Just as the finishing touches are put on plans for a new state-of-the-art biology laboratory, administrators are trying to hammer out the details of a proposal to build new undergraduate housing while construction workers are preparing a wing of the art gallery for its opening.

As familiar as this situation might sound to any Yalie, it could also describe the frenetic expansion plans of several other Ivy League schools. Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale are each grappling with questions of how to evolve to respond to the 21st century. But each school is also struggling to accommodate the concerns of nearby residents, some of whom see the expansions as threatening the integrity of their neighborhoods.

At Yale, the debate over two new residential colleges is just the latest development in “the greatest expansion in Yale’s history,” as emeritus history professor Gaddis Smith ’54 has called a decade-long construction boom on campus. Billions of dollars have been poured into Science Hill and the downtown arts area, where construction is ongoing on laboratory, museum and classroom facilities.

As Yale builds up more of its New Haven properties, Columbia and Harvard confront an even bigger challenge. Having outgrown their current campuses, the universities are seeking to take tracts of land in struggling neighborhoods and develop them into flourishing academic communities. Both schools face opposition from their neighbors as they try to purchase land, relocate residents and businesses, and replace them with art galleries and laboratories. Although neither Columbia nor Harvard has plans to increase its student population, both are planning new undergraduate and graduate residences, and Columbia, like Yale, is also planning to construct a new campus for its business school.

Princeton, the second-smallest of all the Ivies with only 7,100 undergraduate and graduate students, is already expanding its student body incrementally each year. In addition to the new residential college currently under construction, Princeton is planning to overhaul its residential system and increase resources available to artists. Although its campus is suburban, Princeton also seeks to make its campus more pedestrian friendly.

The changes at these four universities, some of America’s most elite, share striking similarities, but each school’s history presents it with unique priorities and challenges as it transforms its campus to fit the 21st century.

The arms race

Although Yale, Harvard and Columbia claim they are building in order to keep up with advances in human knowledge and to be able to participate in research in the newest fields of science, it often seems that they are also building to keep up with each other.

Yale’s physical plant has grown from a total of 10 million to around 12 million square feet since 1994, when University President Richard Levin first stepped into his job. After a small reduction in the size of the faculty during the 1990s, the faculty began to grow again and is now 6 percent larger than it was in 1999, he said. If Yale is to keep up with new fields of science and with its peers, it must continue to build, he said.

“We want to be mindful of what our competitors are doing,” Levin said.

Columbia, with only a $6 billion endowment and less than one third of the building space per student that Yale and Princeton have, is seeking, at the least, to catch up with its peers. In literature promoting its growth, Columbia points out that it must keep pace with other institutions if it is to remain a world class research university. To do that, the university is buying up land in the Manhattanville neighborhood of West Harlem in preparation for its first significant expansion in over 75 years.

Like Columbia, Harvard has long been hemmed in by its surroundings in Cambridge, Mass. The university looks to secure 200 acres in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, across the Charles River from its main campus, in order to build nine to 10 million square feet of buildings in Allston over the next 50 years, with about half of that being constructed within the next 20 years. By far the largest chunk of that added space — at least 35 percent — will go to supporting the sciences.

In a letter to the Harvard community in 2003, then-university president Larry Summers said Harvard must secure space to grow because of society’s ever-increasing dependence on the work that Harvard and universities in general do.

“The present moment of challenge and change for higher education is also a moment of great promise for Harvard,” Summers wrote.

Arts and Sciences

By far the largest component of all four expansions is the construction of science facilities and the establishment of programs and institutes to study emerging scientific disciplines. In October, Yale announced a new Institute for Nanoscience and Quantum Engineering. In 2003, Harvard, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, opened the doors of the Broad Institute, which will study genomics and biological sciences. Columbia plans to construct a science facility to house its new neuroscience center.

This scientific focus comes because recent developments, especially in the life sciences, have given a new urgency to research, Yale President Richard Levin said.

