magine that nine blocks away from the Broadway gates and 48 years from right now, a sinister gray sky hangs over Columbia’s Manhattanville campus. Dark clouds close in over the commotion of scurrying bodies down below.
“Students hurry through rainfall along a tree-lined promenade overlooking the Hudson. In a biotechnology lab nearby, scientists are engineering lethal pathogens,” a journalist for the Village Voice describes.
“Warnings meanwhile are being steadily broadcast about an oncoming storm. … Many, but perhaps not all, have heeded warnings to leave the deep basement … The sprawling labs that contain biohazardous material may become another kind of floating threat to the city.”
This “sci-fi disaster movie” scenario as written in the Village Voice could be the future of Columbia’s new, $6.3 billion Manhattanville campus according to the research of Klaus Jacob, an 80-year-old, “energetic,” German in “red wire-rimmed glasses” who has spent over half of his life in the seismology department at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory,
Now, imagine, as the Manhattanville campus website describes, “arising in a onetime industrial area … scholars from across the University in interdisciplinary partnerships that will redefine the frontiers of neuroscience … a new West Harlem home for exhibitions, film screenings, performances, programs and creativity … a welcoming amenity not only for the University community, but for the local community and general public as well.”
To the University, the future of Columbia’s Manhattanville campus is one of comfort and safety. The site of Jacob’s envisioned emergency is, for the Columbia administration, the birthplace of a new era of the University and of West Harlem. Where the Village Voice describes a “disaster movie,” University President Lee Bollinger sees a “most exciting opportunity.” Clearly, the administration’s image of a secure home for future Columbians contrasts distinctly with the Village Voice’s portrayal of horror on the Hudson, with Jacob’s prophecy of disaster, destruction, and even death plaguing the Manhattanville campus.
Over a month before Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, Jacob predicted that such a storm would submerge the subway system, and it did. In that instance, Jacob preached to a choir of city officials who worked, albeit somewhat slowly, to sort things out before the hurricane hit. But 13 years ago, when Jacob first started to deliver his words of warning about Manhattanville’s potential Sandy-like situation in letters written to various University administrators, his well-researched but disputed foretellings fell on allegedly unwilling ears.
And it is not only Jacob who has an ominous vision of the campus. Skepticism about the administration’s ideation of Manhattanville was and largely still is shared by a significant number of other experts like Pratt Institute professor and city planner Ron Shiffman, activist groups like the Student Coalition on Gentrification and Expansion, and community leaders like former city planning commissioner Karen Phillips. However, neither is Columbia alone in its perception of its newest campus. The University has its own group of supporters: experts such as former New York City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden who headed the city’s environmental impact review of the campus, organizations including the U.S. Green Building Council, and other professors from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
What’s at the heart of this story though is not which tale of the campus receives the most press or has the most popular support. The question is one of a distance that cannot be measured by a ruler or a rotameter, a protractor or a pH meter: that is the distance of the gaping detachment between the forecasts for the future campus. How is it, then, that despite the fact that Columbia has a dedicated Manhattanville communications team, there exists an awesome rift, a massive schism of misunderstanding about Manhattanville between Columbia and its community? In no other aspect of the campus is this disconnect more boldly delineated than seven stories under the ground.
A 70-foot basement beneath the campus is textually illustrated on the Manhattanville website under the emboldened header “Efficiency Below Ground.” It depicts a “contiguous underground space providing services for loading, energy and utilities across the new campus [that] avoids redundancy at each building and allows the accessibility and transparency of the street-level Urban Layer to be achieved.”
In other words, the basement—also called the below-grade space, the central below-grade facility, the bathtub, and the underground factory—is a giant hole in the ground in which will be housed all of the nasty bits of the Manhattanville campus: energy plants, utility services and mechanical facilities, waste facilities, construction shops, receiving and loading areas, goods distribution facilities, parking areas, storage spaces, research support facilities, and a bus depot, things that Burden said would cause the campus’ “pedestrian environment [to] be significantly degraded” if aboveground. It would also be home to some less nasty things like a pool, libraries, classrooms, meeting spaces, laboratories, and food service areas.
