Towers Upon the Hill
Among ever-higher buildings, where do we stand?
By Ben Mo
Crowns tend to settle upon the highest of heads, and this latest fit of skyscraper mania spells a coup d’etat. Waning are the glory days of Riverside Church’s towering dominance. The Vandewater’s golden coronet, illuminated at dusk, conspicuously adorns Low’s bald dome. It’s an audacious sort of declaration, the 32-story, 385-foot kind. Now, a newcomer arises: 100 Claremont Avenue jostles its way out of the Union Theological Seminary’s central courtyard to lay claim as the tallest building north of Central Park. Feel that stir in the air? Look up and you might just find its source: the crane-swung facade panels suspended high above our heads, cocooning 471 feet of luxury development as it juts into the sky.
Property around here comes at a premium. The Jewish Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary have both gambled on new neighbors, selling off parcels of their property for the development of the Vandewater and 100 Claremont, respectively. The JTS will invest the $96 million it gained from the sale in a performing arts space, a new residence hall, and a new library; with its $125 million, the UTS will fund its campus rehabilitation initiative. Restoration, maintenance—these, I think, would typically underpin the ethos of “rehabilitation.” But any onlooker would agree that the UTS’s silhouette, its image against the sky and in the public eye, has shifted fundamentally in the name of supposed preservation.
Image is a fickle thing. In a palliative move, the developers of 100 Claremont have pledged $5 million towards the support of the Morningside Heights community. $1.1 million of this reserve has been allocated for use by local community-based organizations, including P.A.’L.A.N.T.E., a group whose mission is to “fight homelessness and the displacement of vulnerable tenants.” The Vandewater’s ingress has arguably been less fastidious, even standoffish. After all, its website lists its neighborhood of residence as “Another Upper West Side.” Picture a cobblestone motor court, a 70-foot lap pool, a pet spa. If the consensus is that luxury finds itself progressively out of place as street numbers increase, the developers cling to the cachet of the Upper West.
Still, both development teams have harped on Morningside Heights’ contentious moniker, the
“Academic Acropolis.” For the hellenophiles among us, perhaps this is a point of pride. As Seth Low, namesake of Low Library, remarked in 1897, ours is “a university on a hill.” The luxury appeal of these developments is achieved through its anomaly: The Vandewater’s marketing centers on Morningside Heights as an enclave. By definition, an enclave is set against its surroundings, often with an unsavory cultural and demographic distinction attached. In this case, the distinction is implied, if not declared outright. In a press release by Daiwa House, a Japanese firm partnered with Lendlease to construct 100 Claremont, the development’s location within Morningside Heights’ cultural and academic scene mentions that Columbia is “a member of the Ivy League.” (A footnote clarifies that the Ivy League distinguishes a collection of “prestigious private universities.”)
Low’s full declaration—“A university that is set upon a hill cannot be hid”—contains a directive with great thrust. Our university demands our being seen. The development of these aberrantly tall buildings in Morningside Heights reinforcing the elite appeal of our acropolis emboldens an exclusive, enclaving self-regard. From all directions, these skyscrapers—with considerable consequence for Manhattan’s skyline as a whole—become visible markers, map pins, denoting a new hotspot of inventive demand.
We are flattered as Ivy Leaguers and interlocutors in the great intellectual pageantry of our sanctuary. Yet as we gaze upon these soaring citadels, within which apartments retail in the millions, a sense of estrangement erodes any suggestion of self-importance they might inspire. After all, whose buildings are they? Within our enclave, itself physically and ideologically constructed in opposition to surrounding neighborhoods, we encounter a dissonance that urges broader self-scrutiny. Consider how, as encouraged by developers, residents of these towers look upon Morningside Heights—indeed our central lawns—as their backyard.
I might add that in actuality, 100 Claremont doesn’t exist. In true commitment to the multiples-of-100 rule followed by luxury housing developers across the city, 100 Claremont Avenue is an invented address, replacing its actual site of 3041 Broadway. Names are tweaked, images are invented, and neighborhood boundaries are redrawn for the sake of market appeal—a public eye. We are unhidden, seen. But who is looking up, and who is looking down?