The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Columbia University are proceeding with plans to redevelop three subway stations in time for the school’s 250th anniversary in October 2004-over protests from neighborhood groups who say the fast pace has already caused damage to the landmarked stations and is being rushed to meet the schedule of a powerful private institution.
M.T.A. officials defended the tight construction timeline and said that they have taken considerable measures to protect the landmark stations during construction. Still, the dispute casts a light on the nascent struggle between the university and some neighborhood preservationists, who fear that large institutions like Columbia have the potential to become development juggernauts.
Tom Kelly, the chief spokesman for the M.T.A., told The Observer that the deadline for completing the renovations, which began in March, would be observed.
“Obviously, that will be a very frequently used station during all of their celebrations,” he said. “The timeline was a wish that our chairman had, New York City transit had and Columbia had.”
There is no doubt that Columbia wishes to expand-dramatically. The Ivy League college also has the lowest square footage per student, a fact that the administration is seeking to rectify. In the last decade, the university has added 1.2 million square feet, and Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, has talked about doubling Columbia’s size and contributing to infrastructure improvements in the area that redound to the university’s benefit.
In February, Mr. Bollinger announced that the university would begin an ambitious one-year campus-planning study to identify long-term development options to expand its four New York locations, including the 36-acre Morningside Heights campus, where the university currently has 6.6 million square feet of building space. The university has assembled a powerhouse architectural team that includes Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the house architect for Manhattan’s business elite, and the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (based in Paris and Genoa, Italy), the firm that won commissions to design The New York Times ‘ new headquarters near Times Square; an addition to the Pierpont Morgan Library; and the reconstruction of the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin.
For some residents of Morningside Heights, the push looks like an early sign of the kind of decades-long battle that has embroiled another neighborhood-Greenwich Village-and another elite New York academic institution: New York University. There, in the course of three decades, preservationists have lost battles to preserve the 19th-century townhouses at the southern edge of the park, where N.Y.U.’s 12-story library, law school and student center now stand; Luchow’s, the storied German restaurant on 14th Street between Third and Fourth avenues, which has been replaced by University Hall, a 700-bed, 20-story dormitory that opened in 1998; and the façade of a townhouse on West Third Street where Edgar Allan Poe once lived. Most recently, preservationists failed to prevent the construction of a 16-story, $80 million residence hall and gymnasium on the site of the Palladium dance club on East 14th Street, the Max Hymen hot spot where Tito Puente sparked the mambo craze in the 1950′s.
The battle over the three Upper West Side train stations took on shades of the N.Y.U. debate early on. The $60 million renovations to the 103rd, 110th and 116th Street subway stations began as an M.T.A. project, but Columbia University quickly signed on, contributing $1 million to the renovations that began in February on the three stops, which were part of the original I.R.T. system.
Emily Lloyd, Columbia’s executive vice president for community and government affairs, said the money “would allow them to do the project more quickly than they would be able to do otherwise.”
The renovations, which will bring modern amenities like garbage-storage areas and a cleaners’ room to the historic stations designed by architects George Heins and Christopher Lafarge in 1904, also sought to incorporate controversial artwork along the white tile walls.
The artwork, conceived by Sandra Bloodworth, the director of the city’s Arts for Transit program, would represent a timeline of New York subway history that resembled railroad tracks; at 116th Street, the focus would be on milestones in Columbia’s history.
Daniel O’Donnell, the Democrat State Assemblyman who represents Morningside Heights, the Upper West Side and Manhattan Valley, opposed the art component of the project early on.
“In these three stations, by law, the white tile, as well as the colored terra cotta tiles and the terra cotta medallions, need to be left as is,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “There is no appropriate place on the platforms for the Arts in Transit Program in these three stations.”
Unlike the Columbia project, the Arts for Transit designs for the 66th Street Lincoln Center station were reviewed by a five-person panel that evaluated submissions by 44 artists. (The proposal at the 116th Street station was reviewed without public comment.)
