Class Struggle

Class Struggle

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.

East Side, Park Avenue to the River, 14th to 34th Streets

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.


Cooper Union
Stuyvesant Fish House where acting presidents of Cooper Union live.

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.

West 23rd Street

School of Visual Arts
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.

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.

14th Street and 5th Avenue

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.

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.”

Chrysler Building

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.

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.