Fordham vs. the Upper West Side

For more than three years now, Fordham University has wanted to tack its name onto the list of colleges and

For more than three years now, Fordham University has wanted to tack its name onto the list of colleges and universities expanding in Manhattan. The Jesuit university, led by the Rev. Joseph McShane, generally avoided the spotlight while Columbia University underwent a hard-fought approval battle for its $7 billion West Harlem expansion and New York University began a somewhat contentious master-planning dialogue as it looks for space to add another 6 million square feet.

But earlier this month, Fordham’s desire for more space in Manhattan became far more than aspirational, as the school officially began the city’s seven-month land-use approval process with an application to add 1.7 million square feet to its Lincoln Center campus, a two-block “superblock” just south of the arts complex.

Like N.Y.U. and Columbia—and most any private developer planning a large project in the city, particularly among the irascible Upper West Side—the path forward is likely to be marked by contention.

Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus is a relic of the days of Robert Moses, a two-block chunk of the West Side effectively gifted to the university as part of a slum-clearance program (Fordham paid around $2.5 million a half-century ago). Bounded by Columbus and Amsterdam avenues and 60th and 62nd streets, the spacious superblock holds a tower for the law school; another academic building for various graduate schools; a dormitory; and the Alfred, a lone 36-story condominium tower near the northwest corner of the block.

An old urban renewal agreement with the city expired in 2006, and since then, the university has been winding its way through the city’s land-use process in order to put a series of buildings on the perimeter of the site. By 2032, it wants to put up new buildings for the law school, the business school, dorms and an expanded library, all to feed what Fordham says is a space-starved student body.

Also in the works: The school plans to sell two parcels along Amsterdam Avenue to private developers, which would build a pair of 600-plus-foot residential towers, a move intended to help defray some of the costs of the project.

Unlike Columbia and N.Y.U., the expansion will stay entirely within the confines of the current campus borders; no new land is wanted or needed, and there will be no displacement of residents or businesses.

Regardless, neighborhood residents, long comfortable with the open nature of the campus, are hardly thrilled about the idea and present the university with an obstacle. “They’re still putting a huge bulk on that superblock,” said U.S. Representative Jerry Nadler, who, with other elected officials in the area, has pushed the university to scale back its plans or move the density inward. “That huge bulk is spread around the edges, so you get very tall buildings around the edges, which make it an imposing fortress.”

The concerns of the nearby residents, along with elected officials, have particular relevance, as Fordham needs the approval of the City Council, along with the City Planning Commission, in order to proceed with its plan.

And in this case, those residents’ concerns, which could influence the vote of local Councilwoman Gale Brewer and likely the entire City Council, are rather complex. The university is being tugged by sets of residents who have similar not-in-my-backyard concerns; however, there are different backyards. Those who live across Columbus Avenue want the easternmost buildings scaled back, saying they are entirely out of context.

Meanwhile, many residents of the Alfred, the condominium tower on the western side of the block that would suddenly lose its mostly unblocked views if a set of buildings rose all around it, are incensed about the prospect of the entire plan, though the residential towers seem to be particularly offensive to them.

“It’s a rape of Lincoln Center, to put it mildly,” said Sidney Goldfischer, president of the Alfred’s board of managers. The plan will wall off the entire block, he said, “all using money that Fordham will receive from the sale of land that Fordham got for next to nothing.”

Fordham, for its part, sees its plan in something of a more positive light.

The school lags well behind its competitor institutions in the amount of academic space per student, and thus needs more academic space (1.1 million square feet would be academic space). The school is less of a commuter campus than it was some years ago, attracting more students from outside the area, and thus it wants more dormitory space (500,000 square feet would be for dorms).

The university says that while the expansion would indeed add substantial density, the overall effect would be to make it contextual with the surrounding area—a dense urban neighborhood.

“The notion that this introduces something new or different in this community is not true,” said Deirdre Carson, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig, Fordham’s land-use law firm. “What is new or different is that you’re going to take an area that’s sort of been a random connection of buildings that don’t relate to each other and create an environment that looks like a university and functions like a university.”

By and large, the level to which Fordham will be asked to compromise, if at all, will depend on the local councilwoman, Ms. Brewer. The entire Council usually defers to the local member on land-use matters, and deals are often negotiated late in the process, likely to be in the late spring for Fordham.

For now, Ms. Brewer is not staking out a strong position, and in an interview, she noted specifically that the plan included residential towers to help Fordham finance its project, but had no below-market-rate housing.

“I think there will be a lot of discussion about the private buildings,” Ms. Brewer said. “People like Fordham, me included, but this is not a project that people are looking forward to having in the neighborhood.”

Fordham vs. the Upper West Side