Community Building: Renovation Project Exemplifies Columbia’s Commitment to Minority, Women and Local Hiring


When students arrive this fall and lug their bags into Carman Hall, a residence building and student center on 114th Street and Broadway, they will find a brightly colored, freshly renovated lounge area that is a vast improvement on the dated '60s-era décor that was there before. "This place was lifeless and grey and old and we brought it back to life," says Nicole Hollant- Denis, principal of AARRIS Architects, the firm that won the commission to carry out the project.

Hollant-Denis and her firm, which has been in business for more than a decade, were chosen for their skills and design experience but also because they are a local, Harlem-based firm. As part of its commitment to improving the economy of the community, Columbia targets local companies and small businesses as well as those operated by minorities and women in Harlem and upper Manhattan. Overall, the University pumps about $2 billion worth of direct and indirect spending into the city's economy, so the impact on local and minority businesses is significant. The community initiative focuses on employment, construction spending and purchasing.

To find companies operated by minorities and women, the University has implemented a number of mentoring and outreach programs to locate and identify possible participants and to inform them about the opportunities. "You may know your craft but not the business side of things," explains Flores Forbes, Government and Community Affairs staffer. The most impact now for minority hiring is at the Morningside campus, he says, while Manhattanville is a long-term project that will slowly gain momentum over the next few years. Still, more than 200 people came out earlier this year for a forum on minority and women hiring for Manhattanville, where they heard from project managers and learned how to make bids, mostly for construction and interiors work.

Hollant-Denis says that the Carman Hall lounge project has been a lifeline for her five-person firm, which like many design studios both big and small, has struggled through the recession and economic downturn. "This was a make or break year for us," she explains, "and so it is a great opportunity."

-Story by Ernest Beck, originally published in The Columbia Newsletter: News For Our Neighbors