Friday, December 1, 2023

Photo of the Day: Jerome L. Greene Science Center, Columbia University

Sixteen years ago, at a college class reunion, I heard a presentation about Columbia University’s proposed Manhattanville project—a projected 30-year plan that, the administration believed, would keep the school competitive with other Ivy League universities with far more space. 

But I wondered how on earth the university hoped to put together something so sprawling that it would not only enlarge the school’s footprint, but utterly transform the West Harlem area just north of the school’s reach at the time.

Above all, I questioned how easily the university could steer the project to completion, given its fraught history with its own Morningside Heights neighborhood.

I shouldn’t have wondered. Columbia already owned much of the land, and in July 2008 The Empire State Development Corporation gave it a powerful weapon for rolling up the rest by declaring the 17-acre site in Manhattanville blighted. 

You won’t find the storage facilities, gas stations and auto-repair shops that gave rise to that designation, anymore than you’ll find traces of what used to be “San Juan Hill” in Lincoln Center. I’m sure many West Harlem residents continue to question the university’s resort to eminent domain and the displacement that followed. 

Only time will tell just how well the university fulfilled its claim that it wanted to “facilitate the revitalization, improvement, and redevelopment” of this section.

But, driven by curiosity, I walked up from Morningside Heights a couple of weekends ago to see how the focus of all this frenetic building (and legal) activity looked. 

Just west of Broadway between 129th and 130th Streets, I sighted the 450,000-square-foot Jerome L. Greene Science Center, home to the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. 

The nine-story glass structure, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and completed in 2017, seeks to bring together neuroscientists, engineers, statisticians, psychologists and other scholars to collaborate on research, teaching and public programming.

Standing close by Lenfest Center for the Arts and the University Forum, the Greene Center is transparent on its ground floor, conveying a feeling of openness differing from the university’s prior reputation of being closed off from its neighbors. 

The building has surely advanced the school’s desire to be a hub of scientific research and collaboration. How well that will soothe some residents’ long memories of the bruising battle to build it and the project it's a part of is another matter.

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