The Manhattan Institute’s
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the city’s planning, housing, and development
A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow

Rezoning West Harlem: Good for Harlem, Good for New York

Julia Vitullo-Martin, April 2004

Manhattanville in West Harlem

Rarely in the history of New York City's development wars has any one side been able to make as effective a case for rezoning as Columbia University's plan for the desolate neighborhood to its north. The familiar signs of Manhattan's prosperity (handsome buildings, good stores and restaurants, well-tended public areas, lively street life) are absent in the West Harlem neighborhood that Columbia calls Manhattanville. The reason is simple: much of Manhattanville and environs is zoned for manufacturing - meaning that the city has for decades outlawed nearly all new residential and many new commercial uses. The city has also maintained low height restrictions on all buildings. The result is a swath of land that holds few businesses, few jobs, and almost no residences other than huge public housing projects.

At an April 21 breakfast briefing for Harlem business leaders, Columbia President Lee Bollinger released Columbia's urban design plan to build a new campus of science, academic, retail, commercial, and support spaces, including a new school of the arts. What he called "the build-out" would generate about 9,000 permanent new jobs and provide $4 billion in economic stimulus to the city. It would take up 18.3 of Manhattanville's 27 acres.

The plan is gorgeous and enumerates many of today's fashionable planning principles. (The architects are Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Skidmore Owings & Merrill.) The buildings will have transparent ground floor sections, to create a light and airy, seamless transition from building interiors to outdoor spaces. The now narrow sidewalks will be widened. Streets will be lined with trees to encourage pedestrians. Ground floors will have new retail establishments such as banks, drug stores and restaurants.

The city is doing its part by beginning construction next month on a $10.4 million waterfront park between St. Clair Place/125th Street and West 133rd Street on what is now a city-owned parking lot. "The idea," says Janel Patterson, spokesperson for the city's Economic Development Corporation, is to encourage economic development in the area by providing public amenities."

Great cities need their great universities - and smart cities do all they can to nurture and sustain them. As New York's 12th-largest employer, with 9,000 employees and 23,000 students, Columbia is one of New York's strongest economic engines. After decades of trauma and decline, Columbia is now back at the top of its game, fully restored to its former eminence. But it needs precisely what caused it so much tribulation in the 1960s: more land. With only 194 square feet per student, Columbia has far less space than Princeton's 561 square feet, Penn's 440 or Harvard's 368.

Columbia's Morningside Heights campus is nearly as land-locked as Afghanistan. It is bordered on the east by Morningside Park, Morningside Heights onto whose sacred land Columbia tried building its infamous gym in 1968. It is bordered on the west by apartment buildings, many of which it owns, as well as Riverside Drive and Riverside Park. It has bought whatever property it could to its south, but owns very little below 111th Street. Only its northern border of 122nd Street is somewhat permeable - or would be if the zoning is changed to make the property usable.

Columbia considered moving out of town, to either New Jersey or to Rockland County, and had also looked at Trump's property on the West Side, according to executive vice president Emily Lloyd. The first two options held calamitous implications for New York. The Trump option, which might have worked, would have been extremely expensive. Ms. Lloyd says they "talked on and off for four years but never really came close to agreement." The Manhattanville option is ideal.

Of the mostly underused 17 acres in the expansion plan bounded by Broadway and 12th Avenue and 125th and 133rd streets, Columbia already owns or leases a little over 40 percent. The area has languished for decades. Marred by the emergence of the West Side subway into an elevated line on Broadway, the area has developed as a jumble of gas stations, auto repair shops, warehouses, storage facilities, locksmiths, and a few food outlets, generating very little income for the area and employing few people. Indeed, the area's employment dropped from 1900 to 1100 over the past 20 years, according to Lloyd. And over 300 of those jobs are with public agencies: the NYPD, New York City Transit's two bus depots, and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Like Columbia itself, Harlem is a famous American franchise that stumbled badly, brought down by crime, poverty, riots, and self-defeating politics. And like Columbia, Harlem has made a spectacular comeback. This marriage can benefit both partners.

As mayoral adviser and Barnard/Columbia professor Ester Fuchs points out, "Right now Manhattanville is contributing little to the economy of Harlem. The plan will displace blighted, abandoned industrial sites with productive uses. It will regenerate the area, which is what New York is all about. No urban site is perfectly empty but this comes close."

Community activists are skeptical that Columbia will indeed hire Harlem residents, and it's their job to make sure that Columbia does. Bollinger said that under his reign Columbia has made 20 percent of its new hires from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, which is made up of Harlem, plus Washington Heights and Inwood.

Many of Columbia's sins of the past were simply the planning sins of the times. Yes, Columbia built a tower for faculty housing with its back to the community, in this case Harlem, and its front door to the university - but so did every other university. Walk any urban campus - Harvard, Chicago, Penn - and you can easily identify the hostile buildings erected in those fearful decades. Now we all know better - and so does Columbia. We know that street life is good, and has to be encouraged with retail services even when the landlord is a university.

But the most important point is that Manhattanville is mostly derelict now. And though some opponents have been trying to argue that the neighborhood is historic, it really is not. As the distinguished urban historian Kenneth Jackson says: "The area is not historic in the sense that architecturally important buildings occupy the site or that major events ever took place there. Rather, that part of Manhattanville is somewhat nondescript and for most of its history the rats have outnumbered the people because the area has been filled with commercial and industrial and meatpacking structures rather than with houses or apartment buildings."

In other words, there is virtually no preservation argument against developing Manhattanville.

Much of the area is currently zoned for manufacturing and commercial use with Floor Area Ratios of two. Columbia is likely to ask for mixed-use zoning and for an upgrade to a FAR of six. This would represent a huge increase that would allow Columbia to build substantially larger buildings than anything now there. But that's good. Bounded on one side by a highway and on the other by public transit, this area should be developed to high density - similar to the density typical of the West Side, which generally has a FAR of 9 or 10 on the main avenues and a FAR of 7 on the brownstone streets. Density will provide the critical mass of people who will in turn demand good services, stores, cafes, and restaurants - thereby also ensuring the active street life that will keep the neighborhood safe.

Columbia will ask the city to certify that its application for rezoning is complete and therefore ready for public review some time in the next few months. This will mark only the very beginning of what will be a long and difficult series of public hearings and reports.

April 2004
Columbia University plans for expansion
The Columbia Spectator tracks Columbia's plans
Community Gazette for District 7 (West Harlem & Washington Heights)
City planning on revitalizing West Harlem
Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone
Kenneth Knuckles, Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Head
Community Board 9 calendar
NYPD 30th Precinct
City says lead paint abatement will be costly
Housing groups at odds over lead-paint law
Mayor will demolish Staten Island's Homeport
Community facilities zoning text proposal
Municipal Art Society report on zoning variances
IBO report: as federal aid drops, city's cost for policing public housing climbs
Will development improve or ruin Brooklyn? asks New York Magazine
South Brooklyn group declares Red Hook a neighborhood on the verge
Bloggers weigh in on Red Hook
“Manhattanville has relatively little of historic interest. The eclectic Fairway grocery store, with its huge meat section, is a reminder of the old meatpacking operations which so long dominated the streets under the viaduct. Nor is this a historically black section. African-Americans came later to the streets west of Broadway than to central Harlem, and there was only a small black population there before World War II.”
Kenneth T. Jackson, Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University
“What's wrong here is that people think neighborhoods should stay the same. But the strength of New York has always been neighborhood regeneration. Columbia's commitment to engage the community is strong. This should be a win win for everyone.”
Ester Fuchs, Special Advisor to the Mayor