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"When the Big Get Bigger": the unresolved challenge of balancing town and gown

Here's a condensed version of last night’s panel, When the Big Get Bigger: New York's Universities and Their Neighborhoods, part of the series associated with the Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibition at the Municipal Art Society (MAS):
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.”

Higher obligation?

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.)

Jacobs passé?

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.)

Turning inward

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.


  1. Norman,

    Thanks for this excellent summary of the event!


    Although I mentioned to you directly after the event that I found it very disappointing, upon reflection I realize that there was more diversity of opinion than I originally thought, so it wasn’t that bad. (Kent Barwick is, indeed, “given to diplomatic criticism”!) However, I still think the event would have benefited from 1) a greater diversity of opinion and 2) a stronger focus upon the ideas that Jane Jacobs herself actually expressed about “universities and their neighborhoods” rather than upon the shibboleths about Jacobs that seem to be a staple of these panels. (For instance, I think a number of James Traub’s comments about Jacobs were way off base.)

    In terms of diversity of opinion and understanding of Jane Jacobs, I think it was a mistake to invite Hillary Ballon to this event, as she really doesn’t seem to be knowledgeable about the work of Jane Jacobs (despite all the research that she’s done for her Moses exhibit), and her viewpoint on the relationship of universities and their neighborhoods seems to be very similar to that of Columbia University’s president, Lee Bollinger (and she was, indeed, on the faculty of Columbia University until her recent appointment to the faculty at NYU).

    I think journalist and Landmark Preservation Commission member, Roberta Gratz, (who asked a good question from the audience), would have been an interesting addition to this panel, instead. Although she’s not really an academic, she is certainly familiar with the work of Jane Jacobs, and it just so happens that she and her family were “kicked out” of their apartment building when it was torn down by NYU (for what would eventually become the of the controversial Bobst Library). So she is certainly familiar with the history of NYU and the surrounding community, and also would have been able to offer a community, as opposed to university, perspective on the issues.

    Since Gratz was already scheduled for a different panel discussion in this series, though, perhaps the Ballon slot might have been better occupied by someone else from NYU other than Ballon – someone more familiar, for example, with NYU’s recent expansion efforts (as opposed to its Moses-era expansion efforts). Or better yet, perhaps they could have gotten a representative from a college or university that has been able to successfully expand without resorting to the Moses template: e.g., New School University, Yeshiva University, the New York Institute of Technology, School of Visual Arts, Pratt Institute (in Manhattan), St. John’s University (in Manhattan), etc.


    Despite the fact that I disagree with him strongly, I think it was great that Bollinger was there, as he is a perfect representative of one particular point of view.

    However, I wish someone on the panel would have pointed out just how much his point of view is diametrically opposed to the Jane Jacobs point of view. Bollinger, for instance, expressed the opinion that in order for Columbia University to create a lively new campus it had to be in control of the entire site – while the Jacobs position is just the reverse, that such uniformity in ownership (and building types) leads to less liveliness, not more, and that genuine diversity doesn’t detract from liveliness but adds to it.

    I also wish someone on the panel would have challenged him on his statements about the viability of the light industrial buildings in the area. As I understand it, the commercial buildings that he is trying to gain control of – by eminent domain, if necessary – are NOT derelict commercial buildings, but buildings that are actually doing quite well.


    I think someone on the panel should also have challenged Hillary Ballon on her comment that Morningside Gardens was an example of a university playing a positive “moderating role” in the surrounding community. I think that’s like saying that the Atlantic Yards development is an example of a public agency, the Empires State Development Corporation (correct name?), playing a positive “moderating role” in the development of Prospect Heights!!! (By the way, there was quite a bit of community opposition to the redevelopment of Morningside Heights. See Joel Schwartz’s book mentioned further below.)

    What exactly is supposed to be so positive about Morningside Gardens?! Here is what Ballon says about Morningside Gardens in her book related to her Moses exhibit (pp. 260-261):

    Morningside Gardens was Moses’s gold standard of how to do a Title I project. [1] It had responsible leadership, [2] proceeded without delays, [3] handled relocation responsibly, and [4] embraced integration. [5] It met the goal of providing middle-class housing [6] while coordinating with low-income public housing and [7] other community improvements. [8] What distinguishes the project above all is the role of the sponsor, Morningside Heights, Inc., and its young president, David Rockefeller. His impressive debut in urban renewal work on Morningside Heights was the prelude to a still more ambitious initiative launched in the mid-1950s to redevelop lower Manhattan, as discussed in the entry on Battery Park Title I. (The numbering is mine – Benjamin Hemric.)

    Basically what she is saying here is that (a) this development was not as bad as so many other Title I developments (e.g., it was scandal free; the relocation practices were relatively humane; it was “only” economically – but not racially – segregated; etc.) and (b) that it was pretty successful in meeting the urban renewal goals that were part of the Robert Moses template – which was precisely what Jane Jacobs was criticizing (e.g., the deification of sterile open space, the income-sorting of populations, the immuring of slums, etc.)

    Even the claim that Morningside Gardens helped racially integrate the area is suspect as 1) the area was already somewhat integrated before the construction of Morningside Gardens and 2) the construction of Morningside Gardens and the adjacent public housing project (General Grant?) created in some ways a new neighborhood that was now PERMANENTLY income-tagged and racially sorted. (Also some critics looking at the history of this redevelopment claim that it was constructed as a bulwark, so to speak, to prevent black Harlem from creeping closer to Columbia University.)

    For more information about the history of Morningside Gardens see Joel Schwartz’s book, “New York Approach,” pp. 64-66, 151-159, 185-189, 195-197, 200, 338n29, 342n30, and 343n31.

    Ballon is apparently a great admirer of this book. She praises it in the Notes to her essay on Title I projects in her Moses catalog:

    . . . . The most important book on Title I is Joel Schwartz’s ‘New York Approach’ . . which established the deep bed of support for Moses’ renewal agenda. I am in awe of the book’s archival depth, which allowed Schwartz to track decision making with astounding texture . . . . ” Note 1 on pg. 114.

    So it’s not that Ballon (and Schwartz, who is also a Moses fan) are unaware of the facts. (Schwartz has, indeed, done an amazing amount of research on Moses.) But it just goes to show how different their ideology is from someone like Jane Jacobs. And it also seems to demonstrate just how little they understand Jacobs’ criticisms of the Moses approach. It’s not so much that they understand Jacobs criticisms, but just don’t agree with them; rather, it seems to me that they actually don’t understand her criticisms in the first place, and as a result they never really address many of them directly. (They mainly address shibboleths and straw men – or straw women – instead.)

    -- Benjamin Hemric

  2. ###

    P.S. -- I'm surprised that no one seems to be mentioning the greatest ironies regarding Columbia University, the surrounding community and Jane Jacobs: In 1961, in "Death and Life of Great American Cities," Jane Jacobs actually commends Columbia University for planning to build the gym in Morningside Park that eventually caused such community (and student) opposition in 1968!

    "Columbia Univesrity in New York is taking a constructive step by planning sports facilities -- for both the univesrrity and the neighborhood -- in Morningside Park, which has been shunned and feared for decades. Adding a few other activities too, like music or shows, could convert a dreadful neighborhood liabiltiy into an outstanding neighbohood asseet.

    -- page 143, "Death and Life of Great American Cities" (Modern Library Edition)

    But then again, I'm not surprised. It seems to me that people really don't READ Jane Jacobs anymore -- they just talk about what other people have said about her!

    -- Benjamin Hemric


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