In the early 1970s our Morningside Heights neighborhood was startled to learn that a plan was afoot to double the size of the “icebox” (the nickname given for its architectural ugliness to the Interchurch Center at 475 Riverside Drive between Riverside Drive and Claremont).  This plan entailed replacing the buildings on the north end of Riverside and Claremont running into the short segment of 119th St. and overarching it.

We became involved directly because very dear friends lived in 468 Riverside, a Rockefeller owned building, that would have been destroyed.  A small committee spanning all political perspectives was formed and started exploring the why’s and how’s such a plan had come into existence.  We eventually discovered that what was at work was the pipe dream of an Interchurch Center vice president with the aim of expanding what he conceived to be America’s Protestant Vatican, centering all the major national administrations of Protestant denominations therein.

Ranging about to the various area institutions and with public meeting efforts, we were eventually able to defeat this silly plan — helped by departures of national headquarters of denominations out of the Interchurch Center to other parts of the country.  The liberal impulses of the civil rights efforts of Protestants were at that point beginning to fade and denominations wanted to be located nearer to their major conservative constituents in the center of the country.

The upshot has been that the Interchurch Center is no longer that — rather it is largely a commercial rental space.  I have not checked its directory, but presumably some Columbia as well as commercial offices are located there — in what proportions, I do not know.  The Center has a cafeteria in its basement that welcomes all comers and cash machines at its Claremont entrance.  It has a chapel on the ground floor that might make a nice place for small weddings.  Most of its religious offices such as NYC’s Protestant Council have drastically shrunken in work force and space used.

Of course there is a lesson here for the proposed Columbia Manhattanville biotech expansion.  Columbia cannot or will not specify what it plans for its 16 proposed high rise buildings in its coveted 17 acres in Manhattanville.  One suspects that that space may well go largely commercial as well — Columbia as well as the U.S. in general — has been falling behind the biological research curve globally, thanks to the Bush veto of stem cell research and his Republican confreres cutbacks in scientific research funding in a host of areas.  I doubt that NY could afford to follow California in going it alone with funding.

But what is increasingly clear is that Columbia is winging it with its dreams of glory in Manhattanville. It does not know and, thus, cannot tell anyone what it will really use the space for — the story changes with each telling.  Certainly there is absolutely NO JUSTIFICATION FOR EMINENT DOMAIN grabs on the basis of such vague stuff.  Hopefully the various legal actions in process or the better judgment of city and state agencies down the line will halt this economic disaster for Columbia in the making.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent  212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]

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