Columbia University Expands into West Harlem

In 2006, Columbia University requested that the New York City Zoning Commission rezone 35 acres of land in the West Harlem/Manhattanville area of New York City.  This request was the first step in Columbia University’s endeavor to begin work on constructing a new 17-acre campus, just North of the main Morningside Heights campus.  This new campus would become home for a new business school, arts school, lab facilities, and potentially new swimming facilities and dormitories.  Over the course of the early 2000’s, Columbia University had purchased much of the 17-acre property, which covered the majority of blocks from 125th Street to 133rd Street between Broadway and 12th Avenue.  However, there were two holdout properties that refused to cave to the pressure being applied by the University.  The final piece of the puzzle came together for Columbia University in late 2008, when the State of New York’s Empire State Development Corporation approved the use of eminent domain, effectively eliminating any final legal recourse of the two hold-out properties and paving the way for Columbia University to begin their expansion plan.

Columbia University

Columbia University’s main campus covers 32 acres from 114th street to 120th street in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.  The Morningside Heights campus is home to many dorms, libraries, and academic buildings, some of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places (Low Memorial Library, Philosophy Hall, Pupin Hall).  Columbia University also has other satellite campuses and affiliates throughout the New York City area, some of which include New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center, New York Psychiatric Institute, and the Baker Field facilities.

The Morningside Heights campus expansion would be a roughly $7 billion project.  Columbia University cites the need to keep pace with its other Ivy League competitors, specifically Harvard University which as of 2006 was seeking a new 200-acre campus in Boston, as well as the University of Pennsylvania which has a 40-acre expansion plan in Philadelphia.  Columbia University’s expansion would come as a two-part process: the first stage would consist of the construction of new facilities for arts and business schools, along with dozens of modern science research laboratories; the second stage would consist of further academic buildings, dormitories, and athletic facilities.[1]

West Harlem Residents vs. Columbia University

Tension between Columbia University and West Harlem residents is not a new sentiment.  Although there have been a number of disputes between residents and the University, the most recent and significant disagreement dates to 1968.  In 1961, Columbia University proposed the construction of a gymnasium on the city-owned property of Morningside Park, which at that time was seen as a benefit both to the Harlem residents and the Columbia University students.  The structural layout of the gym consisted of a back entrance to a lower level facility for the local community residents, and a front entrance to another level for students.  From 1965 to 1968, in concurrence with increasing racial tension throughout America, unease was also escalating between local residents and the University.  While the University maintained the separate entrances were simply a factor of the steep-sloped natural geography of the park, Harlem residents began to paint the project in a segregationist and discriminatory light, eventually dubbing the project “Gym Crow.”[2]

Many residents still had the bad taste left in their mouth from these 1968 protests when they began to hear about the new Manhattanville expansion project, only a dozen blocks from Morningside Park.  Columbia University has a history of evicting local residents (more than 7,000 since 1958) from Columbia-owned properties.  With that in mind, the Manhattanville expansion project was met with much opposition.

Early on in the process, the issue of eminent domain came to the forefront: a law that enables organizations to take over private properties as long as the resulting project serves a public benefit (the law is intentionally vague and is interpreted on a case-by-case basis).  Specifically, this law would apply to two holdout properties, Tuck-It-Away Storage and two gas stations owned by the Singh/Kaur family.  Columbia University cites the need for a contiguous campus, and the acquisition of those holdout properties would accomplish that goal.

If all goes to plan for Columbia University, the project would result in the elimination of an MTA garage, Con Edison buildings, lighting industry facilities, storage warehouses, some family owned businesses, and perhaps most significantly some low-cost residences.  In 2006, the West Harlem residents were not opposed to Columbia University’s expansion, but were pushing for an alternate proposal that would retain the lighting industry and construct affordable housing.[3]

The residents’ greatest fear is that they will be displaced from their homes and businesses and will be unable to find locations of comparable price or in a similar neighborhood.  The demolition of buildings and excavation of ground will directly cause displacement of homes, businesses, and community institutions.  Additionally, indirect displacement will be caused by increased demand of housing and facilities by higher-income groups.  In a city that is already strapped for affordable housing, many claim that Columbia University is only exacerbating this problem.[4]

Claimed Benefits to the Community

Columbia University was not willing to let the residents’ and activists’ protests go uncontested, and (along with Boro-President Scott Stringer) announced a list of commitments as part of the project.  Some of these commitments include:

–        Creation of a $20 million affordable housing fund.

