Thursday, June 01, 2006

Columbia's Planned Expansion to Manhattanville Draws Fire From Small Businesses, Community Board

New York Sun
Real Estate

Columbia's Planned Expansion to Manhattanville Draws Fire From Small Businesses, Community Board

Special to the Sun
June 1, 2006

Columbia University's planned expansion northward from its Morningside Heights campus into West Harlem, which it calls Manhattanville, is now quietly being reviewed by the Department of City Planning. But the negotiations will not stay quiet for long. Columbia's expansion is not only opposed by several small business owners in the area who have refused to sell the university their property, it is also at odds with the local community board's official plan. And while many issues are ostensibly technical - current zoning disallows most of what Columbia hopes to do - the substantive disagreements are fundamental.

Columbia wants a virtual blank slate on which to build Renzo Piano's ambitious scheme.The community board basically wants an improved and denser version of what it has now - a mix of industry, warehouses, a few restaurants and bakeries, and several housing projects. "Columbia has an all-encompassing plan that depends on the complete removal of buildings, people, places, and things between 125th and 133rd Street and from Broadway to 12th Avenue," a local resident and member of the Coalition to Preserve Community's steering committee, Tom DeMott, said.

While this is somewhat of an exaggeration, according to the map Columbia has posted on its Web site, Mr. De-Mott is correct that Columbia plans to wipe out most of what is now in its "expansion zone." But to succeed, it must first get the city to change the area's manufacturing zoning, which outlaws nearly all new residential and many new commercial uses. Current zoning also maintains low height restrictions on buildings, thereby prohibiting construction of Columbia's proposed towers. In part because of the zoning restrictions,West Harlem has an old-fashioned industrial look. By Manhattan standards, it holds relatively few businesses, and limited residences other than public housing projects, which are allowed in manufacturing zones.

Even as residential and mixed-use developments spring up all around it, West Harlem seems caught in earlier depressed times.
Both Columbia, which is New York's 12th-largest employer, and Community Board 9, one of the city's most active boards, submitted their seemingly con tradictory plans to City Planning, which essentially asked for time out. "We knew Columbia's goals, and we knew the community's goals. We saw that these were two very different approaches to the future of the area," a spokeswoman for City Planning, Rachaele Raynoff, said. "We invoked a rule long on the books that we hadn't cause to use before - a coordination-of-plan rule - that lets us say we would like them to sit down and resolve their differences. It's better to resolve differences from the ground up rather than impose anything."

The community board does not oppose Columbia's expansion as such, but says that it wants the university to adhere to the planning guidelines it has developed over 10 years of work, guided by the Pratt Institute. That means preserving some historic buildings, retaining a few industrial uses, encouraging affordable housing, and not using eminent domain to coerce property owners into selling.

One such owner, Nicholas Sprayregen, whose father started their company, Tuck-It-Away Self Storage, with one building in 1980, said that his business is thriving and he intends to stay. He now owns five buildings, four of which are desired by Columbia. "I serve this community," he said. "I can't move. I won't move. I have no problem co-existing with Columbia."

Similarly, the owner of Despatch Moving & Storage, Judy Zuhusky, said, "We not only need to be where we are in Manhattan for accessibility to clients, we have to be located on a wide street like Broadway that can handle tractor trailers. We set our roots down here many years ago, and we're willing to live with Columbia. They're a neighbor. They're welcome to be here. But we need to respect each other."

Yet Columbia's goal, Mr. Sprayregen argues, is "to own 100% of everything. They have no desire for nuance, for compromise, for diversity."

Columbia's vice president for government and community affairs, Maxine Griffiths, said that Columbia is making every effort to include diverse shops and businesses in its plan, in part by maintaining 125th Street as well as 12th Avenue as commercial corridors. The immensely popular Dinosaur Restaurant, for example, located in a building recently purchased by Columbia, will surely have a home in the plan, Ms. Griffiths believes. "I can't imagine it could be otherwise," she noted.

In its application to City Planning, Columbia has asked for zoning map and text changes to convert nearly all of the expansion area to C6-2, which would normally allow medium density commercial, community facility, and residential development. Such development is compatible with what most activists, including community board members, want for West Harlem. But Columbia has inserted what zoning lawyer Howard Goldman called a cute trick - proposing half the normal permitted residential density. Mr. Goldman, who represents the West Harlem Business Group, says that asking for low-density residential is very unusual, but that one result would be the maintenance of low property values.

When the time comes for exercising eminent domain, the state agency, the Empire State Development Corporation - acting for Columbia - would have to pay far less. Ms. Griffiths said the university simply doesn't need higher residential zoning since it will house most of its students under community facility zoning, which permits dormitory towers.

The business group also wants rezoning to allow denser residential and commercial development. "Right now," Mr. Sprayregen said, "I'm not allowed to develop my own property to its full commercial potential. This is a blatant example of blight by zoning, blight forced upon the neighborhood by city regulations. Despite zoning, the neighborhood is far better off now than it's ever been, yet Columbia, ironically, is claiming it's so terrible and so blighted."

At the heart of this struggle is the ancient question of who benefits. Manhattan is booming, businesses and enterprises are expanding, and those who invested early in blighted neighborhoods expect to reap the rewards of their foresight. As Ms. Zuhosky pointed out, "This is an island where everyone wants to be. We can all get along as neighbors, so long as everyone is fair."

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