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Columbia Spectator Staff

If all goes according to the plans, Columbia University will be movin' on up.

Most obviously, the university will physically move: with its presentation to the Community Board this week, Columbia officially detailed its intention to add a campus in Manhattanville, five blocks uptown from its Morningside Heights campus.

But, administrators say, the school will also be moving up in a different way--adding research space, academic buildings, and dormitories that will help Columbia, which has long been starved for space, compete with its peer institutions as it enters the 21st century.

The targeted completion date for the new campus is still 30 years away. Nothing can begin for another year; there is a complicated process developers must go through before areas can be changed in such substantial ways, and Manhattanville, which is currently zoned for industry, must be rezoned before Columbia can realistically develop it.

But for now, the focus is on the plans for Columbia's biggest expansion since 1896, the year in which the university moved to its current location in Morningside Heights.

In the next 10 to 12 years, administrators hope to complete several major projects, such as a new campus for the School of the Arts, a building for scientific research, and the relocation of some offices to the Studebaker Building between 132nd and 133rd Streets. This move is scheduled for next year, when the Office of Government and Community Affairs will be moving there.

Farther into the future, plans are more vague. Although two distinguished architecture firms--the Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Skidmore, Merrill, and Owings--have already composed a series of drawings that suggest how the campus might look some day, administrators are still unclear as to what those projected buildings will house.

The drawings the architectural firms have done, however, have revealed urban planning principles that will guide the redesigning of the area. The ground floor will be reserved for retail space, though the process is a long way from determining what kinds of businesses will fill that space.

Many of the space necessities, such as delivery entrances and maintenance areas, would be met through an underground network that would extend throughout the Manhattanville campus. Also, the series of drawings presented so far by Columbia have emphasized keeping open the cross-streets that run through Manhattanville.

Renzo Piano, who gained his fame by designing the Pompidou Centre in Paris, said he admires "the sense of perfection and dignity" built into the Morningside Heights campus. But new times call for a new design, he said.

"Today, we still look for a level of dignity, but the story we have to tell is a different one," he said. "It's more about breaking the walls between the educational life or the academic life, and the real life."

He said he hopes to do this in part by ensuring that retail space extends on the ground floor throughout the campus. "The city continues inside the campus," Piano said. "There is no separation between the city and the campus."

Marilyn Taylor, a partner in Skidmore, Merrill, and Owings, said that the new campus would fit in with the Washington Heights and Morningside Heights campuses. "The new space will be of no value unless it is incorporated with the Washington Heights and Morningside Heights campus[es]," Taylor said.

The new campus would still be distinctive, Taylor said. "We view Manhattanville as a place that will be a magnet of its own," she said.

During the long journey from blueprints to buildings, however, there are plenty of potential pitfalls.

The rezoning of Manhattanville could become a problem. Zoning laws allow for a certain Floor Area Ratio (FAR), which dictates how large a building may be relative to the size of its site.

Currently, Columbia is basing its plans on a generalized zoning configuration that would allow it to move ratios from one building to another, thus allowing buildings that are taller than the average to be built if other buildings in the same area are shorter than the average. Robert Kasdin, Columbia's senior executive vice president, said that he is "cautiously optimistic" that the required changes will go through.

There is also the issue of ownership of the property. The university owns a good percentage of the property in the site it wishes to develop--about 42 percent, according to Vice President of Facilities Management Mark Burstein--but University President Lee Bollinger has said that Columbia will pick a new area for expansion if it does not own all the property in the area. "If we cannot have the opportunity to develop the entire site, then we won't do it," Bollinger said. "It's really that important, I think."

The reaction the expansion will get from the community is still unclear. Often, the community is represented as a monolithic entity, which it is not. It is clear, however, that interest in the expansion is very high, as proved by the 150 or so locals who showed up at the Community Board session in which Columbia administrators presented the preliminary plans this week.

What is also clear is that there are many who have serious problems with the expansion. They have been organizing for almost a year now, and the questions they have asked over this time have indicated their concerns: Will rising property values, which would certainly ensue if Columbia moves into the neighborhood, force out longtime residents? Will the expansion be conducted in a way that would result in a large economic benefit for the surrounding community? Will the historic character of the surrounding neighborhoods be preserved?

These questions, and others, will remain on the table, and activists will continue to pressure Columbia's representatives to answer them.

Now, though, after much anticipation, the real debate can begin.

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