“We are in a very exciting era of discovery in science, most especially in the life sciences, where completing the sequencing of the human genome has opened up very extensive possibilities for discoveries that will be important for human health and longevity,” Levin said.

At Yale, construction on Science Hill is ongoing. Over the past decade, the University has built the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center, the Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building and the Malone Engineering Center. The two biggest projects yet — the construction of a building to house the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology department and the renovation of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory — are on the drawing board. Although Yale’s scientists will have more elbow room for their experiments and teaching, Yale Provost Andrew Hamilton said the growth in Yale’s faculty over the near future will be more or less evenly distributed among disciplines.

To further its commitment to science, Harvard plans to construct a 700,000 square foot science complex that will include facilities for stem cell research, chemistry, biology and computing. In addition, Former Harvard Dean of the Faculty Jeremy Knowles — who stepped down last week to deal with prostate cancer — told the Crimson earlier this month that most additional growth in Harvard’s faculty will be in the sciences. Harvard officials have prioritized faculty growth, pointing out that the student-to-faculty ratios at Yale and Princeton are lower.

Tom Pollard, chair of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology department at Yale, said the University’s science upgrades are long overdue. As the pace of discovery in the life sciences has quickened over the last several decades, he said, there has been a boom in the funding available for such research.

“It’s not surprising that everyone is investing in science labs,” Pollard said. “It’s a good investment for society, because what else is going to allow our economy to compete on a global basis if we can’t compete with science and technology?”

All four schools are also pouring significant resources into the arts. Along with Yale’s half-billion dollar investment, which includes the sculpture building and art history buildings currently under construction, Harvard, Columbia and Princeton all plan to construct centers for the arts. Harvard hopes to build a new center for its art museum that will span approximately 125,000 square feet.

Although all the schools are adding to their arts facilities, Yale’s commitment differs because it is the only one of the four universities to have four professional schools in the visual and performing arts. While Princeton and Columbia are building complexes to serve all of the arts and Harvard currently has plans for a new building for its art museum, Yale’s arts expansion plans are more comprehensive.

“The arts at Yale are not seen as a kind of icing on a fluffy cake but as embedded into the culture of the University as a whole,” School of Architecture Dean Robert Stern said.

Undergraduate expansion

With admission rates to the country’s most selective universities at record lows, the idea of expanding the size of undergraduate populations has begun to garner public attention. On Sunday, New York Times columnist Peter Applebome detailed Levin’s rationale for expansion: the simple problem of “too many applicants, too few slots.”

Yale and Princeton officials say the resources and faculties of the schools are such that the universities are poised to make greater contributions to society by admitting more students. With significantly smaller student bodies than Columbia and Harvard, Yale and Princeton currently have more money and square feet of building space per student, and the universities’ administrators, faculty and alumni have begun to push for increasing the availability of those resources.

In a 2000 report to the Princeton board of trustees, a committee of alumni, faculty and students recommended that an expansion would help Princeton remain a leader among universities.

“Princeton has an obligation to make the greatest possible use of its exceptional resources for the benefit of higher education and of society,” the report said.

Yale administrators have repeatedly said that many more students could benefit from a Yale education, and Levin said Yale’s hyper-selectivity forces the University to reject too many qualified applicants.

The last time Princeton and Yale increased their undergraduate populations was when they went co-educational in 1969. Now, Princeton is increasing its ranks by 500, adding slowly to each class with the plan to reach its target class size in 2012. Yale is considering an increase of between 400 and 800 students, tied to the construction of two new residential colleges.

Psychiatry professor and former Calhoun College master William Sledge, who is chairing the committee evaluating the effects of an expansion on student life, said a delicate balance must be struck when increasing the size of the College.

“What we don’t want to do is disrupt the balance of the culture,” he said.

