Executives at a high-tech scientific-research center used by 10 universities and hospitals are saying that plans by the City University of New York to construct buildings close by would temporarily shut down operations and cause “devastating” effects for years to come.
The dispute, between the New York Structural Biology Center, a four-year-old institution on the southern edge of the City College campus in Harlem, and CUNY, which is itself a member of the center, is pitting one part of the knowledge economy against another and turning normally decorous Ph.D.’s into the lab-coated equivalent of sniping neighbors.
In the late 1990’s, as the Structural Biology Center took root as a means to buy expensive equipment for member institutions, CUNY offered an unused piece of its City College campus in Harlem as its membership payment. As the center readied to open in 2002, the staff of the center started hearing rumors that the university would expand nearby. CUNY reaffirmed its commitment by promising, in an amendment to the lease, that it would not do anything to disturb the operations.
But the blasting and digging likely needed to excavate the foundations for the new buildings CUNY is proposing—which happen also to be science-related, and which were not foreseen when the lease amendment was signed—will send such shockwaves through the Manhattan schist that even CUNY admits no one will be able to use the research center’s super-sensitive microscopes for six to eight months (unless they want to start their days at 3 p.m.). The center says the disruption would be more widespread and could last a year or more.
So, to get around the anti-nuisance provision, CUNY has asked to enlist the state’s power of eminent domain to temporarily take ownership of the relevant lease provision, although the university says it would also be willing to compensate the center for the trouble with an unspecified amount of money. The Dormitory Authority of the State of New York is considering its request.
“They were thrilled to have us on the campus, thrilled to become a member of the consortium, and delighted to have us expand our activities here,” said Willa Appel, the biology center’s executive vice president and C.O.O. “It sends a very disturbing message about the most successful collaboration that New York scientific institutions have ever had.”
The City University counters that the biology center is exaggerating the length and seriousness of the disruption—but administrators, while arguing they have already changed their plans in order to accommodate the center, say that they are still exploring alternatives. Last month, Ira Millstein, a noted corporate attorney and civic figure who helped found the research center and serves on its board, was brought in by both parties to mediate, he said.
“We all are sympathetic to the faculty at S.B.C. who would experience a pause of their research,” CUNY provost Selma Botman told The Observer. “If you compare that with the opportunities that we are trying to give our students, it is an opportunity of a lifetime to study in science facilities that are first-rate, and we believe our students deserve that opportunity …. If those buildings don’t get built, there are a whole group of students who do not have access to well-equipped laboratories.”