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Columbia University pushes for Obama library in Harlem

The Jerome L. Greene Science Center (left) and the Lenfest Center for the Arts (right), will be the first new buildings at Columbia University’s Manhattanville campus. | Columbia University photo

NEW YORK — From the platform of the Number 1 subway at 125th Street and Broadway in Harlem, I see the Hudson River and a glass-sided building rising on Columbia University’s new campus, where the school proposes hosting the Obama presidential library and museum.

If President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle pick one of the open parcels on Columbia’s 17-acre Manhattanville site for their project, they will be locating in an iconic African-American community where the Ivy League school is in the midst of a long-term expansion.

In some ways, Harlem already has been touched by U.S. presidents. Former President Bill Clinton has an office on 125th Street a few blocks from the landmark Apollo Theater, a famed center of African-American cultural life. And the same 125th Street subway stop is where you get off to visit Grant’s Tomb, the mausoleum where President Ulysses Simpson Grant and his wife, Julia, are entombed.

Columbia, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago are pitching sites in African-American neighborhoods to be the home of the center dedicated to the nation’s first black president.

On a recent Saturday, I asked artist Noreen Mallory, who sells her illustrated postcards a few steps from the Apollo marquee, about the local impact if the Obamas’ picked Columbia.

Artist Noreen Mallory, who sells postcards near the Apollo Theater, says “it would be amazing” for Harlem to land the Obama library. | Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

“It would be amazing for Harlem to have that. It would be like when Bill Clinton decided to have his office here . . . it brings a lot of attention and a lot of people and a lot of focus on this community,” she said.

Columbia’s chief competitor, the University of Chicago, created a controversy by submitting a bid for the Obama development using South Side parkland it did not own or control — and keeping its plans for 20 acres secret in order to avoid stirring up protests from the community or preservationists.

It’s now up to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, facing a primary election Feb. 24, to get the rights to Washington and Jackson parks in order for the University of Chicago bid to survive.

Though the matter of taking park property for the project is controversial, Emanuel has the votes in the City Council and Chicago Park District to muscle through the real estate deal.

In contrast, Columbia years ago made peace with its neighbors over the Manhattanville campus land. At a price.

On May 18, 2009, Columbia signed a Community Benefits Agreement, the result of arduous negotiations with local officials and the community necessary to clear the way for the Manhattanville expansion — a complicated process given all the laws and regulations in New York.

Columbia pledged $150 million in cash or in-kind contributions to be spent over the next two decades. The money is for, among other things, affordable housing, legal services, a public school and creation of the West Harlem Development Corp., which received $76 million to funnel to local groups.

While top officials from the University of Chicago, UIC and the University of Hawaii have sought publicity to highlight public support, Columbia has taken a different course, preferring to try to stay off the radar. No Columbia official involved in the project agreed to speak on the record about the school bid.

I’m told the Obamas are interested in a campus setting for their presidential center. That’s what they will get if they go with Columbia, where Obama received his undergraduate degree in 1983.

If the Chicago-based Barack Obama Foundation wants to know how Columbia will execute the foundation request for a technologically advanced, green presidential center that is sensitive to the “existing urban fabric,” all it takes is a visit to the site.

It’s already happening.

Columbia can show, not just tell.

Columbia’s new campus is between Broadway and 12th Avenue, from 125th to 133rd, once home to industrial and commercial buildings. The old Studebaker factory already has been renovated and is being used for university offices.

Because the school owns the entire site, design is particularly innovative.

On a recent Friday, I saw construction equipment and workers toiling on a massive, shared underground basement — fortified to keep out the Hudson’s water — to contain utilities, parking and loading docks.

That’s why an Obama library and museum at Columbia would have a running start. It is shovel-ready today. Much of the infrastructure would already be paid for and in place.

Above ground, Columbia’s new campus will welcome, not shut out street life, a design much in keeping with the spirit of what the foundation is looking for, according to the bid requirements.

At Manhattanville, the ground floor of several academic buildings is planned to include retail shops, restaurants and other public spaces.

The Jerome L. Greene Science Center is scheduled to be completed in late 2016, followed by the Lenfest Center for the Arts and a Forum with an auditorium and meeting rooms. Design work is still being done for the new home of the Columbia Business School.

It takes me just a few minutes to walk to the Apollo Theater from the Manhattanville site.

Harlem is famous around the world. An Obama center would make Harlem less of a pass-through and more a place where tourists stay and spend money, according to Kofi Boateng, the executive director of the West Harlem Development Center.

“Tourists are already coming to the area. I see them instead of just driving their buses through, I see them getting off to spend time in the library,” he said.

On the way to the Apollo, I passed the General Grant Houses, a complex of nine high-rise buildings with almost 2,000 apartments for low-income residents run by the New York City Housing Authority.

The difference between the teeming street life on 125th Street in West Harlem and the area around the Chicago front-runner site, Washington Park, is stark and highlights what may be a weakness of the Columbia bid.

The blocks across from Washington Park near 55th and King Drive are marked by vacant lots. There are hardly any stores. The neighborhood has been depopulated. There is sparse economic activity. It’s more than poor. It’s bleak.

A key condition of the foundation is for the Obama development to be an economic engine to anchor “public and private investment” that otherwise would not happen.

That’s where the Columbia bid is very vulnerable. An Obama center would accelerate revitalizing the community, perhaps by years.

But it’s happening anyway. There’s a Banana Republic next to the Apollo. A Gap store is across the street. Down the block there is a Modell’s, a DSW, an Old Navy and a Chuck E Cheese — all evidence that Harlem is on the upswing.