After months of complaints that Columbia has not been forthcoming enough about its proposed expansion into Manhattanville, the University hosted an information session about the project Friday.
The six-hour event, held in Roone Arledge Auditorium and designed mainly for the University community, provided both informational displays and the opportunity to ask questions on expansion issues.
The open house, in the works since October, was the first in a wave of public events Columbia will hold this semester in an effort not only to inform the public about its plans, but also to quell criticisms that the expansion-planning process has been clandestine and has provided inadequate opportunity for community discussion.
To that end, the open house was attended by some of the biggest figures in Columbia's administration, including Robert Kasdin, senior executive vice president, and Mark Burstein, vice president for Facilities Management. These administrators mingled with visitors and talked openly about the expansion plans. Although University President Bollinger was in Switzerland participating in the World Economic Forum, it is likely that he will also participate in future public events.
While it was open to the general public, Burstein said that this particular event was "primarily targeted to the University community." Community members without Columbia University IDs had to sign in to enter normally access-restricted Alfred Lerner Hall. But, the administrators said, similar events will be held in locations throughout the community over the next few months.
The nature of subsequent public events, however, remains to be decided. Friday's event was in many ways an opportunity for the administration to "test the waters" in terms of format. Tables were piled with feedback cards in hopes that the administration could get a better sense of what community members are interested in seeing. Burstein called the event "one of many different outreach efforts," along with the new expansion web site and future events.
"People absorb information in different ways," Kasdin added, explaining that Columbia is interested in trying out many different event formats in order to accommodate public interest. He said that the open-house format was intended "to allow people to form their own opinions" about expansion.
Many who came to the open house looking for a comprehensive introduction to Manhattanville expansion were generally satisfied with the experience, though some noted the displays left some questions unanswered.
Anice Mills, a Butler librarian, said she had previously felt that the Columbia staff was not kept well-informed about the expansion plans. But she came away pleased. "They did very well," she said. "It was my first taste of what to expect."
Similarly, Alex Sackeim, CC '07, said he left the open house feeling more knowledgeable. "Immediately, you see the building development plans," he said, referring to displays focusing on possible architectural designs for new Columbia buildings. He added, however, that he had hoped to see more about how the area would develop as a student-friendly place and about the opportunities that would be afforded by the proximity of the Hudson River.
In all, there were 11 informational "stations," each with a presenter to explain visuals and to answer questions. Stations such as current construction projects, committee structure, and economic impacts provided information largely available on Columbia's new expansion Web site. One of the more unusual displays was on design principles, focusing on the "open design" concept favored for the new campus by architecture contractors Renzo Piano Building Workshop--a style comparable to that of Lerner Hall.
Another station described the plan for a waterfront park that will begin construction in the coming months and should be completed by fall 2005. Columbia, though, is not involved in the project.
Surprisingly, there was no representative from New York's city planning department present at the session, meaning that the all-important issue of zoning was given only cursory attention.
One issue conspicuously absent from the open house was the as-yet-undecided future of the 135th St. Marine Transfer Station, a defunct garbage-dumping point that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is considering bringing back into operation. While the traffic impacts of a Manhattanville campus and Columbia's plans to mitigate those impacts were well discussed, there was no mention of the complications that would be introduced by queuing dump trucks at a reopened station. Despite the serious traffic and environmental problems that would be associated with a functioning station, Kasdin played down Columbia's potential role in lobbying the city. "I'm confident that the mayor is going to do the right thing," he said. The area of the station appeared as a dark gray blank just north of the proposed waterfront park on colorful display maps.
Perhaps the strongest impression given by the open house was that of a work in progress. Although Columbia will be releasing more details of the plan over the next few months, Burstein stressed that the situation remains fluid. "The full plan will evolve over one or two years," he said.
Kasdin agreed, saying that he thought the school was only about 20 percent of the way through the "marathon," as he put it.