The point of putting all of the Manhattanville campus’ unattractive elements into this “bathtub,” a term used to describe the architectural design of the basement, is essential to the fact that the architects and administration continually stress: The Manhattanville campus will be nothing like the Morningside Heights campus. If anything, Manhattanville is designed to be the antithesis to Morningside. As Manhattanville architect Renzo Piano puts it, “Whereas the Morningside campus evokes history, the Manhattanville campus is all about the contemporary. … Whereas Morningside is heavy and monumental, Manhattanville is light, airy, and luminous. No gates or walls will encircle the new campus.”
The Manhattanville campus is meant to be open, a place where all people can feel comfortable and welcomed. “The lack of the full Below-Grade Facility,” the University claims, “would … limit the ability to create a campus environment … [and] the integrity of the overall Project would be jeopardized.”
At the outset, it would thus seem that the bathtub would be something welcomed both by Columbians and by the local community. If the bathtub helps create a beautiful campus that everyone can enjoy, then who would object?
Surprisingly, quite a lot of people. While the Village Voice characterized Jacob as “somewhat of a lone voice” in his opposition to the bathtub plan, a number of people from a variety of backgrounds with a diversity of relationships to the campus and the University have also spoken out against the basement. However, Columbia has also not been alone in its assertion of the necessity of the basement to the Manhattanville campus. Hence what has so far been perhaps the greatest effect of the basement has not been the creation of a “light, airy, and luminous” “campus environment” but a chasm between communities created by the tectonic, below-ground force of Bollinger’s bathtub.
This conflict over the safety of the bathtub mostly occurred over eight years ago. Today outside of this group of opposers, many people at Columbia and in the Manhattanville community are unaware of the bathtub or simply don’t care. Even Jacob declined to be interviewed for this story, writing that “there is no point in discussing the past if we don’t know what has been implemented.”
But for some, this scene in the saga of the Manhattanville expansion is not yet a cold case. It is out of the belief that there is present value to be had in revisiting the past that I retell and re-examine this history.
On Thursday, March 28, 2008 on the front page of the print edition of Spectator, large, bold letters announced “CU, City Sued Over M’Ville: Sprayregen Suit Targets Underground ‘Bathtub.’”
Nicholas Sprayregen, who died this past summer, was the owner of Tuck-It-Away Storage, whose painted sign could until recently still be seen on the wall of one of the new campus’ buildings. He was the largest property owner in Manhattanville, so when his local dominance was challenged by the second-largest landowner in the city, he was, naturally, unhappy.
This was Sprayregen’s second time going to court over Columbia’s campus plan. The first, which took place about a year earlier, concerned the West Harlem Business Group’s access to information regarding the possibility that the University may use eminent domain to acquire the campus land.
But this time, Sprayregen was suing the school over the probability of Jacob’s apocalyptic image of the campus that was explained at the beginning of this article. As Norman Siegel, Sprayregen’s lawyer, said in 2008 to Spectator, “‘If there were a storm surge, you could have water coming out and going into the Harlem community—with possible toxic materials.’”
The fears of Sprayregen, Siegel, and Jacob all stemmed from the fact that the new campus is inconveniently located both along an earthquake fault line and in an area that Jacob says in the Village Voice article “sooner or later, is going to be flooded.”
Before anything like the Manhattanville campus can be constructed, federal law requires that an environmental assessment be conducted and an environmental impact statement written up that will describe all of the definite and possible effects of construction. Section 21C of the Manhattanville campus’ final environmental impact statement asserts that the basement “would be designed to resist … temporary flood conditions” and that “sufficient studies have been conducted to confirm that design elements can address potential flooding.”
Even so, Sprayregen still claimed that the city had “failed to carry out its duties as required by law to fully evaluate the serious environmental impacts of the construction and the on-going operation of the proposed ‘bathtub.’” Six months after Siegel and Sprayregen first brought the case to court, however, it was dismissed.
Nevertheless, the fears surrounding the Manhattanville bathtub were far from dispelled.
Whereas the initial argument against the bathtub was based off of its safety concerns, stories began to circulate that the University might have been using the bathtub as a reason to acquire the Manhattanville property through the process of eminent domain.
