Manhattanville Ho!

East, East Coast
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
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Demolition of 3229 Broadway is currently underway in Manhattanville, proof of Columbia's determination to build something in the area, no matter what the courts say about pieces of its new campus the school does not control. (Courtesy Google Maps)

Last month’s court victory for opponents of Columbia University’s new campus in Manhattanville was not necessarily a defeat for the school’s planned 17-acre expansion, and not only because appeals remain. With roughly 94 percent of the area under its control, Columbia has said it plans to continue work on the campus, despite its insistence that it cannot be completed as planned without full control of all buildings therein. Last night, Columbia officials outlined their current approach to Manhattanville for the first time since the ruling at a hearing in Harlem on the future of eminent domain in the state (more on that in Issue 1!).

An early drawing of the new nueroscience center at Columbia's planned Manhattanville campus. (Courtesy WikiCU)

After an hour-and-a-half of grilling the ESDC—the state agency responsible for pursuing eminent domain on Columbia’s behalf— State Senator Bill Perkins, in whose district the project lies, set his sights on Marcello Valez, the head of construction for the Manhattanville project at Columbia, and Maxine Griffith, a former planner who is now in-charge of government affairs at the school. The pair were evasive on many issues surrounding eminent domain and the court case—technically, they are responsible for neither—but they outlined their utility, demolition, and construction work that has been ongoing for a few months now.

Most notably, 3229 Broadway continues to come down. It was the former building of Ann Whitman, one of the last remaining hold outs who eventually sold to the school in 2008 because she said she could no longer afford to fight. Her plot and an adjacent gas station will soon become home to the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, a major neuroscience project that, at the corner of 129th Street and Broadway, is supposed to be one of the new campus’ centerpieces. Work will also soon commence on an art building also on the block and, perhaps most importantly, the entry to the subterranean “bathtub,” that, World Trade Center-style, will house most of the campus’ infrastructure.

A more recent rendering of the neurocenter, which is located along Broadway between 129th and 130th streets. (Courtesy Columbia). (Courtesy Wikimedia)

The bathtub remains a crucial piece of the Manhattanville puzzle because it is part of the justification for seizing the remaining properties. “If the basement can’t connect, it would be difficult to see how the project could move forward,” Griffith said, arguing the campus would be much less pedestrian friendly and community accessible with trucks idling on the street and HVAC spewing into the air. (A member of the Coalition to Preserve Community, a local opposition group, argued it was all a planning ruse, with the school fully able to build around the holdouts.)

As for timing, Valez said that, despite the court case, everything remains on time, which is part of the reason construction work must continue on those properties controlled by Columbia. (That and the donors are old and would like to see something built while they’re still alive, Griffith admitted somewhat cheekily.) As for architecture, Renzo Piano is nearing completion on final designs for these two buildings according to Victoria Benitez, a university spokesperson in attendance last night, though no renderings are yet available. She declined to say whether the Genoan architect would be designing the rest of the buildings on campus or whether some might go to other firms.

2 Responses to “Manhattanville Ho!”

  1. Harlemite says:

    This is welcome news. More jobs and better services in the area. Columbia also has promised after school programs and monies for the community. Last time I checked those 2 hold outs are offering our community nothing. Write your reps and force the overturn on the eminent domain decision. Our neighborhood deserves this expansion for the sake of our children!

  2. MikeB says:

    Speaking as someone who has fought seizure of property rights for two years with Houston-based Spectra Energy, backed by the power of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), I can confirm that property owners do not stand on a level playing field legally, politically or economically when it comes to eminent domain.

    This is a process that amounts to legal plunder under the badge of government.

    Ultimately, power corrupts; and the power of eminent domain in the hands of government — which is transferred to a business — creates a sense of entitlement; and it creates an atmosphere ripe for abuse.

    Nowadays, eminent domain has less to do with projects for the “public good,” and everything to do with the financial good of publicly held companies and universities.

    Our group of property owners are happy to share what we’ve learned with folks fighting similar battles for property rights. For more information, start with our website:
    http://www.spectraenergywatch.com/blog/

    By the way, our new neighbor, Spectra Energy, has received two Notice of Violations for “unlawful conduct” related to emergency shutdowns and emissions at its storage field in Bedford County, PA. Reports of contaminated water supplies are on the rise since they began operations.

    Like Kelo, the ripple effects of eminent domain are never over.

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