This past week, as we worked on our column in a Bass Library study room, loaded with leather seating and plasma TVs, we thought something obvious: Yale has a lot of money. This is why we can afford such famous professors, accessible funding for the majority of student functions and extensive renovation and construction projects. The likely building of two new residential colleges on Prospect Street is just the next step in Yale’s ongoing development plans. Last semester, students considered the impact of these colleges on student life through the residential-college forums, but now we must also consider this development’s effects on the New Haven community.
The almost $600 million Yale intends to spend erecting these new colleges will certainly change the makeup of the surrounding neighborhoods. The influx of money into the community purports to develop the neighborhood, making it safer and more economically productive, but it does so by pushing out low-income residents who may no longer be able to afford rising property costs. Rather than seeking to shrink the gap between rich and poor in New Haven, this expansion will only change the location of the dividing line between the two. There is a name for this: gentrification. Gentrification is the process by which low-cost neighborhoods undergo change due to an influx of money which results in wealthier residents and businesses displacing the neighborhood’s prior residents.
Maybe you’ve heard about gentrification in the context of larger cities. Maybe you’ve been to Washington, D.C., or New York, N.Y., and walked around in neighborhoods you’re told were once dangerous ghettos. Or maybe you’ve seen the other side of gentrification — maybe you know someone whose family had to leave the neighborhood because the cost of living was too high or whose business closed because they could no longer afford the rent.
To take one example, most of you probably know something about Columbia University’s proposed expansion into Manhattanville. Their plan would allow them to develop nearly 17 acres of land on which residents are currently living. In December of last year, the land’s re-zoning was approved by the city council and what is called a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) was reached between the university and the community. The CBA requires Columbia to spend $150 million dollars on public housing and the creation of a grade school through their teacher’s college. In exchange for dramatically altering the Morningside Heights/Manhattanville community, Columbia agreed to work toward the betterment of the entire community, not just the institution.
New Haven and Yale are no different from New York and Columbia, or the hundreds of other communities across the country in which costly development has superseded the interest of the community. While the influx of money and resources into a poor community is important, too often there are no guarantees that these resources will reach community members or that thriving communities won’t be destroyed in the interests of development.
However, even in New Haven, we have seen that development can support the interests of both the University and the New Haven community. In 2004, when the Yale-New Haven Hospital announced plans to build a now-$470 million, state-of-the-art cancer center in the Hill neighborhood, the community took action, and, in March of 2006, the hospital and the city negotiated a CBA, in which the hospital agreed to provide a variety of benefits to the community, including a $1.2 million contribution toward housing and economic development in the neighborhood.
We have seen in the past that Yale’s expansion has occurred with little regard for the needs of the surrounding community and that one development often paves the way for future construction. Along with the new colleges, Yale plans on developing a third building with a currently unknown purpose. There is also the great possibility that Yale will seek to expand its commercial bubble around the new colleges similar to the retail development along Broadway. The building of the new residential colleges, and the corresponding commercial buildup of the surrounding area, must take into account the needs of everyone in New Haven.
The ill effects of gentrification can be prevented very easily. When big developers move in, they very often do have the money to tack on community development assurances of a huge construction project. If our $22.5 billion endowment says anything, Yale certainly has the money. What happens in one part of the city happens to us all, and responsible development is key in guaranteeing that the whole community can benefit from Yale’s resources.
Rhiannon Bronstein and Thomas Meyer are freshmen in Pierson College. Alexandra Stein is a freshman in Calhoun College. They are all members of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee.