Columbia University’s expansion into Manhattanville reaches a milestone this May, marking a major new chapter in the story of a changing institution and neighborhood that also speaks to larger defining currents in the city that contains them.
With the opening of the first phase of a campus that has transformed the West Side neighborhood, Columbia and community leaders have largely moved past the acrimonious debate that characterized a process which began in 2003. Both sides say they’ve gained from the journey, and they believe the compromises they’ve made can serve as a model for similar projects elsewhere in the city.
The two new academic buildings slated to open on Broadway between West 129th and West 130th streets are dedicated to scientific research and art education. A 10,000-square-foot, tree-lined open space between the buildings is among the public amenities Columbia will bring to the neighborhood as part of its agreement with the city.
“We appreciate the fact that Columbia has come out early and listened to our requests for the campus,” said Padmore John, the chairman of Manhattan Community Board 9, which oversees the area.
Highlights of the nine-floor, 340,000-square-foot Jerome L. Greene Science Center include a glass exterior with metal decking. Inside are seven floors of state-of-the-art labs that serve the 800 neuroscience researchers of the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows.
“The glass is dedicated for light for their research,” said Antoine Chaaya, who helped design the building by famed architect Renzo Piano.
While the top levels are open to top veteran scientists, the ground floor is used to serve the brains of tomorrow. It features an education lab open to local schools and an interactive art installation that teaches visitors about the brain.
“The idea was to help educate non-university members who are visiting,” said Kelley Remole, who works at the institute and worked on the installation.
In addition, Columbia will operate a community wellness center that offers health screenings and mental health and stroke prevention.
“Columbia has told us that they will be hiring our local mental health workers, which is a plus,” John said.
The eight-floor, 60,000-square-foot Lenfest Center for the Arts may be smaller than the science building, but it represents a significant expansion for Columbia’s graduate arts programs. The facility includes a 4,000-square-foot art gallery, a 150-seat film screening room, a performance space and other presentation rooms.
“The MFA never had this space to its own,” said Columbia spokeswoman La-Verna Fountain. “We had to use other facilities to display student work.”
A special gala art show of MFA works is set for April 22, in what amounts to a soft opening of the expansion. The two buildings open for good on May 2 and mark the start of a new era after a lengthy process.
Columbia began construction of its campus in the former industrial sector of Broadway between 125th and 133rd streets in 2008, after five years of planning. The development was halted for two years due to lawsuits filed by business owners who refused to work out deals to sell their property and fought the state’s use of eminent domain.
The situation is hardly exclusive to Columbia and Manhattanville. Similar expansions are underway in Greewich Village, where New York University is engaged in a significant growth program tied to a 2031 completion date. Cornell Tech’s development on Roosevelt Island is set for a first phase opening this fall.
The NYU plan has faced vociferous community opposition; Roosevelt Island locals have been more welcoming though still circumspect in certain areas.
Columbia’s plan sparked major protests over the course of several years in the previous decade, and John says that process compelled the university to take community input seriously.
“We’re not trying to derail the plan but we want to be a part of it,” he said.
For example, the school has so far spent over $137 million on construction contracts for women- and minority-owned businesses in Harlem, Washington Heights and the surrounding area. It also paid over $44 million to organizations that help the neighborhood, such as the West Harlem Development Corporation, which is building affordable housing, and West Harlem Piers Park.
“We’ve made a very serious effort into getting the community involved with as many aspects of the campus as we can,” Fountain said.
As the campus moves forward to its full opening date in 2030, John said he and his neighbors will continue to be heard when it comes to its development.
“We know Columbia has a long term plan ... and we want to help define it,” he said.