Monday, May 22, 2006
This week's NY Times Magazine has an interesting article by Daphne Eviatar on Columbia University's expansion into the Manhattanville section of West Harlem. Here's an excerpt:
When Columbia announced its plans to build a much-needed new campus in a corner of Harlem called Manhattanville, it saw a gritty neighborhood of auto-repair shops, tenements and small manufacturers that would probably pose little obstacle to its ambitions. Columbia says that the project will advance a vital public interest and help revitalize parts of Upper Manhattan. Yet the university has met remarkable resistance. One man's urban improvement, it seems, is another man's urban debacle. . . .
Certainly Columbia's plans are ambitious: across a large swath of Upper Manhattan, the university wants to create an academic enclave that will both nurture intellectual progress and revitalize an urban area. Piano's design aims to accomplish both. The campus will have wide, open streets that offer a broad view of the waterfront. Along the main thoroughfares, the lower floors of the academic buildings will be mostly glass — "they will be floating," as Piano puts it — filled with shops, restaurants and arts spaces serving the broader public of Harlem and the Upper West Side. The designs are still preliminary, and plans for specific buildings have yet to be developed. But Piano, who also designed The New York Times's new headquarters, now under construction, and a well-received addition to the Morgan Library, is committed to designing the space to promote these integrationist aims. "You will feel part of the community," Piano told me when we met at Columbia's Prentis Hall, a white-tiled former milk-bottling plant on Manhattanville's southern edge. Indeed, Piano's drawings, on display in the sunny ground-floor workshop, depict transparent skyscrapers lining ample boulevards with ethereal-looking pedestrians ambling along them.
But in the eyes of many local residents, Piano's optimistic rendering obscures the fact that to fulfill its vision, the university will have to bulldoze almost everything that's already there. About 1,600 people are currently employed in this part of Manhattanville, and some 400 live there. Many residents are disturbed by the placement of the campus between a park being built at the West Harlem Pier and the community that fought for years to have that park created. Meanwhile, most everyone expects that the university's arrival will accelerate the gentrification that is already transforming the historically black neighborhood of Harlem — to the benefit of some residents and the harm of others. . . .
Columbia has already purchased more than half the property it would need. But some owners have refused to sell, and Columbia says that eminent domain remains an option if negotiations fail. It's a dicey option, however. Throughout the country, public opposition to eminent domain has mounted since last summer, when the Supreme Court ruled that private property can be seized by local governments for private development. Virtually every state has considered changing its eminent-domain laws; at least 13 different bills on the subject have been introduced in Congress. As Justice Clarence Thomas noted in his dissent in the recent Kelo case, concerning New London, Conn., an expansive definition of "public use" in the 50's and 60's permitted local governments to eliminate entire minority neighborhoods through eminent domain in the name of "urban renewal" — soon known as "Negro removal" among blacks. Not surprisingly, Columbia's talk of seizing property does not go over well in Harlem. Still, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has come out in strong support of eminent domain — which also figures in the developer Bruce Ratner's controversial efforts to construct a basketball stadium and condos in the Atlantic Yards area of Brooklyn. Without it, "every big city would have all construction come to a screeching halt," Bloomberg said recently.
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