There were theories that the University may use the basement, which is planned to extend underneath street level, to restrict public access to the roads like it did with College Walk, which was a part of 116th Street until 1953. Some argued that the bathtub was “an excuse to throw residents, workers, and businesses out of their locations so that Columbia can control all the property.” Some supported the alternative below-grade space proposal created by Manhattan Community Board 9, the local governing body whose jurisdiction includes Manhattanville. There were rumors that the University doesn’t have enough money to build a bathtub. There were those who thought that the basement could be a target for terrorism. There were even some people who didn’t think that the bathtub would ever come into existence.
Walter South, currently a member of CB9 and former co-chair of the Community Board’s Housing, Land Use, and Zoning Committee, said at a City Council meeting in 2007, “Of course, this bathtub is a complete fantasy. When the bill for this tub comes in, and the logistics for moving probably 100,000 trucks of this dirty dirt out of the City is clarified—it will never be built.”
Ten years later, South’s words remain the same. “[The University is] not doing anything [underground],” South tells me over lunch at Floridita. “The only thing that’s going under the streets apparently from what I can tell are the sewer lines, drainage, and stuff like that … That’s the only thing.”
So what’s the truth? What are the facts of the seemingly fictitious underground factory?
“I don’t think the issue of eminent domain is dead. I don’t think the issue of protesting and resisting Columbia is dead. I think it’s alive and well.” Tom DeMott’s words seem drastically displaced, not only because he graduated from Columbia College as part of the class of 1980 but also because his podium of protest on this chilly Thursday night last March is within the very University he is accusing.
DeMott is one member of a five-person panel, including one other Columbia College alum, speaking about the negative effects of the University’s Manhattanville expansion. The speakers are an accompaniment to an exhibit organized in part by former Spectator City News editor Deborah Secular, who is moderating the discussion.
Some of the panelists choose to stay seated while they speak. Although it is in Lerner’s fancy fifth-floor conference room, this is intended to be a community event. There are no podiums behind which the panelists can proselytize.
DeMott, however, is standing, hands raised and grasping onto the invisible form of the big idea he is about to present to us.
“They’ve been caught with their hands in the cookie jar by lying to everybody,” DeMott charges. “And it’s plain to see. Go look. Walter, you looked. Was there a bathtub the last time you looked?”
South shakes his head.
“No,” DeMott says. “Tom, you looked. Was there a bathtub?”
Tom Kappner, CC ’66, who lives in short walking distance of Teachers College, also shakes his head no.
“There’s no bathtub,” DeMott announces, and it seems as if everyone in the audience believes him.
However, when I speak about this a few days later with Marcelo Velez, vice president for Manhattanville development within the Columbia Facilities department, he has a very different idea of things.
The below-grade space, Velez reiterates, exists. It is safe. It is paid for. The public streets will not become private. According to Vice President for Strategic Communications and Construction Business Initiatives at Columbia, La-Verna Fountain, eminent domain had nothing to do with the basement.
What is interesting about DeMott’s and Velez’s arguments is that, in spite of their opposing positions, both find the truth to be clear.
“From any sort of common sense standpoint, it’s an inactive fault,” Velez says of the earthquake fault line near the Manhattanville site.
“This ain’t rocket science,” DeMott tells me about the existence of the bathtub. “[The University] figure[s] they can say any old bullshit to people because you’re not gonna use your common sense.”
Both DeMott and Velez use the visual as their ultimate recourse.
“Today, anyone can walk to the site to the second block and look in the hole and see that we’re about 50 feet deep and continuing to excavate,” Velez explains. “So it should be no mystery.”
Similarly, DeMott encourages me to see for myself. “Go to the [Riverside] Viaduct now. Look down with your own eyes,” he says. “Take your own pictures. Take your own video. Look at the building they’re building now.”
What would ostensibly be obvious—whether or not the bathtub exists—has sunk into the realm of belief. There is something almost religious about conversation around the basement: the divide between believer and non-believer, the strident affirmations of one’s own truth based upon alleged facts and personal visual experiences.
