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03.18.2009
Fordham Rising
Deal struck for controversial Lincoln Center campus expansion
Fordham's proposed law school, as seen from Lincoln Center.
All images courtesy Cooper, Robertson & Partners

Quelling some fears that an unfriendly forest of towers may rise on Fordham University’s Manhattan campus, late last month, university officials struck a compromise with community groups, setting the stage for a major facelift for the school’s eight-acre Lincoln Center quad.

The controversial expansion has been mired in debate since 2005, when Fordham first unveiled plans to add seven new buildings to the campus, located on the superblock that stretches from 60th to 62nd streets and from Amsterdam to Columbus avenues. The university maintains that new classrooms, libraries, and housing are needed for the campus’ growing population of some 7,800 students, including more than 900 who live in university-operated housing.

But opponents have protested that tall buildings ranked along Fordham’s periphery would tower over the area and wall the university off from its neighbors. Those concerns led Community Board 7 to cast a 31-0 vote against what many called the “Fordham fortress” in late January.

Since then, Fordham has relented somewhat on the scale of its proposal. The latest incarnation, announced by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer on February 24, shaves 206,000 square feet off the original 3-million-square-foot plan. It reduces certain building heights, buries bulk underground, and scraps one proposed parking garage (cutting the plan’s allotted parking by over 50 percent).

So far, the scheme has been met with a qualified thumbs-up. The community board was “very pleased” with the project’s downscaled size and density, according to board chair Helen Rosenthal. But Sidney Goldfischer of Fordham Neighbors United, an organization formed to fight the expansion, still questioned the need for residential space. “Instead of putting up 2.8 million square feet, they could just put up the 800,000 square feet of academic space,” he argued.

Though public debate has focused on total square footage and height, size is only part of the equation, according to Brian Cook, a senior planner at the Manhattan borough president’s office who was instrumental in the negotiations. He emphasized that other factors also determine whether the new campus feels fortress-like or welcoming.

One of those is building shape, he said. Negotiators settled on two possible fixes for what Cook called the “slab-like” appearance of buildings on Columbus Avenue: The first option would offset half of each building, creating the illusion of four buildings rather than two, and visually break up the street wall. The second option would narrow the upper stories, letting in more light and air. Fordham also agreed to lower street walls to make the structures feel human-scaled despite their overall height.

The university’s options for building placement were more limited, since the open space at the interior of the campus is a two-story-high podium that does not allow building above it. Negotiations focused instead on making the campus more permeable. “There will be a lot more street-level transparency all the way around,” said Fordham’s communications director Rob Howe. “A lot more openings, glass, and street-level uses, like a bookstore and coffee shop.”

To that end, the staircase leading down from the north side of the podium was widened to 77 feet, connecting Fordham to the heart of Lincoln Center. Plantings on the stairways will draw visitors up to the podium’s gardens, which are currently hidden from view and little used by the public.

Rosenthal praised the hard work that had gone into the agreement, but said the board still had two concerns as the university moves to win formal approval from the city. The first is the height of the residential towers on Amsterdam Avenue, both over 50 stories. The board also wants to be consulted again once the buildings have actually been designed—and not just in an advisory capacity. “We’re looking for something that will have teeth in it,” she said.

 
The proposed campus, looking north on Amsterdam Avenue.
 
Julia Galef