1) It’s much easier to mend town-gown relations in West Philadelphia than in West Harlem.
2) We’re not much closer to a solution about how to balance neighborhood impacts with the larger interests of the city and beyond.
3) When a poster child for bad urban development is needed, Atlantic Yards inevitably trips off the lips.
The contentious issue of Columbia University’s West Harlem expansion plan was the backdrop to the panel; though the issue didn’t overwhelm the discussion, several opponents of the plan were in the audience at Rockefeller University, and the 140 or so attendees, upon entrance, were handed a packet criticizing the plan prepared by the Coalition to Preserve Community.
The university's role
Judith Rodin (right), president of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, explained that those in the Penn community believed Penn could play a critical role. The reasons:
--universities serve as engines of economic development, leading to results that can be but aren’t always win-win
--many urban universities have, in the name of urban renewal, played a destructive role
--universities have the energy and potential to partner with neighborhoods
--universities play a significant role in civic engagement.
The Columbia case
Columbia University President Lee Bollinger recalled that, as a law student in 1968 at Columbia, he observed the collision “between a Robert Moses view of the world and a Jane Jacobs view,” citing the controversy over a proposed gymnasium that was ultimately scrapped.
Then he offered a fairly polished explanation of Columbia’s 17-acre expansion plan. While the university considered options in midtown and elsewhere, he decided that proximity was a significant value. The university, he said, has “made a lot of progress” in bringing people together, but has “a long ways to go.”
“A long, long ways to go,” interjected Harlem historian and activist Michael Henry Adams, perched in the front row.
Bollinger concluded with a bit of a bromide, suggested that universities are important as a solution to “the so-called problem of gentrification.”
A revisionist view?
Hilary Ballon of New York University (and also of Columbia University), who curated the revisionist Robert Moses exhibitions earlier this year, suggested that, in era of significant urban change, universities can play “a moderating role” in response to the powerful forces of the private sector.
While private developers a half-century ago were not driven by social goals, universities tried, “to some extent,” to implement different policies. She cited as an example Morningside Gardens, a co-op, supported by Columbia, for middle-class residents; unusual for its time, it aggressively tried to integrate its population.
Listening to the public
Municipal Art Society President Kent Barwick (right), a man given to diplomatic criticism, was the closest thing to an opposition figure on the panel. (The promotion for the event reminded us that "Forty years ago, Jane Jacobs opposed the construction of New York University's monolithic Bobst Library on Washington Square South.")
Barwick suggested that the balance between town and gown had shifted, leading to a “potentially perilous, potentially promising place.” After reading a passage from Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, he reminded the audience “how strongly communities feel about any powerful force that can alter their destiny without accountability.”
Critically important institutions like universities now have the capacity to build on a scale greater than before. “The times have changed,” Barwick said, indicating that the Bloomberg administration “came late to the notion that it has a responsibility to protect communities.” (See, for example, the contrast between its PlaNYC 2030 and the way it pursued Atlantic Yards.) Moreover, patrician business leaders like Seth Low and David Rockefeller “are behind us.”
The Penn example, Barwick said, suggests “there’s real profit” in engaging with communities. Universities should learn Jacobs’ lesson regarding mixed uses. “Very often [universities] have inadvertently and without malice deadened neighborhoods,” he said. (Arguably, at some point inadvertent ignorance reaches the level of malice.)
“There really has to be a genuine discussion,” he said. “Power has to be leveraged with consultation.”
Moderator James Traub of the New York Times Magazine wondered whether universities, as centers of inquiry, have a deeper obligation than other institutions to higher standards of behavior.
“I think the answer is yes, and I think it’s welcomed,” Bollinger said.
Rodin agreed, contrasting the universities with corporations that have separate units for corporate responsibility. (Well, universities have community relations units.)
Finally, Ballon (right) hit on the tension at issue. “The rub is that the impacts are on a specific neighborhood, but the benefits will transcend that neighborhood,” she observed. “How do we weigh those local impacts against the wider contribution?”
She didn’t muse on whether a new process--taking off, perhaps, from Listening to the City?--could sort out such interests but rather asked, “Where do we have those civic leaders who speak for the larger interests?”
Traub pointed out how Penn went through an immense effort to reconstruct its relationship to its surrounding neighborhood. “Is that fair to ask of universities generally, especially in distressed neighborhoods?” he asked.
“Absolutely not,” Rodin replied. “It is a case study, not a prescription.” Universities must draw on available capacity and resources. (She describes Penn's work in the recent book, The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets.)
Penn pushed in five areas: cleanliness/safety; retail development; economic development; affordable housing; and public schools. “But I have to be candid,” Rodin said. “Professors complained, ‘Why are you building a supermarket? We need five more positions in the English department.”
(Still, given the cost of land and housing in West Philadelphia compared to New York, a Penn-like effort by an institution in New York would require even more resources. Rodin later described Penn as “extraordinarily lucky” in finding opportunities in land housing abandoned warehouses.)
Rodin pointed to the limits of the process: “One of the things I learned is that no matter how much collaboration and how much money you spend, it is never a process that will please all of the people all of the time.”