It was Palm Sunday when I finally took my own trip up to Manhattanville in search of its mythical basement, and as DeMott advised, I brought a Spectator photographer along with me, who incidentally studies civil engineering at SEAS. This is what we saw.
There is undoubtedly a large hole in the Manhattanville campus, but whether this is the bathtub or not is something that remains unclear. To the photographer, the answer was plain, right there in front of our eyes. He called my attention to pieces of the hole that looked small from where we were standing way up on the Riverside Viaduct, and he pointed these out as proof that we were staring straight down into the naked truth of the tub. I, however, remained unsure. I have seen quite a few construction sites with large holes, and most of them do not have giant bathtubs beneath them. When we tried to enter into the Jerome L. Greene Science Center to visit the completed section of the supposed basement, we were stopped at the door. Our Columbia IDs did not allow us access into the locked building. Quickly, the photographer and I had become victims of the same powerful force of uncertainty that has plagued the pages of this story.
When I send the photo to DeMott, he writes to me that “this is a picture of a foundation being laid for a building, not a bathtub that goes many stories below ground.”
Yet when we sent a reporter down to the site yesterday afternoon to speak with a land surveyor, we were told that what we were looking at was, in fact, the below-grade space, although some bathtub non-believers have testified to speaking with construction workers who have provided them with conflicting accounts.
But what if the bathtub really does exist—what if Columbia really is building a two million square foot, 70-foot-deep pit whose existence is completely denied by some members of the local community?
Earlier, I promised that, in writing about the past, we find things of value for the present. The fact that the very veracity of the University’s words about this construction site is being questioned speaks to a pervasive problem. What the heck happened? How can it be that when Columbia advertises a big, safe, below-grade space, the community hears “toxic floods,” “terrorism,” and a ton of make-believe? With University offices dedicated to communications and community affairs, where does the administration’s miscommunication with the community stem from?
The University has received an award for its Manhattanville communications. The words the administration uses to speak about the Manhattanville campus are all carefully constructed. It is for this reason that throughout this article, I have avoided paraphrasing the University’s speech, lest I sacrifice the integrity of their strategic communications.
Fountain explains that Columbia has organized information sessions, weekly and monthly newsletters—online and in print, in English and in Spanish. Community members can sign up for email listservs with construction updates and information. There are diamond-shaped cut-outs in the wall surrounding the site that make it easy to peek inside to see what’s going on at all angles.
While there are currently no metrics to measure the reach and success of Manhattanville communications material, Fountain does not think that the past and present disconnect between the University and some students, faculty, and community members about the bathtub is Columbia’s fault.
“In the end, it is what it is,” Fountain says. “There are people who choose not to believe despite Columbia’s best efforts—people who may never believe. [There’s] nothing I can do about that. I’m not going to try to convince someone of what we’ve already done.”
Ultimately, Fountain trusts that the misunderstandings over the bathtub and other aspects of the Manhattanville campus will be best resolved by time.
“In the next few months as the community starts to get more comfortable being able to come over to Manhattanville, I think you’re going to see it will be a little bit different,” Fountain says. “We’re at this juncture where there’s probably a significant turn coming, a very significant positive turn coming.”
If the error then lies not with Columbia, the communicator, that leaves only one other option: the people to whom Columbia communicates, the community. I do not believe that Jacob and South and DeMott and others are wrong to believe what they do. I believe that the ideas that some members of the community have about Columbia and its campus are the result of a long and difficult history between the University and everyone else that has fostered a disenchantment so deep-seated that it even blocks out the vision of an enormous basement, a basement that the photographer saw, that Columbia sees, and that you too may see for yourself around the streets and through the diamond cutouts of the Manhattanville site.
When I explain to DeMott that the below-grade space visibility issues may be due in large part to the top-down construction method being used to build the Manhattanville campus, he remains insistent.
“That is the kind of utter, enraging doublespeak that Columbia would come up with,” DeMott protests.
For DeMott and for others who have lived for years in and around a near constant struggle against the University and its “colonial project” in the community, Bollinger is Big Brother. For them, the administration’s strategic communications are strategic contortions of the truth.
