President Bollinger’s Vision Takes Shape at Manhattanville

A look at the process behind how an idea became a reality in West Harlem.

The Vision

On October 3, 2002, Columbia University inaugurated its 19th president, Lee C. Bollinger. In his address to the crowd that had gathered in front of Low Library, Bollinger laid out his vision for Columbia as it entered the 21st century. He heralded it as “the Quintessential Great Urban University,” an institution of uncommon scholarly excellence that was very much a part of the city, the country, and the world. Heading into the next century, the task would be to strengthen the bonds that tied the university to the City of New York, broaden Columbia’s global reach and outlook, and expand its commitment to diversity. Undergirding all of this would be a pledge to deepen the institution’s engagement with the great problems facing society, while retaining Columbia’s distinctive academic character.

President Bollinger described his vision for Columbia's future in his inaugural address.PHOTO: Eileen Barroso

Central to this vision was a bold plan to expand the university’s constrained physical space to give Columbia the room it needed to grow and thrive. After careful deliberation, Bollinger proposed a campus spanning 125th Street to 133rd Street along Broadway to 12th Avenue in West Harlem, in an area known as Manhattanville. 

A former industrial neighborhood, Manhattanville was then home to warehouses, meatpacking factories, and auto-repair shops. Since the 1970s, Columbia had had a small presence in the area that included two buildings. Many residents of the neighborhoods around Columbia had concerns about the expansion, due in part to tensions dating back to the university’s abandoned proposal in 1968 to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park.

To move forward, the university formed advisory boards for the local residents, students, and faculty, which met from 2004 to 2005 to discuss the impact of the expansion on the communities of Upper Manhattan. President Bollinger expanded the university’s office of community and government affairs and tasked the team with considering the diverse interests of Columbia’s neighbors while guiding the university through the city and state approval processes necessary to begin construction. 

The Approval Process

The first step was to secure city approval to rezone the area planned for Columbia’s expansion for mixed-use development through New York City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). In the fall of 2005, Columbia commissioned an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to outline the consequences to the environment of the project. This is required of all significant building projects in New York City and had to be done before the ULURP process could begin. 

Public meetings were held as the EIS was drafted. Feedback was mixed and some supporters of the proposed campus felt silenced. In response, Columbia made changes to its overall plan, and shifted communications and outreach strategies with its neighbors, holding regular meetings with dozens of community organizations. In 2007, the draft EIS, which had undergone significant revisions based on public input, was approved. Pre-certification was complete, and the official ULURP process could begin. 

The proceedings were further complicated when a handful of business owners in the area refused Columbia’s purchase offers. In order to preserve Columbia’s vision for a cohesive, contiguous campus, the university petitioned New York State to make use of eminent domain in the event that it would be needed to acquire any remaining commercial properties. Doing so required demonstrating that the proposed campus plan would best serve the public good and led to a public approval process with the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) that ran more or less concurrently with ULURP. 

Left: 125th Street looking NW from Broadway to Riverside Drive viaduct, circa 2003; right: early sketch of campus greening plan.

The start of ULURP required Community Board 9 (CB9), which represented the district containing both Morningside Heights and Manhattanville, to assess the rezoning proposal prior to a similar review by the Office of the Manhattan Borough President. Public hearings would be conducted and recommendations from both the Board and the Borough President would be presented to the City Planning Commission and New York City Council. After a public hearing of its own, each body would vote on the proposal and issue a binding decision. 

CB9 voted down the proposal. Scott Stringer, then-Manhattan Borough President, approved it with conditions. These included a $20 million contribution from the university to an affordable housing fund, an agreement to engage in environmentally sustainable construction, and the creation of a community resource center to update local residents on job opportunities and the project’s process. Public hearings were held and strong views were expressed, and from those tensions was born an agreement with Stringer’s office on September 26, 2007. The City Planning Commission shortly thereafter approved the plan with minor changes, and on December 19 of the same year, the City Council approved the rezoning of the area. 

Crafting a Community Benefits Agreement

Shortly after the Manhattanville expansion proposal was announced, the office of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made it clear that the university needed to produce a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) to offset the project’s social and economic effects on the surrounding neighborhood. Working with Columbia, Community Board 9, and other stakeholders, the City created processes through which local residents could voice their concerns and collaborate in the drafting of the agreement. To provide a non-government entity with which the university could negotiate, CB9 helped create an independent organization known as the West Harlem Local Development Corporation (WHLDC). The WHLDC included representatives from environmental protection associations, historic preservation societies, arts groups, small businesses, housing developers, and retailers. Organizations and businesses voted for representatives to place on the board. Elected officials representing Upper Manhattan were also invited to nominate board representatives. 

As the negotiation sessions for the CBA transitioned from large, formal meetings into smaller, less formal ones, the agreement began to take shape. The benefits offered by Columbia fell into three main categories: a $76 million benefits fund, $20 million in non-monetary services, including the use of the university’s facilities, and additional commitments like Columbia’s guarantee to contract an agreed-upon number of minority-, women-, and locally owned (MWL) businesses and workers for the construction project. 

Additional key elements of the CBA include an affordable housing fund, money for housing legal assistance, a community scholars program, Columbia undergraduate scholarships, employment information and training, dental services for preschoolers, and a K-8 public school that would be sponsored by Columbia-affiliated Teachers College. Many of the programs and initiatives that went into the final CBA were established at this point, but flexibility was baked in as well, particularly with regard to the non-monetary services, to allow for change as the needs of the community evolved. 

The WHLDC was eventually restructured into the West Harlem Development Corporation (WHDC). Its role was to administer the CBA, distribute its funds and services and work with the State and City to enforce its terms. Columbia is not represented on the WHDC, but has worked with the group to ensure the benefits it offers align with the needs of local residents. 

The Final Hurdles

On May 18, 2009, the Community Benefits Agreement was signed. Two days later, the state-level process was completed when the university’s General Project Plan (GPP) was approved by the Public Authorities Control Board. It had been ratified by the Empire State Development Corporation. 

Columbia now had the necessary public approvals, but a few final hurdles remained. One of the business owners who had refused Columbia’s initial purchase offer filed suit with the New York State Supreme Court to block the use of eminent domain on behalf of the university to acquire his land. He and two additional co-defendants received a ruling in their favor before the decision was overturned by the New York State Court of Appeals in a unanimous decision. The petitioner appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it, allowing Columbia to proceed with the project. 

The New Campus and the Future

In the years following the signing of the Community Benefits Agreement and the layers of approval processes, the new campus in Manhattanville has taken shape in a neighborhood that is revitalizing. Small businesses and new restaurants have moved in. A new waterfront park at West Harlem Piers has opened. 

The university has continued to prioritize its commitment to its neighbors through programs and initiatives dedicated to health care, food insecurity, mentoring, business development, job training, employment, career development, community scholarship and child, youth, and adult education. It has also focused on hiring women, local, and minority workers and filling the new retail spaces with local businesses. More than $470 million has been paid to date to minority-, women- or locally-owned (MWL) construction trade firms

In 2017, the university opened the first two buildings on the new Manhattanville campus, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center and the Lenfest Center for the Arts. They were followed in 2018 by the Forum. In January 2022, the first phase of the Manhattanville campus expansion will be complete with the opening of Columbia Business School’s new facilities, Henry R. Kravis Hall and David Geffen Hall. Central to the Master Plan for the new campus is the creation of indoor and outdoor spaces that are public, open, and inviting to local residents and blend in seamlessly with the streetscape.