Native New Yorker Leads the Team Building New Campus

When faced with planning the next phase of construction on Columbia’s Manhattanville campus, Marcelo Velez sometimes flips open his laptop and “walks” through a computer-generated 3-D model of the 17-acre building site. The technology is just one of many tools that helps Velez, vice president of Columbia’s Manhattanville Development Group, manage every aspect of construction of the University’s newest campus.

Melanie A. Farmer
March 27, 2017

The first two buildings, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center and the Lenfest Center for the Arts, are opening this spring. Velez and his team are currently overseeing construction of the University Forum and Academic Conference Center, set to open in 2018, as well as two buildings for Columbia Business School that have a planned completion date of 2021.

This hive of building activity is tailor-made for Velez, who previously was in charge of design and construction for the Morningside campus, where he oversaw the construction of several new University buildings, including the School of Social Work, William C. Warren Hall, Lenfest Hall and The School at Columbia University.

Velez didn’t have to think twice before joining the team building an entire new campus under then-Executive Vice President Joe Ienuso, and Vice President for Manhattanville Development Philip Pitruzzello.

“I recognized that the people who were posing this option to me expected it to be more of a dilemma,” said Velez, who was promoted to vice president in 2016. “But for me, there was no question that this is where I wanted to be.” His team of 35 people has a home base in the Studebaker Building on West 131st Street. From his office window Velez can literally see the new campus taking shape.

The Manhattanville site presented its own set of challenges from the start. The area’s unique topography, including a high water table and deep rock, required specialized approaches and construction techniques, including the building of a slurry wall “bathtub” to keep the water out.

“The Jerome L. Greene Science Center is one of the largest academic research buildings in the country and arguably one of the most complex,” said Velez. The building was built from the top down versus the traditional building from the ground up. “We finished the steel construction before we completed the excavation.”

Most of the new buildings will have 60-to-70-foot basement levels, which are being allotted for a central truck loading facility, central energy plant, some research labs and workspace. The continuous underground space provides for energy-efficient use of shared facilities, a reduction in the need for loading docks and curb cuts that interrupt sidewalks and lower building heights to ensure a scale that is consistent with the surrounding neighborhood.

To conduct some of the below ground construction, Velez’s team had to get creative, including building a tunnel partially beneath 130th Street so that construction equipment could access the lowest levels of the future Business School sites without the need for temporary and inefficient dirt ramps.

“The scale and complexity of this project provide a challenge of a lifetime and allow me, together with my incredible team, to think outside of the box,” Velez said. “This solution, in particular, will ultimately help us accelerate the completion of the foundations for the Columbia Business School.”

Velez also takes pride in the project’s commitment to collaborating with minority, women and locally (MWL)-owned businesses. To date the University has paid more than $230 million to MWL firms working on everything from site security and electrical to plumbing and painting, and these firms have had some of the longest tenures at the site.

A native New Yorker whose family is from Puerto Rico, Velez grew up in the West Village. He only came into contact with Columbia when he visited an uncle in the nearby Frederick Douglass Houses. “For many kids growing up in my circumstances, Columbia was a different world,” said Velez. “It is certainly different today.”

A stint in the U.S. Army as an enlistee the summer before college and as a reservist for nine years total, enabled Velez to join the R.O.T.C. at Rutgers University, assisted with college tuition and earned him the rank of Second Lieutenant at the age of 19, one of the youngest officers in the modern army.

“I got great leadership training through R.O.T.C.,” said Velez, who earned a civil engineering degree at Rutgers in 1987. After graduation, he took an engineering job with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation for a year, followed by six years at the New York City School Construction Authority, where he helped modernize and develop new schools throughout the five boroughs.

A New York Times classified ad brought him to Columbia in 1995, for a 12-month position that became the first step in a two-decade rise through the ranks. He also received an MBA from Columbia Business School in 2000.

“Everything I have accomplished in my career to date has prepared me to lead this project,” said Velez. “Among the most enjoyable things about my job is helping transform an idea for a space or building or, in the case of Manhattanville, a campus, into a tangible reality that will benefit both the University and the neighborhood for generations.”