“It takes patience and transparency,” she said, “but it will never reach consensus.” Indeed, she said, there’s no one “community.”
And not only must the university be transparent in its work, “its neighborhoods need to be honest and transparent.”
The community clash
Traub asked Bollinger why he thought Columbia had had such a contentious relationship with the community. Bollinger suggested that Columbia had been a flashpoint for various social tensions.
After a bit, Barwick hearkened back to Ballon’s comment, putting a little more weight on the community side: “I think there may be some more benefit to earlier, more open conversations, even if they don’t lead to consensus.”
Ballon suggested “there’s a long history to the challenge of citizen participation. Negotiating a community benefits package ends up privileging a certain sector.” (All true, but this might have been a good time to tease out the differences, say, between a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), as with Atlantic Yards, that was negotiated behind closed doors, and the somewhat more open process regarding Columbia, or even to point out Good Jobs New York's CBA concerns.)
Traub wondered whether, in essence, Jacobs was passé, that cities may be reshaped in ways that make her “intricate” and small-scale community “archaic.”
That scanted Jacobs’s support for large projects, but Rodin responded with a more general take, noting that Jacobs above all “taught us to identify civic ecosystems” and “would’ve been the first to have very different views of what was going on.”
Barwick concurred that we shouldn’t reify Jacobs’s views and added that she didn’t oppose “large-scale development; she just wanted to apply human judgment.”
Back to Columbia
Bollinger (right) circled back to his pitch for Columbia’s plan, adding a bit offhandedly, “Many people have tried to plan for the area—plans have come and gone.” (The plan prepared by Community Board 9 hasn't exactly left yet.)
Traub opened up the floor for questions. Bollinger was asked if Columbia’s plan lowers the bar for other institutions, and whether the university would eschew the use of eminent domain. Bollinger defended the plan, and said the university would not seek eminent domain against “individuals.” (That doesn't exclude businesses, the main holdouts so far.)
He noted that eminent domain is used to create streets and other public use. “We’re trying to do things for the public good,” he said, citing research investigating Alzheimer’s disease and the creation of art. (It raised a question: would eminent domain be more justifiable for a public university that charged a lower tuition and was more answerable to the public?)
“We believe it’s within our purposes,” he said, “We do not expect to need it.” (The threat, however, is there.)
Adams rose and gave an angry, anguished oration. “I’m very disheartened,” he said. “Do you really believe that much has changed since the era of Jane Jacobs?”
“I was a student at Columbia. Everything they taught me is that this is wrong, wrong, wrong,” he said. He went on to criticize an “all-white panel” and an “all white” (not quite) audience talking about the fate of the city.
(He had a point, though some of the other panels have had more diverse participants and audiences. A striking counterpart, which I don’t think anyone else covered, was the “Priced Out” conference on affordable housing last weekend, sponsored by the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus of the New York City Council. It was free, as opposed to the $8/$12 charge for the Jacobs panels. More on that conference in the future.)
Bollinger responded, “Obviously, there’s a fundamental disagreement.” He defended the design of the expansion plan, and Columbia’s community outreach. “I’d say, lastly, the fact that this is widely supported by representatives and leaders in Upper Manhattan… speaks volumes.”
The stop-Columbia handout specifically criticized Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer (who recently announced his support), but the panel discussion moved in a different discussion.
The AY mention
Barwick diplomatically said, “I can’t speak much to how much Columbia has changed.” Still, he called it “troubling” that, even though many public officials have integrated Jacobs’s principles into their public statements—was he talking about City Planning Commission Chairwoman Amanda Burden?—it’s “disquieting to see projects like Atlantic Yards proceed using some of the same techniques” that damaged neighborhoods in Jacobs’s era.
(He didn’t specify, but I assume he was talking about superblocks and eminent domain. The title of the panel, "When the Big Get Bigger," could easily be applied to Forest City Ratner's role in Brooklyn.)
A questioner from the audience expressed dismay that hospital buildings, with their blank walls, and universities too often foster dangerous, soulless streets.
(This was the closest the panel came to last week's warning, by Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Manhattan Institute, that “the great development challenge facing New York City is something almost nobody is writing about”: self-isolating projects being developed by powerful nonprofit institutions, like Columbia and New York universities, and hospitals like Sloan-Kettering.)
Ballon suggested that “there’s a new model of designing buildings with mixed uses;” indeed, that’s the Columbia plan.
Then she offered a historical corrective, suggesting that the sacred city grid, while important, “was established as a framework for land speculation.” Thus there’s very little space “for public squares,” so “those occasional interventions” to create public space can be very desirable places. She cited the Columbia campus and Washington Square Park. (She didn't offer a half-defense of the Atlantic Yards superblock, as Michael Sorkin once did.)
Barwick, as if providing the Cliff’s Notes for the MAS’s criticisms of Atlantic Yards, pointed out that Jacobs raised questions about the private open space at Stuyvesant Town. He noted that both Rockefeller Center and the Columbia expansion include new streets.
There was a bit more conversation about New York University. Then, after a swift not-quite-90-minutes, the panel was done, having ventilated some contentious issues but not having drilled down to the more difficult next step: exploring some concrete solutions.