City leaders reaffirmed their commitment to moving Columbia Secondary School from the overcrowded building it currently cohabitates with two other schools at a Community Board 9 meeting Thursday. CB9 is a local advisory board representing Morningside Heights and its surrounding areas.
Columbia Secondary School shares its walls with P.S. 125 Ralph Bunche and KIPP STAR Middle School on 123rd Street. The school is intended to provide a unique STEM and philosophy-based curriculum while connecting local students to the University and its campus. Though the current location was proposed as a temporary solution, CSS has remained in the building for over a decade—facing space constraints, dilapidated facilities, and inadequate funding.
When the University began to acquire land for its Manhattanville expansion, they proposed the idea of moving CSS into a building on 125th Street, specifically to a site occupied by a McDonald’s store.
“There was never, ever the belief that the school that Columbia was gonna build was gonna be a co-located, dilapidated elementary school. That was never it,” assemblymember Danny O’Donnell said. “It was supposed to be a state of the art school … so kids who maybe didn’t think that they belonged at a college campus could be at a college campus to learn, and so I’m taking nothing less than that for the school.”
However, following the announcement that the McDonald’s would be demolished in November, Columbia announced that it would be constructing mixed-use graduate student housing for the 34-story high-rise site. McDonald’s will still occupy retail space when the high-rise is constructed. According to local representatives, the original plan to allocate the land to the New York City Department of Education was rejected in 2011, as it did not consider the space to be appropriate for a school. However, the University’s decision sparked scrutiny from residents and city officials who said that a former promise had been broken.
Since then, the University has filed paperwork for a demolition plan to break ground this year, as the site is a part of the Manhattanville expansion. This ongoing effort by Columbia to respond to the need for more campus space has drawn scrutiny for the displacement of local residents, increased rent pressure, and improper land acquisition.
O’Donnell reaffirmed his staff’s ongoing effort to pressure Columbia and the DOE to secure a new location for CSS at the Thursday meeting.
O’Donnell said the University was informed by the DOE that the 125th Street building was rejected prior to signing the legal document that bound the University to provide CSS a space in the Manhattanville zone.
“The covenant doesn’t say you have to build at one [of these locations], it just says you have to build in the Manhattanville footprint, so if it’s the last thing I do as an elected, I’m making them keep that promise,” he expressed.
University representatives were not immediately available to respond to the claims.
O’Donnell said he has rallied other assembly members to sign a letter explaining how they will ensure the promised school will be built. He also threatened to send out negative publicity on the school if the school refuses to take action.
“All of the uptown electeds have signed off on a very strongly worded letter, and we have held back that letter to allow for DOE and others to do the right thing … but we’re holding fire until maybe we can get some sense into these people,” he said.
Shaneeka Wilson, who sits on the Youth, Education, & Libraries Committee of CB9, said she is also working with the DOE to uphold its end.
“I will die fighting to make sure that Columbia, finally, finally, after 30 years … keeps their promises,” O’Donnell said.