–        Abide by best practices for environmentally sustainable construction and design.

–        Create a 6,300 square foot public park on land that was previously slated for development.

–        Contribute $500,000 to playground, schoolyard, and open space improvements.

–        Create a Community Information, Opportunities, and Resources Center to provide one-stop access for community members seeking information about employment opportunities, construction schedules, site safety and mitigation, community-oriented service programs, housing opportunities created by the affordable housing fund, and other community resources.[5]

Additionally, once facilities are up and running, it is estimated they will bring in approximately 6,000-7,000 jobs to the community.  It has already been documented that the University has a record of hiring minority-, women- and locally-owned contractors, along with the fact that local Upper Manhattan residents already comprise approximately one third of the University staff and administration.[6]

Progress to Date

As stated, Columbia University’s goal of a contiguous campus was dependent on the acquisition of a few holdout properties: Tuck-It-Away Storage and two gas stations.  In order to secure these properties, Columbia University needed to invoke eminent domain.  For that to be a possibility, the area of interest needed to be classified as an area of “blight.”  To that end, Columbia University and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) independently hired the consulting agency Alee King Rosen & Fleming (AKRF) to determine if the area was blighted.  In the two separate reports, AKRF came to the conclusion that the Manhattanville area was indeed blighted, citing “physical and structural conditions, health and safety concerns, building code violations, underutilization, and environmental hazards.”[7]

Upon condemnation of the remaining holdout properties, the Singh/Kaur family (owners of the gas stations) brought suit against Columbia University and the ESDC on Dec. 3rd 2009.  Upon learning that Columbia University and the ESDC had hired the same consulting company for the determination of blight, the Sing/Kaur attorney hired a different agency for an independent study, which resulted in a 500-page submission to the court of a No Blight Study on the area.  Based on the submission, the court ruled in favor of Singh/Kaur, overturning the determination that the Manhattanville area was blighted.[8] Additionally, the court determined that the true beneficiary of the project was not the community, but the university, thus nullifying the use of eminent domain.[9]

The ESDC appealed the decision citing that the determination of this case should follow the same reasoning of a previous court case that dealt with the issue of eminent domain, Goldstein v. New York State Urban Development Court.  Although the conditions of the Singh/Kaur and Goldstein cases were not quite the same, the court of appeals stated that “blight is an elastic concept that does not call for an inflexible, one-size-fits-all definition.”[10]  The court of appeals agreed with AKRF’s findings of blight and overturned the decision of the previous court on June 24th, 2010.  Additionally, the court found that the campus expansion was indeed a “civic project” applicable to eminent domain.[11]  A final appeal was made on behalf of Singh/Kaur et al., but was denied by the US Supreme Court on Dec. 13th, 2010.  With that final verdict, Columbia University had all the pieces in place to begin development, and the first stage  (the business school, arts school, and research lab facilities) is predicted to be completed by 2015.

Utilitarian Perspective

The issue of the Columbia University expansion project into West Harlem/Manhattanville is one that can be directly analyzed in the context of Utilitarianism.  Due to the fact that the project is in its infant stage, there is not a lot to analyze in terms of figures, data, expenses, and so on.  However, it is very possible to analyze the situation in terms of what the local area will be losing and gaining as a result of the expansion.  Most of these gains and losses have already been mentioned: the community would lose a few local businesses, the lighting industry factories, storage warehouses, an M.T.A. garage, and housing; the gains would be state of the art facilities, thousands of jobs, what will surely be a massive economic stimulus, a small public park, and intangibles such as staying in competition with other Ivy League schools.  So the question is, do these gains outweigh the losses?

