing, and perhaps even a hotel and convention center “to support Columbia’s educational activities.” The development over the next 25 to 30 years, with a projected $7.4 billion in spending, is supposed to create 2,000 construction jobs during the build-out and some 9,000 positions after that. What’s more, Columbia’s planning documents say, it’ll clean up a bleak part of town.

“Once a thriving manufacturing area, today Manhattanville is characterized by automotive uses, storage facilities, and other low job-generating activities,” one document reads. “The area’s manufacturing zoning has not stimulated the development of lively retail and office uses that are now characteristic of 125th Street east of Broadway.”

That’s where some local activists differ. “There’s this theory of university and institutions being growth machines of the city,” says Nellie Bailey, a member of the Coalition to Preserve Community. “We don’t believe that. We believe the real growth of the city lies in bringing back its manufacturing base.”

This difference characterizes the competing development plan drafted by Community Board 9, which preserves space for the manufacturing firms and other businesses that right now employ about 1,600 people. It could also retain the apartments that an estimated 400 people—the vast majority of them low- to moderate-income—call home.

Faced with competing plans for the same blocks, the City Planning Commission told the community board and university to try to work out a compromise. Columbia had already organized a series of forums on the plan. Now, says Kasdin, the school and community board are talking. But he won’t say whether parts of Columbia’s proposal have evolved. The chairman of Community Board 9, Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, tells the Voice, “[Columbia’s] plans have changed very little so far.”

Community activists have several beefs. One is the school’s plan for a biological- research lab, which could gain a biosafety rating of up to level 3, meaning it might handle pathogens like anthrax and West Nile. Opponents say that kind of facility is too risky to locate near housing complexes, especially after 9-11 and particularly since the EPA in 2002 cited Columbia for mishandling hazardous waste. Columbia says no one’s health or safety was endangered by the EPA violations. Their proposed lab won’t handle real horror-show stuff like Marburg and Ebola viruses, like Boston University’s planned level 4 lab in Southie. And Columbia already has a level 3 lab, although officials aren’t eager to say where.

The chief complaint of activists, though, is the lack on information about just what kind of lab Columbia is planning; the school says it knows roughly where the facility will go, but not what work will be done there. The same goes for what will happen to residents. The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development owns four of the residential buildings in the area. Two are about to be transferred to a nonprofit for rehabilitation. Two others are in the Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) program, in which residents apply for conversion to a low-income co-op and are allowed to purchase their units for $250. Neil Coleman, a spokesman for HPD, says that there have only been preliminary talks with Columbia and that the city has told the school that it must offer the tenants nothing less than they’d get in their present digs. That could mean coming up with a replacement building for the TIL tenants. “No such offer has been made,” Coleman says. Columbia vows that all tenants will get equal or better situations.

When it comes to the 70-odd businesses that could be displaced, however, Columbia is making offers. Stollman, a former Columbia student who for 20 years has used a warehouse in the expansion zone, says the university started out threatening to shut down the building’s elevator. Then the school lightened up, hiring a guy to run the elevator and offering relocation deals of better space at the same rent in the same area.

Scott Lacock, for one, isn’t fazed by the impending move for his plumbing-supply outfit, which employs about 30 workers hailing from the city and beyond. Heck, Lacock says, he might even gain some business when people in a new neighborhood see his trucks. Either way, he has no complaints: Columbia has been his landlord for years, and he was told early on that his stay would be temporary. “I’m very thankful,” he says.

With its physical size and financial power, Columbia can look like the 800-pound gorilla to its neighbors, and critics see the Manhattanville proposal as a gorilla-sized invasion. But Kasdin says going big was deliberate. In the past, Columbia has acquired properties one by one and battled with neighbors over what to build there. “There were regular clashes over our opportunistic and incremental approach to growth,” he says. “The way in which this has been done has not served the university or the community.” The Manhattanville proposal is an attempt at a more comprehensive approach, he adds, in which the school and the community understand each other’s long-term needs. Columbia is quick to emphasize the friendlier aspects of its push: a community benefits agreement, open streets, and ground-floor retail. The school’s steady pace of land acquisition is meant to negate the need for eminent domain.

For skeptics of the plan, however, the problem is bigger than Columbia. It’s the development craze that’s roiling Harlem block by block, displacing tenants and replacing neighborhood stores
with flashy franchises. Similar forces are acting citywide: The small industry that moves out of Manhattanville will compete for space with similar firms uprooted from Williamsburg, and maybe Willets Point. The areas where blue-collar work is welcome are dwindling.

Kasdin says Columbia’s development will offer “the full range of jobs, from unskilled to tenured faculty” with good pay and full benefits in an area where employment has plummeted 35 percent in the past two decades. The area’s parking lots and
wide-open factory floors reflect untapped potential. But Columbia’s opponents say the area can prosper without abandoning its industrial roots. “If this were a mixed-use area which still supported the idea that manufacturing was a valuable and beneficial thing as a city, you would see a dramatic increase in local employment opportunities in that same 30-year period,” says development opponent Tom DeMott.

Even in boomtown New York, somebody’s going to need that 100 percent brushless car wash.