In the midst of attempts to garner residential support and purchase commercial properties, Columbia's proposed Manhattanville expansion has one more issue with which to contend: preserving local history.
Members of the Community Board 9 Landmarks Committee have submitted a proposal to add 31 structures in West Harlem to the National Landmark Registry, including 11 that are in or border Columbia's proposed expansion zone.
If approved by the state, the landmark designation would prevent Columbia from demolishing historic buildings within the expansion area. Some elected officials from West Harlem are also pushing to turn Morningside Heights into a historic district.
Manhattanville was first settled in the early 1800s as an uptown haven for those who wanted to escape the crowding and disease of downtown. It hosts several important historical buildings, including St. Joseph's Church, the oldest church in Harlem; the Spire School, a former settlement house; and the 135th Street subway viaduct, the first viaduct in the city's history.
These buildings, along with nine others, are located directly in the area into which Columbia plans to expand. CB9's Landmarks Committee and residents from all over Manhattanville are fighting to make sure these landmarks are protected from the expansion.
"The buildings are like a birthmark for a town ... they are part of what has shaped and formed the character of a neighborhood," said Eric Washington, a Manhattanville historian and author of Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem. "They tell the story of a neighborhood's function, what they did and what it aspires to."
"They are prominent in the city's understanding of its growth," said Carolyn Kent, head of CB9's Landmark Committee. She, along with Washington and several others, has submitted to the State Landmark Commission proposals on 31 buildings in the area. They are now waiting for the Landmarks Commission to review and approve their submissions.
Elected officials see the preservation committee as a key part of maintaining the integrity of the community. The buildings were "built contextually with what's around it," said Assemblyman Danny O'Donnell (D-Upper West Side). "They preserve the community."
Tom DeMott of the Coalition to Preserve Community agreed.
"The historic preservation movement for me is ... a means to an end in terms of paying attention to the history of the people who are living there," he said.
Some community members are concerned that Columbia's expansion plans into Manhattanville clash with the community's desire to protect the historic significance of Morningside Heights.
"If Columbia's plan is to bulldoze every building but the Studebaker building," said DeMott, "Columbia's goals and the goals of the historic preservation committee clash completely."
Washington agreed. "Columbia has a vision of what it wants to develop in much of this area to satisfy what it perceives as its needs," he said. "But I don't think that includes saving a lot of these buildings."
Others complain that Columbia has not worked with CB9's landmarks committee as effectively as it could have. "It would have been better for Columbia to come and discuss it with landmarks committee at the Community Board," Kent said. "They just have a tendency to believe they will work over the heads over the normal civic process because they are Columbia."
Columbia maintains that the proposed expansion will maintain the integrity of the community. "We continue to make sure that we act in ways that are consistent with prudent structures of historical importance," said Robert Kasdin, senior executive vice president of the University.
Others are concerned that there is not enough support from community members to make the historic district a reality. Support "has to come from the ground up," said CB9 chairwoman Jordi Reyes Monteblanc.
He stressed the importance of making sure the historic district is supported by the community. "It's up to the people who are going to be affected," he said. "That's part of the ongoing effort to make sure a historic district is successful."
Kent sees the transformation of Manhattanville into a historic district as a long-range goal for her committee. But for Assemblyman O'Donnell, the move to turn the area between 110th and 120th Streets and Riverside to Broadway into a historic district is among his top priorities.
"None of elected officials made it priority," he said. "I made it a priority." O'Donnell said the initial paperwork for this change has been submitted, though a date has not been set for New York City's Landmarks Preservation Committee to review that material.
O'Donnell said he hopes that Columbia will come aboard and support the movement. "It provides protection to community as well as to the institution," he said.