The relationship between Columbia and the community has been decaying for over half a century. According to Spectator archives since 1950, the University has been involved in or has been held responsible for at least 39 disputes regarding land acquisition or University-owned property, not including the numerous conflicts over the Manhattanville campus. At least once a decade since 1950 and, during certain periods, once or even multiple times a year, Columbia students, former employees, and non-affiliated community residents have accused the University of a litany of charges from eminent domain abuse to wrongful evictions to destruction of historic structures.
In 1995, two Columbia Public Safety officers even “evicted” two homeless men who were sleeping on the grates outside John Jay Hall, seeking warmth in the late January snow.
Fountain acknowledges Columbia’s troubled past.
“You can never go backwards and undo history,” she says. “What you can do is decide how you move forward.”
In spite of this view though, Fountain says that, in planning marketing materials for the community, the University’s historical relationship with it is not taken into consideration.
“I don’t know that it’s the history itself that shapes the communication program as much as it is just understanding the diverse population we’re communicating with,” Fountain says. “I don’t know that [the community’s misunderstandings are] as much of a historical thing so much as everybody busy. Everybody’s busy.”
This is a century of instant information and a city of fast walkers who don’t like to be slowed down, but perhaps this view that the past is the past and that everyone’s too busy moving on to remember it is exactly the University’s mistake.
People are busy, but they are not too busy to take the University to court over the bathtub. They are not too busy to publicly protest the expansion. They are not too busy to speak out about the University’s new campus within the very walls of its old one to rally support for the community from the Columbia students who were not too busy to fill up the seats in the Jed D. Satow Room on a school night at the tail end of midterm season.
The solution to the Manhattanville communications problem may not simply be the passage of time but also a recognition of and response to times past. When the University speaks their words have unintended echoes in the community. Columbia says “a city campus built for people,” and the community hears Susana Acosa-Jaafar, a resident of 536 West 113th Street whose Columbia eviction notice in 1987 sparked significant protest and controversy. Columbia says “honoring Manhattanville’s history,” and the community remembers when, in 1994, the University demolished the Audubon Ballroom, where the prominent civil rights leader Malcolm X was assassinated. Columbia says “growing together,” and the community can only think of 2009 when they fought to preserve three historic brownstones on West 115th Street that the University decided to destroy.
It doesn’t help that much of the bathtub-specific rhetoric also directly harkens back to images of history. Fountain mentions that, in calling the below-grade space the underground factory, Piano “thinks about the old, industrial space it used to be, and he makes all the connections back to that.” The Manhattanville below-grade space is sometimes compared, including by Velez, to the bathtub at the World Trade Center, which, according to the authors of the book New York: An Illustrated History, “represented one of the largest and most destructive urban renewal projects ever undertaken.”
In a 2006 New York Times article “The Manhattanville Project,” which is about the University’s expansion, Harvard University urban planning and design professor Alex Krieger says that “such conflicts are as much emotional as they are rational.”
Fountain spoke about “understanding the diverse population we’re communicating with,” but what the Manhattanville administrators are unable to understand about their audience is that, to a community charged with emotion about the expansion, it is not enough to speak in facts. Much of the community communicates in feelings.
What the bathtub doubters are afraid of is not really another Hurricane Sandy. They are trying to protect themselves from “Hurricane Columbia,” coming in to swoop their apartments and businesses off to Oz or to New Jersey or to just anywhere out of the way.
On the construction side of things, the bathtub may be safe against a second Sandy. As Velez explains, in building the bathtub, “We did not just go and design to the minimum requirement. The basement was built to a standard that was “substantially higher.”
But on the communications side, the University has been busily preparing for the wrong disaster. How can Columbia ensure the community of its safety from a storm that is itself? How can Columbia tell its neighbors not to worry about the rain when it is Columbia’s own dark clouds that community members feel quickly encroaching over the horizon, its own torrent of construction trucks and teachers and tenant evictions descending and dooming and drowning what once was their West Harlem?
Juliana Kim contributed reporting.
Correction: A previous version of this article featured an erroneously uploaded illustration of Bollinger in a bathtub. The Eye regrets the error.
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