Columbia's Expansion in West Manhattanville

Columbia University sees a long-term need to expand in the West Manhattanville neighborhood north of 125th St. and west of Broadway. This area is currently an industrial wasteland consisting of auto body shops, self-storage warehouses, meat-cutters, gas stations, fast-food outlets, social-service offices, a bus-maintenance garage, the Fairway uber-supermarket, and various odds and ends. Click here and here for pictures. Click here for a New York Times story on this whole situation. Click here for a map -- the area in question is at the upper right. Click here for a .pdf introduction to the redevelopment.


1. It has been obvious for some time they were contemplating this.

2. Nice to see it out in the open; i.e. Columbia isn't keeping secrets or playing games with the community.

3. Columbia plans decades ahead; it may be 20 years before they actually build north of 125th St.

4. It's kind of a yucky area, although the part under the viaduct and along the river has a unique atmosphere and perhaps some potential.

5. The only reason Columbia is short of space is that they perversely refuse to follow the original 1897 plan for campus. This problem is analyzed here:

6. The idea of this area as "a link to the Health Sciences campus" in Washington Heights is ridiculous. The different pieces are not within walking distance. If Columbia plans to develop facilities from here to 168th St, it will end up with the worst of all possible worlds: Manhattan crowding plus suburban-like sprawl and inconvenience.

7. If Columbia builds in West Manhattanville, it sacrifices its physical compactness, which is one of the few assets it has that helps build community in a city where the excitements of the town tend to weaken people's attachment to the university itself.

8. Therefore, if I were Columbia, I would use this space as a target area to relocate nonessential facilities to from Morningside Heights, in order to free up space "on the hill." For example, they could rebuild St. Luke's Hospital on 125th St. and take over its existing buildings. St. Luke's gains nothing from being across the street from the Columbia science labs; new Columbia laboratories would gain a lot. Harlem would get a new hospital; everybody wins.

9. Architecturally, if Columbia wants to indulge avant-garde weirdness to prove how hip it is, let it do so in West Manhattanville, where (almost) nobody lives and there is (almost) no existing context worth preserving. That they have hired Renzo Piano suggests they want to do this; that they have hired Skidmore, Owings & Merrill suggests they want the discipline of a corporate architect to keep it efficient, just as they hired Gruzen Samton to hold Bernard Tschumi's leash on Lerner Hall.

10. If you look at the map of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone here,, you'll see that the zone was carefully gerrymandered to include this area. Public scrutiny of how this may be used to provide a public subsidy to Columbia is called for. Of course, if they create jobs et cetera, this may be justifiable.

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