Schools Flunk Expansion Test



You live in the city and your neighbor is a big, prestigious university. Is that great or what?

Depends on whether you live in New York of Boston, now that mega-buck plans by Columbia and Harvard to expand beyond their existing campuses have gone awry. The two cases illustrate the benefits -- and, often, the drawbacks -- of living next to a major university.

Let's look first at New York, where an appeals court ruled that the state couldn't use eminent domain to allow Columbia University to acquire part of a 17-acre site in Upper Manhattan which the school needs for its $6.3 billion Renzo Piano-designed expansion.

That's good news for the owners of the two gas stations and a self-storage warehouse in the industrial area who had brought the suit against Columbia's encroachment and refused to sell.

Still, Columbia already owns 61 of the 67 buildings it needs and could build around the rebellious businesses, although that might require some design changes. If the plan goes ahead, Columbia promises to bring school buildings, labs, restaurants and tree-lined streets for residents and retailers to enjoy. Who wouldn't want to trade that for a little less self-storage space?

Meanwhile, in Boston, Harvard University recently suspended construction of a $1 billion science complex in the gritty Allston neighborhood due to the "altered financial landscape." Translation: some MBA types made risky investment bets, shrinking the school's super-sized endowment by around 27 percent, to a mere $26 billion.

Allston residents are left with a big hole in the ground and empty storefronts, wondering whether Harvard will make good on promises to bring parks, people, arts and culture to the area, and attract cafes and boutiques.

The Harvard brainiacs could yet make back the money with some savvy investments. In the meantime, school president Drew Gilpin Faust, who succeeded Lawrence Summers in 2007, has pledged to step up efforts to revitalize Allston and bring in tenants for the currently abandoned buildings.

Universities are income generators and economic engines. We need them, to be sure. But they're also neighbors in complex, often compact urban environments. Sometimes they forget we all have to live together.

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