Class Struggle: Higher Education as Economic Development in NYC
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. Read the Full post at The Architect’s Newspaper.
Real estate holdings of New York’s key players in higher education:
Columbia University: Columbia’s new 17-acre Manhattanville campus will add 6.8 million square feet to the university’s holdings. The campus will be built seven blocks north of the Morningside Heights campus, and two blocks west of the City College of New York’s campus, separated by a public housing development.
City University of New York: CUNY’s City College is building a new Advanced Science Research Center and City College Center for Innovation and Discovery, adding 396,000 square feet to the 3 million square foot campus.
New York University: NYU proposes to expand its presence on the Health Corridor focused between 23rd and 34th streets, between 1st and 2nd avenues.
School of Visual Arts: SVA’s diffuse campus is 900,000 square feet in total, spread across 16 buildings located mainly in the Chelsea and Flatiron neigborhoods. James A. Pirot, SVA’s Executive Director of Facilities, said that the school plans to stay below 23rd Street. “We’re in areas where our students are well-received,” he said. SVA acquired the lease for the Clearview Cinema on 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue, and now sublets the theater for film festivals in addition to using it for SVA events. But SVA’s real estate strategy is shifting toward owning, versus leasing. The school recently bought medium-rise buildings at 132 and 136 West 21st Street in order to house several new MFA programs and in the process became the landlord for several non-SVA tenants.
The New School: The New School’s new 365,000 square foot Student Center, at the corner of 14th Street and Fifth Avenue, is one of the largest building projects the university has undertaken to date. More typical of their development patterns is the recently added 75,000 square feet of rented space in an existing building a block north on Fifth Avenue.
Cooper Union: Cooper Union has owned the land under the Chrysler Building since 1902—well before the Art Deco skyscraper was built—deeded by relatives of the school’s founder, Peter Cooper. As a result, the building has never paid property taxes to the city, making those payments instead directly to the private free university in the amount of about $7 million a year. This tax-exempt status for a commercial entity is unprecedented and legislation has been introduced over the years to make sure it is never repeated, while efforts to repeal Cooper Union’s arrangement have also failed.
Mitchell L. Moss is the Henry Hart Rice Professor of Urban Policy and Planning, Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.