For the moment, Columbia's plans to expand into Manhattanville are flying below the radar. Why? Well, 2005 is an election year for both the Mayor and for Manhattan Borough President. Criticizing the development projects of large institutions is a great way for candidates to score political points. Despite the encouragement of the pro-development Mayor Michael Bloomberg, this is not a good year to be building in New York City.
Several major projects now occupy the attention of the city: most controversially, a stadium that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in city money to put football's New York Jets in Manhattan. Developments in Brooklyn, possibly including a stadium for basketball's New Jersey Nets and a performing space designed by prominent architect Frank Gehry, are also hot topics.
These projects have made large-scale construction a sensitive issue this year. Thus, administrators will probably wait until next year to submit plans to the city. So, with all seemingly quiet on the Manhattanville front—considering how much work is going on behind the scenes, the lull is almost deceptive—now is a good time to evaluate Columbia's efforts.
First, it's clear that Columbia understands the harm caused by its perceived disregard for the community. Most people know that, historically speaking, community relations have not been the school's strong point. Even after last summer's departure of the well-respected Emily Lloyd, Columbia's former executive vice president for government and community affairs, the Bollinger administration seems to grasp this.
Columbia has made numerous efforts to achieve a good relationship with the community: the University set up a Community Advisory Board composed of prominent local residents to discuss the expansion; administrators held a series of informational meetings in local apartment buildings; Lee Bollinger met with leaders of the Coalition to Preserve Community, a group that has been vociferously critical of the expansion into West Harlem.
Columbia has a sophisticated public relations staff that has worked to create the perception of reaching out. The effort has surpassed anything Columbia has done before, and the University should be commended for that.
Still, there are a number of unanswered questions. How much of this outreach campaign will be incorporated in the buildings themselves? So far, administrators have not convinced anyone that they will adequately address the concerns that have been raised. The plans Columbia released in March included a 27-floor building that would have been grossly out of place in the neighborhood and that the University cannot possibly build; simply lowering the height of that building and claiming compromise is not enough. When Columbia administrators talk about the number of jobs that will be added in the area, how can we be sure that they won't be low-paying janitorial and security jobs? To what extent will Columbia recruit minorities and local residents to be in charge of these projects?
As of yet, there is no plan for dealing with what are sure to be escalating real estate prices in Manhattanville. Columbia understandably preaches the positive aspect of economic development, but there is a huge downside to creating a neighborhood with fancy architecture and high-end stores: as the property value of apartments in the neighborhood rises, long-time residents will not be able to afford the apartments they once could. Some people work in the area covered by Columbia's expansion, though that number is relatively small. The larger concern is the extent of the impact on the residents and businesses of surrounding blocks. Negotiations are currently underway; the results should be watched closely.
Few people question that Columbia must expand to keep up with the rest of the academic world. The real question is how to do this.
President Bollinger and the rest of the administration have a responsibility to look out for the best interests of Columbia. That's not their only responsibility, though. When undertaking a major project like this one—over 40 years, the projected cost is close to four billion dollars, almost the size of Columbia's entire endowment—administrators must take into account the impact on the area.
If Columbia will not live up to its highest ideals at its current size, what's the point of getting bigger? More than almost any other university, Columbia preaches engagement with, and betterment of, the world surrounding it. It must be forced to live up to its rhetoric. Instead of exacerbating economic disparities, the University has an obligation to ensure that the project brings high-paying jobs to local residents; instead of confirming the worst suspicions of Harlem residents, it has an obligation to productively collaborate with them; instead of only making the community prettier, it has an obligation to make it better.