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Morningside Heights Faces Fall Without Thousands Of Columbia Students

Columbia University's undergraduate courses will be held entirely online for the fall semester, delaying the financial relief that the businesses in the surrounding Morningside Heights neighborhood were hoping to get from the university’s reopening.

Columbia President Lee Bolinger announced Friday that no undergraduate courses would be held in person and that most students wouldn't be allowed to live on campus, a significant departure from the 60% of students that the university said in July it anticipated integrating into residence halls.

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Columbia University in Manhattan's Morningside Heights neighborhood.

For businesses in the area, the announcement was another crushing blow in an already-devastating year. From West 110th Street to West 125th Street, bound by Morningside Park on the East and Riverside Park on the West, a community of local bars, coffee shops, businesses and apartment buildings works in an ecosystem with the university community at large.

Philip Binioris, who owns The Hungarian Pastry Shop at Amsterdam Avenue and West 111th Street, a few blocks from Columbia’s campus, said the announcement shook the morale of the business community, which was betting on the students' return to make up for this year’s losses.

“Businesses have been struggling and businesses have been laying people off and they’ve been taking losses,” he said. “I think there was a sense that 'OK, if we can make it to September — and Columbia was back even in a partial capacity — the bleeding stops and we can kind of right the ship,' but that is now not happening."

The economy of the area will recover eventually because of the long-term investments Columbia, which owns most of the property around its campus, has made, real estate sources said. But business owners are worried many shops and restaurants won't make it until then. 

Under the new guidelines, only a select few students in the university’s engineering and liberal arts undergraduate colleges will be allowed to live on campus. Barnard College, the all-girls school that is one of the four undergraduate colleges affiliated with Columbia, won't see any students back at all. 

“Today we have concluded that we must drastically scale back the number of students we can accommodate in residence on campus,” Bollinger wrote in the letter Friday. “While I am supportive of the measures New York State has imposed, and while I have no doubt that we could ensure a safe quarantine period from a public health standpoint, two weeks is a long time to endure isolation, especially for students who will be leaving home for the first time. Conditions for all students in quarantine will be austere, to say the least."

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Outdoor dining at The Hungarian Pastry Shop at West 111th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

Columbia’s Morningside Heights’ campus, which typically houses most of the university’s 6,200 undergraduate students, is home to many of its graduate and undergraduate programs. With undergraduates off campus for another semester, it is not only the residence halls that have been empty.

The residential market has been hit hard by the university’s closing. Apartment rents have dropped between 16% and 20% in the neighborhood between August 2019 and this month, MNS Senior Vice President for New Development Iliana Acevedo said.

The students that do plan on spending the semester in the city are less likely to limit their housing search to the Morningside Heights neighborhood than they would have with in-person learning. 

“Morningside Heights’ general demographic is obviously students,” Acevedo said. “With Columbia remote, they’re less concerned with being close to the university and more considering lifestyle."

Many have instead chosen to look at the Upper West Side and Chelsea. MNS did see an uptick in apartment applications in the neighborhood over the past two weeks, Acevedo said.  

This Saturday, Columbia was quieter than usual. On campus, four to five groups of people sat on the grass and a few more walked around the campus, sparse even for a weekend in mid-August, when graduate students would normally have already returned to school.

Five blocks south of the east entrance of Columbia’s campus, inside Binioris' pastry shop, a café widely beloved by the Columbia University community, chairs are stacked on tables. A few sets of customers ordered pastries to eat outside.

Along the block, several restaurants and bars are set up similarly: several tables filled on the outside, but no one on the inside — a stark contrast to the Amsterdam Avenue that has typically been bustling with Columbia students, staff and faculty.

When Columbia decided to close last winter amid the coronavirus’s spread, it had an immediate impact on Binioris’ sales volume, he said.

“When Columbia announced they were sending students home, overnight business dropped by 50% — gone,” he said.  

The shop closed for six weeks. Since reopening in the spring, it has stayed at 50% or lower, depending on the day and the weather, he said. At times, it has hit 30%.

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Columbia on-campus housing on 113th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam

While Binioris expects the shop to weather the storm, the decision to close many of the residence halls could seal the fate of some local businesses, Binioris said. 

“A lot of those businesses — hopefully mine is not one of them — will find that they just can’t keep going,” he said. 

A local bar owner in the area said he hasn’t paid rent since April.  

“I am just trying to make it to January,” said the owner, who asked to remain anonymous.

Binioris’ father has owned the Hungarian Pastry Shop since 1971. Through the city’s bankruptcy that decade and several economic crises since, neither father nor son has ever experienced anything like this. 

“In a family-owned business, the old-timers always say, ‘Whatever you go through, just ask me because we’ve been through it, we’ve been through it all,’” he said. “This is the situation where I am like, ‘Have you been through something like this?’ and my father is like, ‘No.’” 

Even during the city's fiscal crisis, the dot-com bust and 9/11, businesses could risk-assess in a way that they cannot right now, Binioris said. 

“I think it’s a fundamentally different experience, and it’s hobbling,” he said.

While the area is hurting right now, it still has Columbia and the financial investment it has made in the community, which ensures an eventual comeback.

“Columbia isn’t going anywhere, they made a major investment in infrastructure to withstand what we may look back on as a blip in the decades-long radar,” Compass Vice Chair Adelaide Polsinelli said. “The area will weather the storm, as it has in every cycle."