For Princeton, with expansion comes the opportunity to build a residential college system that more closely resembles that of Yale. Previously, Princeton’s residential colleges housed only freshmen and sophomores. When it opens next fall, a new college named after alumna, donor and e-Bay founder Meg Whitman will house students for all four years, and the existing Butler and Mathey colleges will also be converted to four-year colleges. Forbes, Wilson and Rockefeller colleges will remain two-year colleges, though they will be affiliated with a four-year college for students who want to stay in the college system after their sophomore years.

Expanding the system to include more options and to allow more students access to a Princeton education will improve the quality of the Princeton experience, said Antoine Kahn, an engineering professor and master of Mathey College.

“It’s an issue of increasing diversity and being able to get the number of excellent students that Princeton wants,” Kahn said. “That is a big change and that will impact social life on all kinds of things.”

Although Harvard has no plans to expand its student body, it is considering building four new undergraduate houses on its new Allston campus to alleviate crowding and re-locate the center of its undergraduate population. Columbia also plans to construct additional student housing.

Community affairs

In 1972, when Yale sought to build four new residential colleges after going coeducational, vehement opposition from city government officials sank the plan. This time around, Yale’s administration has been more savvy in pursuing its goals for expansion.

“The election of [New Haven Mayor] John DeStefano in 1993 and the fact that we were able to establish a strong relationship with him immediately really improved our relationship with the city,” Levin said.

DeStefano, for his part, enthusiastically endorses Yale’s expansion efforts. Part of the change in the attitude toward Yale at City Hall could be due to legislation passed in the 1980s that reimburses Connecticut cities for some of the tax revenues they lose on properties owned by tax-exempt organizations.

“I think in the early 1970s when [the expansion] was last proposed, there was no strong relationship between political elites and Yale elites, and I think that the political community sought it as an opportunity to create an issue by being anti-Yale, and basically took the issue to bash Yale,” DeStefano said.

Harvard, Columbia and Princeton have also had to work closely with the communities into which they are expanding. Harvard’s and Columbia’s plans involve displacing existing residences and businesses to secure contiguous tracts of land on which to build.

Columbia’s plans to expand into a 17-acre tract of land in Manhattanville have drawn the most community opposition of any of the projects. Although Columbia has the support of key politicians, many of the residents whom the university wants to relocate have voiced their vehement opposition to the plan. Although it owns or is in negotiations to own most of the land in question, Columbia has suggested that it might ask the state to use eminent domain to secure the 10 percent still in the hands of private citizens.

Columbia spokeswoman LaVerna Fountain said there are currently around 130 residences on the land that the university wants to control and that the university would provide alternatives for all of the displaced residents. Columbia has made every effort to accommodate the community and plans to open many public service facilities as part of its expansion, including a school subsidized by the university, she said.

“We’ve been talking with the community for over three years now on this project,” Fountain said. “Anybody who wants to know anything about what we are doing can find out about it.”

Neighborhood critics have charged that Columbia has completely disregarded the wishes of the residents and business owners in Manhattanville. Tom DeMott, an organizer of the Coalition to Preserve Community which runs stopcolumbia.org, said the university has consistently refused to listen to residents. Residents are concerned about forced displacement, rising property costs and the possibility of having science labs near their homes, he said.

“Columbia could come in, but they don’t have to come in with the notion of bulldozing the area and doing a complete renovation of the world,” he said.

Former Princeton, N.J., mayor Marvin Reed said residents’ main worry about Princeton’s growth is that it will encroach on the town. Even though Princeton’s presence is seen as an asset, residents do not want it to completely define the town, he said.

“Sometimes there are glitches, as there always are,” Reed said. “But [residents] certainly appreciate the fact that it is one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and therefore that adds to the prestige of the town,” Reed said.

Harvard’s expansion into Allston is the largest community redevelopment plan undertaken by any of the four universities. Although Harvard has met some resistance in the details of its plan, residents see the university as cooperative overall, said Loraine Bossi, a member of the Brighton Allston Improvement Association. While dealing with Harvard has not been acrimonious, being a neighbor of a major university can be difficult, she said.

“People feel they are being ground up by these three colleges and universities,” she said.