Columbia unfurls Manhattanville campus

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The first two buildings of the university’s 17-acre expansion near West 125th Street are finished


  • The Lenfest Center for the Arts (left) and the Jerome L. Greene Science Center are the first new buildings of Columbia University’s Manhattanville Campus. Photo: Michael Garofalo

  • Columbia University’s Jerome L. Greene Science Center is home to a multidisciplinary brain research facility. Photo: Michael Garofalo

By Michael Garofalo

Columbia University unveiled the first two buildings of its new Manhattanville campus last week, marking the completion of the initial stage of the school’s controversial northward expansion more than a decade after it was first announced.

The Manhattanville campus, a 17-acre site along Broadway just north of 125th Street assembled by Columbia during an often contentious process that spanned years and involved the acquisition of property via eminent domain, significantly expands the university’s footprint 10 blocks from its main campus in Morningside Heights. The Lenfest Center for the Arts and the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, both designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, are part of a development process that is expected to span several decades.

“Who would have predicted with confidence that this would happen? Virtually no one, because the idea seemed too big to succeed,” Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, said in one of the Lenfest Center’s airy white gallery spaces, with tall windows offering sweeping views of Riverside Church’s neo-gothic bell tower, Grant’s Tomb and Columbia’s main campus.

The Lenfest Center for the Arts is an eight-story, 60,000-square-foot facility that houses performance and gallery spaces and a 150-seat theater. Next door is the eight-story Jerome L. Greene Science Center, significantly larger at 450,000 square feet, which contains a neuroscience research facility. Piano, whose other high-profile local projects include the New York Times Building and the Whitney Museum, attended the ceremonial opening of the steel and glass buildings.

The Lenfest Center and Greene Science Center are the first two buildings of a massive complex that will eventually hold 6.8 million square feet of university facilities, connected by an underground network for loading, energy and utility services. Three more buildings are scheduled to open at the Manhattanville campus by 2021, including a conference center with a 430-seat auditorium set to open next year.

In contrast to Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, where imposing neoclassical buildings sit behind stone walls and iron gates, the Manhattanville campus is intended to be outwardly oriented and integrated into to the surrounding West Harlem community. Columbia says the new buildings will be open to the public at street level, and the complex’s tree-lined pedestrian pathways and open green spaces will connect the neighborhood to the waterfront at West Harlem Piers Park, to which the university has pledged $18.1 million to help maintain. The motif of openness to the community extends to the buildings’ design. Floor-to-ceiling windows flood most floors with natural light and allow street level passers-by to observe scientists and artists at work inside.

Every few minutes, the 1 train rattles by on elevated tracks just outside the Greene Science Center. On the sidewalk, the sound is thunderous, but inside the building it is all but inaudible. Two layers of glass on the structure’s exterior, separated by 16 inches, deaden the noise before it reaches the workspaces. The sight of a silent train a mere stone’s throw away has, at first, a disorienting effect. The two glass panes also help cool the building in the summer and conserve heat in the winter. “It’s like a coat for the building,” Antoine Chaaya, the project’s lead architect, explained. “It’s a thermal and acoustic buffer.”

Columbia officials repeatedly emphasized the school’s efforts to build beneficial relationships with the Manhattanville community in the wake of the divisive acquisition of the campus parcel, which was completed in 2010 after the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the state could use eminent domain to seize several properties for the project.

The Lenfest Center will partner with the local community for its exhibitions, starting this summer with a survey of artists living and working north of 99th Street. And the Greene Science Center’s first floor includes a community health-screening facility and an education laboratory for K-12 students. As part of the expansion, Columbia has also agreed to make various financial commitments to the neighborhood, including $76 million to the West Harlem Development Corporation and $20 million to an affordable housing fund.

Despite Columbia’s overtures, some neighborhood residents still harbor concerns about the school’s expansion. David Hanzal of the Manhattanville Tenant Association said that the new campus has driven up rents in the surrounding neighborhood, and that some landlords have tried to push out longtime tenants in rent-controlled units as more students move into the area. “Columbia itself is not directly involved with that, but we’re seeing other people taking advantage,” he said, noting that local businesses have also been impacted.

“It’s changing the whole community,” Hanzal said. “Columbia tries to do some things to soothe it over, but at the end of the day, giving away football tickets isn’t going to change the way the community feels about being pushed out of their homes.”

Michael Garofalo can be reached at

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