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University Expansion and Eminent Domain

Should a University invoke eminent domain in its plans for expansion? If so, what responsibility do developer-universities have to the community?
May 16, 2005, 12am PDT | Emily Schwarz
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 Wayne SenvilleDocuments made public last week show that Columbia University has invested money towards exploring the use of eminent domain to purchase property in Manhattanville, a neighborhood about 15 blocks north of the main campus. Eminent domain would be employed as a means of proceeding with the University's expansion plans. Columbia has not yet used eminent domain, but still some students, professors and Manhattanville residents are in an uproar over the phrase and the fact that Columbia did not make its discussions public. Why did Columbia keep quiet these negotiations - uncovered by the school's student newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator, through a request filed under the Freedom of Information Law - and why do administrators feel it is necessary to use eminent domain in the first place?

Many universities are finishing, starting, or in the midst of campus expansions. As a writer for the Columbia Daily Spectator, I wrote a series of articles this semester describing the expansion plans of four different East Coast schools, including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, as a comparison to Columbia's expansion plans. My series illustrated that community relations is one of the most important factors in defining the ultimate success of a University's plans to expand into existing urban neighborhoods. Although there are several fundamental differences between each university, Columbia and the other schools can learn from each other and should continue to discuss their respective plans.

I found that the expansion project enjoying the best community relations was the University of Pennsylvania's redevelopment of the 40th Street Corridor. Penn's development process went relatively smoothly because it did not take any action without consulting its community. This is not to say that Penn has acted perfectly, but the main setbacks that Columbia and Harvard have faced were the result of secrecy. In the long run, being open pays off.

In 1997, it was revealed that Harvard had been purchasing individual plots of land under the names of different real estate organizations since the 1980s. Harvard had acquired more than 50 non-contiguous acres of land in different parts of Allston, a community across the Charles River from Cambridge. Once discovered, these clandestine purchases created tense relations between Allston community, the City of Boston, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Harvard decided to use third parties to purchase the land to avoid being charged unreasonably high prices by sellers who thought they could name their price if Harvard were the buyer. Harvard now purchases all of its properties under the university's name and is working to improve its relations with the City and the Allston community by providing new services and retail opportunities. Harvard has already paid a high price to regain the trust of the city and community and it still has work to do.

Columbia has been trying to improve its community relations ever since the 1968 riots, during which students protested a proposal for a gym in Morningside Park featuring separate entrances for affiliates of the university and community members. These wounds have not yet healed. When it was learned that Columbia is currently discussing the possible use of eminent domain, strong opposition was voiced by the community and students. The community's view is that Columbia is not generally interested in listening to its needs, but instead only opens dialogue when it is most convenient for itself.

In contrast to these approaches, it is worthwhile to examine Penn's approach and the results it garnered. Their formula included creative ideas and, most importantly, the realization that Penn is a member of the community and therefore has a vested interest in working closely with the West Philadelphia community. Columbia and Harvard are a few years behind Penn in their development plans and therefore they can learn from Penn's model, even though Penn's circumstances were different from those of Harvard and Columbia. Penn began to develop the 40th Street Corridor because violence and crime had reached unbearably high levels in the area. In the case of Penn, the expansion was seen as a potential solution to existing problems, not as an agent of threatening change.

Columbia and Harvard have done some things right, but only Penn has mastered community relations. Why have Columbia and Harvard failed to stick to the golden rule of honesty? Because universities are not developers and therefore they are not required to consider the community's needs or provide any benefits to the community. Universities are private institutions and they develop to satisfy their own needs. Recently, the main goal of many universities considering expansion is creating more space for science labs and classrooms. Top-notch facilities are a crucial component for universities to be able to attract and hold the best faculty and the best students.

Those who argue that universities must provide jobs, public housing or other benefits to their community are making a moral claim. Even if they do not have to, though, Universities should seek community support; not only because it is a noble thing to do, but because they will earn support for expansion plans.

Listening to the community's needs is a key component to establishing positive, transparent relations that will smooth the development process and minimize the opposition that can tie up development for years. On the whole, communities are willing to work with universities and most recognize the benefits that can come from development. But, when universities make decisions without consulting the community, residents have reason to fear development plans. Transparency also gains universities the support of their students and faculty, contingencies that are quick to criticize unfair, clandestine activity.

At a time when many cities are undergoing major urban development, city governments support university expansion because they consider universities to be wealthy developers. But if universities are to take on this new role as city developers, they must begin to think like developers. It is only at this point that universities will realize that development is not only about the buildings and their contents, but also how these structures will fit into the existing community.


Emily Schwarz is graduating this May from Columbia College with a bachelor's degree in history. She grew up in Brooklyn, Brussels, and Washington, D.C., and plans to stay in New York after graduation to work for the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Emily has worked for the Columbia Daily Spectator throughout college and her series can be found at www.columbiaspectator.com.

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