Mr. Kelly, the M.T.A. spokesman, said that the decision to forgo an open selection of the artwork was intended “to get the project moving,” and also because the M.T.A. “had ideas that would be good for that area.”
The Arts for Transit project was sidelined when state landmarks authorities intervened. However, in March the M.T.A. halted work on the stations’ historic features, after the state voiced serious concerns over how the M.T.A. was handling the fragile 100-year-old tile and iconic mosaics that are the stations’ signature. After a consultation with state historic-preservation officials, an agreement was reached, and the work resumed in April.
“I wouldn’t say we were moving too fast or doing anything different than we normally do,” Mr. Kelly said.
At 110th Street, where the sounds of saws and hammers emanate from the subway station below, workers are in the last phase of construction on a 12-story building that will house a D’Agostino supermarket and a Chase Manhattan Bank at street level, a 650-student private grade school and, on the upper six floors, 27 three- and four-bedroom faculty apartments.
The building has been the source of strife since its inception. In March 2001, members from Community Board 7 successfully lobbied to reduce the original 20-story plan to the current 12-story red-brick structure. And in December 2002, Community Board 7 and public-school advocates were angered when they learned that the private school would reserve half of its spaces for the children of Columbia faculty, who would also receive a 50 percent reduction in the $22,000-a-year tuition.
The board, originally supportive of the $52 million project, moved to reverse its vote, but an agreement with Columbia’sadministrationwas reached after the full board convened in December.
Several blocks farther up Broadway, at 121st Street, Lenfest Hall, a new 16-story, 120,000-square-foot residential tower, is going up. It will have approximately 200 apartments for students of the law school. Between West 121st Street and Morningside Drive, construction is also progressing on a $50 million building that will provide 144,800 square feet for the school of social work when the project is complete next year.
Most recently, on June 23-as part of Barnard College’s new master plan, unveiled in December-the school announced the three finalists for a contract to design a six-story, 117,000-square-foot multipurpose building that will feature a 900-seat event space, meeting rooms and a café. Barnard’s development plan-the first since the college relocated to northern Manhattan 100 years ago-will transform the 4.5-acre campus that stretches between 116th and 120th streets over the next 20 years.
And in what many Columbia-watchers see as a startling new trend, the university has pushed south of 110th Street for the first time. Currently, contractors are beginning to demolish the two-story white brick building at the corner of 103rd Street and Broadway to make way for a new 13-story residence hall on the corner, which will also feature 29,000 square feet of ground-floor and cellar retail space. The 83-unit building is tentatively set to open in January 2005, and will be the university’s southernmost outpost.
In all of these instances, Columbia representatives say the school is working with-and will continue to work with-the community to manage its expansion needs.
Over the coming year, the university plans to meet with neighborhood residents as it drafts its new master plan-a move that university officials hope will stave off the kind of protests Columbia faced back in 1968, when it proposed constructing a gymnasium on two acres in Morningside Park.
“Columbia’s partnership with the community has improved over the last decade, and we will work to continue to make sure that as Columbia’s needs are met, the needs of the community-in which we also live-are responded to sensitively,” said Robert Kasdin, senior executive vice president at Columbia.
But some see a larger issue in the way New York is being shaped by its institutions.
Andrew Berman, the co-founder of the Citywide Coalition for Community Facility Reform, has assembled 125 groups in an effort to reform the process by which large institutions are granted variances and building rights under the current zoning codes, which Mr. Berman described as “very generous.” Frequently, such institutions are granted the right to build bulkier buildings than commercial builders on a given site.
“Clearly, the ultimate solution is going to come with changes in the zoning code,” he said.
Daniel Cohen of Community Board 7, who is a 30-year resident of Morningside Heights, said that the problem is particularly acute in neighborhoods with large academic institutions.
“With students and faculty coming and going every year, it breaks up the social fabric, and slowly eats away at a neighborhood that had a family connection and replaces it with a more transitory population,” he said. “It makes a lot of people here very nervous.”