In spite of the recent economic slowdown, New York City’s colleges and universities are on a building spree, providing planners, land use lawyers, architects, and construction workers with well-paying and stable employment. Once a sleeping giant, the city’s colleges and universities have long been active in acquiring individual parcels, modernizing outmoded structures, and building “as-of-right” by taking advantage of the city’s permissive zoning that falls under the heading of “community facilities.” But today, the city’s higher education industry is playing hardball as it seeks to build classrooms, labs, residence halls, student centers, and administrative palaces in order to attract students and faculty in the 21st century. And the leaders of the city’s colleges and universities are anything but shy when it comes to expanding their campuses. In fact, they are using every possible planning and zoning tool: eminent domain, rezoning, leasing, trading air rights, public-private partnerships, strategic acquisitions, and, of course, contributing space for public purposes, as they negotiate the treacherous minefield of land use planning in New York City.
Unlike its reputation as a capital of finance, media, and fashion, New York is not thought of as a college town. And, with the notable exception of the St. John’s University basketball team, this is not a mecca for college athletics. Yet, with approximately 100 colleges, seminaries and universities scattered throughout the city, (the number is constantly expanding as neighboring colleges and universities establish beachheads in New York City), no one area of the city is exclusively defined by—or absent of—a concentration of students and faculty.
New York is not Baltimore, where Johns Hopkins University dominates the town, or quaint Philadelphia, where the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel Institute of Technology have created an educational enclave. Colleges and universities are dispersed throughout New York, diminishing their cumulative visual impact on the city. Despite this, they have historically been powerful forces for stabilizing and strengthening communities, from Fordham University’s beautiful Rose Hill campus next to the Bronx Zoo to the ivy-covered Brooklyn College situated in Flatbush on the last stop of the 2 train. As major employers and landowners, colleges, and universities are tied to the city and, as private firms footloose in their choice of location, the higher education sector is emerging as a primary source of large-scale new development.
Today, colleges and universities are catalysts of change, transforming neglected buildings and old industrial areas, restoring historic properties that have fallen into disrepair, and creating a new intellectual infrastructure for the 21st century. This can generate intense community conflict. That’s precisely what happened when Columbia University, landlocked on the site of the old Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, which is bounded by Morningside Park on the east and Broadway on the west, realized that the only way to expand was to use eminent domain to create a massive new Harlem campus on 17 acres of industrial property near the Hudson River.
NYU, bounded on three sides by historic districts and by restrictive manufacturing zoning that prevented the creation of classrooms east of Broadway has decided to expand by boldly redeveloping land it currently owns that was once part of the old Washington Square South Urban Renewal District, a designation that reflected the 1960s “tower in the park” approach to urban development.
In other cases, colleges have quietly made strategic acquisitions, such as the School of Visual Arts, which now holds the lease for the Clearview Cinema on West 23rd Street, and the New York Film Academy, which took over what was once Tammany Hall on East 17th Street. In recent decades, CUNY has built a few community colleges from scratch using masterplans, including Queensborough Community College, located on the site of the old Oakland Country Club in northeast Queens. NYU currently plans to add six million square feet of space over the next two decades, not just on its Washington Square campus and in the surrounding area, but also at sites on the First Avenue healthcare corridor and in Downtown Brooklyn.
What’s essential to recognize is that as New York’s economy and population have evolved, colleges and universities have moved out of the shadows and are playing a more powerful and forceful role in land development. A branch of CUNY, Hostos Community College, where one-third of the students are single parents, occupies space on 149th Street and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx that was once the home of the Royal State Bank of New York. Certainly, the most powerful woman in higher education in New York City today is Iris Weinshall, Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning, Construction, and Management. Weinshall controls a capital budget of $2 billion that will be spent across 23 campuses and lead to the creation of two million square feet of space, including a new science center at City College, a new 600,000-square-foot building for John Jay College, and a $235 million academic building at Medgar Evers College.
In California or Texas, entire campuses are often designed and located on undeveloped sites with an abundance of open space. But in New York, colleges have little choice but to conform to the existing street grid, zoning regulations, the rules of historic districts, as well as the web of regulations that affect everything from construction noise to the loss of a tree on public property. University executives, seasoned at dealing with eccentric professors and pliant deans, are rarely prepared for the abuse that can be dished out at a community board meeting.
What makes higher education so vital today is the powerful and pervasive role it plays in the city’s information intensive economy. There is simply no sector of our city—the arts, finance, health care, high-tech manufacturing, or media—that does not benefit from the talented students educated at the city’s colleges and universities or from the research conducted by the top-flight neural scientists attracted to NYU and Columbia.
According to Appleseed, an economic development consulting firm that has conducted economic impact studies for many of the nation’s leading universities, private colleges and universities in New York City employed 109,500 people in the spring of 2011, accounting for 3.43 percent of all private sector wage and salary jobs in the city. Over the past two decades, from April 1991 to April 2011, private college and university employment in New York City grew by 77 percent. In fact, the number of new jobs created by private colleges and universities since 1991—47,600—is equivalent to 12 percent of the total net increase in private sector wage and salary jobs in the city during the past twenty years. Hugh O’Neill, president of Appleseed, notes that during the past twenty years, higher education has become one of the city’s leading “export” industries: “It brings in billions of dollars each year in tuition revenues, research grants, and the like from elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world, most of which is then spent within the city.”
Today, there are more than half a million students enrolled in degree programs in New York City. The city’s degree-seeking population is bigger than the entire population in Atlanta, Miami, or Minneapolis. There are twice as many people enrolled in degree programs in New York City than live in the entire city of Buffalo.
In the 20th century, colleges were typically in quiet, remote areas, away from the pandemonium of urban life. Colleges resembled monasteries, after which many were modeled. In the 21st century, young people raised in the suburbs are more attracted instead to the lure of the city, not to pristine small town college life. And with New York City’s consistent record as the safest large city in the nation, it’s even more appealing to scholars who depend on colleagues, not the library stacks, for ideas and interaction.
That’s why we are entering a golden era for college and universities in New York City. University presidents have demonstrated the ability to respond to the needs of their students and faculty, but now they are facing a new challenge: building for their institutions while accommodating the values of the surrounding community, an especially complicated mission in a time when development must be smart, sustainable, and environmentally sensitive. In the coming years we must expect conflict and debate over what this means as higher education continues to establish itself as a major force in the physical development of the city.