Renzo Piano is not bashful about his plan to raze century-old, masonry-clad factories and tenements in West Harlem and replace them with big, crisp buildings of steel and glass—a new campus for Columbia University that resembles Metropolis more than it does the existing neighborhood. “Cities are bound to change,” he says, “You have to accept it.”
Pressed for space at its original campus in Morningside Heights, 10 blocks south, Columbia hired Piano in 2003. He created a sprawling, city-within-a-city that covers 17 acres with 6.8 million square feet of box-shaped towers; Skidmore Owings & Merrill formulated the urban plan. But to make way for this development, Columbia must contend with three privately owned warehouses that refuse to sell, including one that was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. Its plan to demolish them is raising the specter of eminent domain and pitting Columbia against Harlem residents.