Although the local residents absolutely have legitimate concerns, it seems fairly clear that Columbia University is bringing about a much-needed change to the area.  One aspect of utilitarianism is that the “utilitarian is not concerned solely with short-term benefit-to-harm ratios: long-term consequences also have to be calculated.”[12]  I would consider myself to be a native of the area, and I would fully agree with the assessment of the area in question as a “blighted area.”  If the warehouses and lighting factories aren’t actually abandoned, they certainly appear to be; the affordable housing is decrepit; and the whole area has a general appearance of squalor, serving mostly as a thoroughfare onto the West Side Highway.

Despite the fact that some of the “charm” and “spirit” of the Manhattanville area might be lost, families displaced, and businesses forced to move, it seems that a utilitarian would fall on Columbia University’s side of the fence as creating the greatest good.  The project will serve to greatly revitalize an area that has been stagnant for years, the completed buildings will provide jobs to both locals and others, and Columbia has pledged to help residents and business owners relocate.

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[1] In West Harlem Land Dispute, It’s Columbia vs. Residents

[2] Columbia University Protests of 1968

[3] In West Harlem Land Dispute, It’s Columbia vs. Residents

[4] WE ACT Official Written Comments on Columbia Expansion Plan

[5] Boro-President Scott Stringer Announces Agreement with Columbia University and Manhattanville Community

[6] Dinkins says Columbia’s Manhattanville Manufacturing Zone will benefit Harlem

[7] Balancing Blight: Using the Rules Versus Standards Debate to Construct a Workable Definition of Blight

[8] Forum Asks: Is eminent domain abuse government abuse?

[9] Kaur et al., v. NYS Urban Development Corporation.  72 A.D.3d 1; 892 N.Y.S.2d 8

[10] Balancing Blight: Using the Rules Versus Standards Debate to Construct a Workable Definition of Blight

[11] Court of Appeals of New York, Kaur et al. v. NYS Urban Development Corp.  15 N.Y.3d 235; 933 N.E.2d 721; 907 N.Y.S.2d 122

[12] Utilitarianism and Business Ethics

Works Cited

Albritton, Akosua K. “Forum Asks: Is Eminent Domain Abuse Government Abuse?” New York Amsterdam News 24 Dec. 2009, 100th ed., sec. 52: 15. Web. 7 Apr. 2012. <;.

Astor, Maggie, and Kim Kirschenbaum. “M’ville Expansion Clears Last Major Hurdle, State Approves Eminent Domain.” Columbia Spectator [New York City] 18 Dec. 2008. Columbia Daily Spectator. Web. 7 Apr. 2012. <;.

“Boro-President Scott Stringer Announces Agreement With Columbia University and Manhattanville Community.” The Culvert Chronicles [New York City] 4 Oct. 2007, 2nd ed., sec. 38: 1-2. Web. 7 Apr. 2012. <;.

“Dinkins Says Columbia’s Manhattanville Manufacturing Zone Will Benefit Harlem.” New York Beacon 15 Mar. 2007, 14th ed., sec. 11: 4. Web. 7 Apr. 2012. <;.

Kokot, Matthew J. “Balancing Blight: Using the Rules Versus Standards Debate to Construct a Workable Definition of Blight.” Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems 45.1 (2011): 45-82. Http:// Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems. Web. 7 Apr. 2012.

Matter of Kaur v New York State Urban Dev. Corp. Court of Appeals of New Yotk. 24 June 2010. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 7 Apr. 2012. <;.

Matter of Kaur v New York State Urban Dev. Corp. Supreme Court of New York. 3 Dec. 2009. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 7 Apr. 2012. <;.

Snowyenbos, Milton, and James Humber. “Utilitarianism and Business Ethics.” Print.

Williams, Timothy. “In West Harlem Land Dispute, It’s Columbia vs. Residents.” The New York Times 20 Nov. 2006. Web. 7 Apr. 2012.


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